hog bladder

Pig bladder, inflated to dry/photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman

On Saturday I picked up a hog from the North Union Farmers Market, about 330 pounds with the head and some other requested parts. “They’re big, long and slippery,” James had told us.  Just getting each half into the back of our jeep was an effort.  The first step was to break the pig down for salumi into its three main sections just so we could store the creature in a friend’s walk-in: shoulder, middle and ham.  Then back to work all day Sunday to break it all down into salumi cuts and sausage.  It took about six of us five hours to bone out the whole hog, isolate the muscles for curing, get everything on the salt and get the first of the salamis stuffed and hanging, about 20 pounds of it.

And still so much to do: isolating meat for more sausage, fresh and dry, and for cooking.  Roasting all the bones.  Making headcheese.  The quality of the muscles and the hard creamy fat showed that the pig, 75% Berkshire, 25% Duroc or Hampshire, from a farm in central Ohio, had been well raised. It’s a visceral experience breaking down an animal more than twice your own weight.  I find myself mainly anxious about ensuring everything is used and used well.  It puts you right up against the fact that this amazing creature lived for you (and the farmer) and how immense the obligation is to use everything well.

It’s something Brian Polcyn and I write about in Charcuterie and will further explore in the Salumi, out late summer 2012.

Buying and using a whole hog is also a connection with our relatively recent past.  I was able to get a part of the pig for my own use, a part that’s hard to come by but that represents for me whole-animal use. The bladder.  I will stuff a portion of the boned ham into this after the ham has cured, then hang it to dry in a friend’s wine room.  But what it reminds me of is Laura Ingalls Wilder, and her valuable description of how important the pig was to her family’s way of life in her Little House in the Big Woods, which I first read aloud to my daughter a decade ago. I don’t mention it below, but the girls’ father, in the story, blows up the bladder for them to play with. I had immense fun with James blowing this up last night. I know he’ll remember it forever.

Reprinted from Charcuterie:

On Little House In the Big Woods and the importance of preservation:

One of the best scenes in the classic series of young adult fiction by Laura Ingalls Wilder, is in the first pages of the first book, Little House in the Big Woods.  Laura describes Pa hanging strips of venison inside a length of hollow tree and building a fire of moss and bark and green hickory chips inside to smoke the meat, which had been salted for a few days.  After several days in the smoke, Ma would remove the meat, wrap it in paper and store it in the attic. Pa knew meat thus prepared would keep anywhere in any weather, Laura writes.

Indeed, the whole of that first chapter is a primer in food preservation.  The Ingalls family salted fish and kept it in barrels.  They stored root vegetables in a cellar, braided and hung onions, stockpiled gourds in the attic.  They kept cheeses all winter in the pantry.  They fattened pigs for slaughter in the late fall.  Whole pages are devoted to how they used it—hams and shoulders salted and smoked, lard rendered and stored in jars (the cracklings reserved to flavor Johnny cakes), the head boiled till the meat was melting tender and mixed with the “pot-liquor” then cooled into sliceable head cheese, salt pork stored in a keg in the shed, and all the little leftover scraps of meat Ma chopped finely and seasoned with dried sage from the garden, rolled it into balls for sausage (the balls would stay frozen in a pan in the shed “and be good to eat all winter”).

Thus did a family living in Minnesota survive a winter in the late 1800s.  There’s a reason that food preservation opens this durable multi-volume saga.  It was the most important thing settlers on the frontier did.  Preserving food had to be a matter of course.  The early settlers knew how to preserve food or they simply didn’t last very long.

If you liked this post on hog breakdown, check out these other links:

© 2011 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2011 Donna Turner-Ruhlman. All rights reserved


33 Wonderful responses to “Whole Hog”

  • Digging Dog Farm

    There’s a great sense of accomplishment and security in making use of the whole hog and having all those wonderful goodies for the larder.
    I grew up on head cheese, potted pork, hog maw, sausages and all the other great stuff.
    Now I’m craving hog maw!!!! LOL

  • Saltyseattle

    An honest weekend of work = months (years!) of rewards. Also, I think you should turn the bladder into a fascinator. I would wear it.

  • Vickie McCorkendale

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I wish I had the space, time, connections (wine room? walk-in!) and kitchen crew to do what you are doing. Instead, I get to read about it, learn from it & be inspired!
    Keep it coming!

  • Terrie

    If this is something you really want to do, you can. My husband and I know a great local farmer. He let us come out to his farm where we met our beautiful, happy pig, and then used his barn to process and break it down into primals. We hauled our 350 pound pig home in several large coolers and spent several weeks butchering, curing, and feezing the proceeds. We did it with two people, in a tiny kitchen, referencing Charcuterie and the internet a lot! But boy, was it worth it. Sweat equity works just as well as connections…and we’re enjoying every bite!

  • Kilian

    I hope you took pictures of the butchering. Would love to see everything.

  • Mantonat

    Truly amazing. There must be a wonderful combination of pride and humility once you are done and have the opportunity to sample and share the end products. I recently went to a demo at Il Mondo Vecchio salumeria in Denver, CO, and watched owner Mark DeNittis breakdown a head and make two porchetta di testa rolls in about 15 minutes, all while talking us through the procedure. I was fortunate enough to win one porchetta in a raffle and just cooked it on Saturday to share with some dinner guests. 14 hours of cooking time was my investment, but the real lesson was understanding where the meat came from, how it was prepared by the butcher, and how much edible product goes to waste without thought because of what industrial meat producers have convinced us to consider food or not food for humans. That’ll do, pig.

  • Elisa

    As a child in Abruzzo, Italy, we killed a hog every year. My father, with few relatives, used to kill and butcher the hog. The first thing we ate was “fried guanciale”. My mother used to make “sanguinaccio” with the pig’s blood. Great memories.

  • Oliver

    I just witnessed this very act for the first time friday. The restaurant I now work for is doing a head to tail prix fixe for the Kentucky Derby, which included butchering a 250lb locally raised hog. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before and an experience that will stick with me for years.

  • Carri

    Those passages in Little House in the Big Woods were so formative for me as well. I loved her descriptions so much I remember reading them over and over. I wanted to be that little girl, playing in the attic with the hanging hams and making butter with Ma. It shows how it can be done, a point we seem to have long forgotten, until you reminded us! good luck with that project…it will be exciting to read about when you are finished. Thanks for sharing!

  • MrsWheelbarrow

    What a great description of the process. I have been changed forever by watching the processing of large animals for food. Hey, and next time, I hope you’ll invite the Dames of Meat to participate!

  • kate hill

    Bravo Michael for taking this big step. Once you grasp the enormity of the whole beast, the responsibility of that 330 lbs. transfers from farmer to butcher/cook’s shoulders. How we prepare and process without waste is the real art of la charcuterie. Makes buying a little shoulder roast seem like a cakewalk, doesn’t it?

    • ruhlman

      thanks, kate. yes, shoulder from supermarket means so little. this was not my first pig, or even my third pig. but each time I feel I get such an enormous education.

  • Tags

    Were there any bruises? I have been using the presence of bruises as one litmus test of assiduously careful handling, and by association, repeat business. If I am mistaken in my assumption, please let me know. It may just be something that happens naturally, but for now I believe that bruises give lie to badly raised and handled animals.

    One of the best blogs for fish handling, btw, is jonrowley.com

    • ruhlman

      I’ve always believed this too, especially if there are dark red patches in any previously unexposed flesh. All packers are not the same.

  • Tara

    The dedication you guys have to the animal is Inspiring, really. I’m currently re-reading the entire series of Little House books and the amount of food related discussion each of them contains (hunting it, farming it, storing it, cooking it, trading for it, pining for it) is amazing. It puts the life we all currently lead into remarkable perspective.

    Just so you know, Little House in the Big Woods takes place in Wisconsin. Not much difference between a Minnesota winter and a Wisconsin winter, but nonetheless, Minnesota comes later.

  • Darcie

    I grew up in rural North Dakota where my uncle had a hog farm. I recall as a small child (early 70s) accompanying my parents to the farm for the fall butchering. It was a family affair: grandparents, children, grandchildren, probably about 20 people (or at least it seemed like that many), gathered to process 3 or 4 hogs. I watched the process from beginning to end, fascinated by the entire affair. My mom’s job, with which I helped, was to stir the blood to keep it from coagulating so that it could be used in the blood sausage once the rest of the sausage was ready. The intestines were turned inside out and washed to use as casing for different types of sausage. The smokehouse was fired, hams were hung and strips of sausage links dangled from poles strung across the rafters. The smokehouse was a warm respite from the chill of the fall air and of course smelled fantastic. We stopped butchering when I was in grade school; it was easier to let someone else do it. But I am grateful for those memories. I’d love to do it again, although my family thinks I’m nuts. They are happy they don’t *have* to do it anymore. (But I think they miss the quality of the meat once my uncle quit farming.)

    • ruhlman

      you’re lucky. I grew up in suburban ohio in the 70s and if i’d have asked my dad if we get a hog this saturday he’d look at me like I was from another planet.

  • MessyONE

    Reading this makes me think I have to take the Master Food Preservers course offered by the local Faculty of Extension. I have a sneaking suspicion it’s going to be a whole lot more sterile than hanging venison in a tree to smoke, but it should be useful for other things.

  • John G.

    This is really a great post. I hope to do this one day. Sounds like a lot of skill goes into this process.

    Not to get off topic but I have recently been to Boston a few times and had a Johnny Cake at a place called Neptune Oyster that was absolutely amazing (topped with a lump of fresh smoked trout and caviar). I can’t imagine one with pork cracklins for flavor. It is the perfect vehicle for the sweet/salty mix. Any favorite Johnny Cake recipes, Michael? Thanks again for the pork centric post!!

  • former butcher

    330 lbs dressed weight is one very large pig. Was it a sow, barrow, gilt,? It couldn’t have been a boar, since at that weight it would have smelled quite strong. We used to consider anything between 180 and 220 lbs ideal for dressed weight…not too much waste (read fat that consumers back then wanted no part of).
    We butchers hated slaughtering pure Durocs because the red bristles defied any efforts to dislodge them. Every inch required shaving with a sharp knife.
    Back in Grand dad’s day farmers used to raise bigger pigs, crowding 250 lbs.
    As for red marks on the skin, if it’s a straight line, the pig was probably hit with something. But pigs are notorious for scratching themselves raw on a post or rough surface, indicative of more skin conditions than I can name, the most infamous being erysipylis (sp?).

  • Josi

    Reading about how the Ingalls and Wilder families raised, preserved and ate their own food has always been an inspiration for me. Thanks for making me think of some of my favorite books.

    The pig stuff was cool too! I couldn’t do it myself but would love to find a service that could do it for me.

    • Toni

      Find a farmer/rancher from whom to buy a pig on the hoof. He or she will probably know who to call for a “ranch slaughter.” They come out and kill the pig and butcher it to your specifications.

  • Elizabeth

    I have a beloved memory from the second grade of reading Little House in the Big Woods with my mom and then building a miniature version of the Ingalls’ well-stocked attic to present to my class. We went to the grocery store together and picked out produce that could stand in for the descriptions in the book: we used tomatillos as pumpkins and strips of corn husk braided together to imitate onion braids. I remember being so fascinated – my seven-year-old self learned so much from that book, and then was further amazed by little fruits with a papery shell that I’d never seen at the store before. Since becoming an adult and rediscovering my love and wonderment for food and cooking, those memories have become all the more precious to me. Your post reminds me of the need to maintain my sense of respect and appreciation for the plants and animals and efforts that serve to sustain me. Thanks for rousing those sweet memories for me again!

  • Nicole

    When I saw the caption to Donna’s photo, the first thing I thought was, “just like Little House in the Big Woods”. Glad I’m not the only one who has those fond memories of childhood literacy!

  • former butcher

    In historical perspective, it is is almost yesterday that our predecessors lived like that Minnesota family. And how far from that we have come! For better or worse, our lives have been changed, as a species, by industrial farming and meat production. As much as I applaud Michael’s “whole pig” approach, and the sustainable farming movement, I don’t see how we can continue to survive, let alone prosper, without a program that faces the grim reality that we have billions to feed.
    I am afraid that in looking “romantically” at the past. we are postponing a harsh day of reckoning. So let’s enjoy those “heritage” breeds of swine and turkeys while we may.
    And in the spirit of “remembrance of things past”, I can remember my Scandinavian grandparents butchering a hog or two on their modest farm. I can remember distinctly the sweet taste of blood pudding and blood cake ( I don’t remember the Norwegian names). And hams that had a flavor unlike anything I have eaten since! (If anyone is familiar with “Finnish hams”, they’ll have an idea of what I’m talking about)..
    And thanks, Michael, for sharing all of this with us.

  • Cheryl

    Michael, I love your site but I have to tell you that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s House in the Big Woods was in Pepin, Wisconsin. If you go there, there is a museum and a replica of the house about 7 miles into the “woods.” There is also a great restaurant there–The Harbor View–that does a terrific dish of pork shanks.

    I have always believed (rightly or wrongly) that I could survive based on what I learned in the Little House books.

  • Toni

    I grew up on a working cattle and sheep ranch and I read the whole series when I was in fifth or sixth grade. I remember being fascinated by the food preservation in the book because we did many of the same things. We never raised hogs, however. Cattle, sheep, goats, rabbits, chickens and turkeys, but no pigs. One of my uncles did, so we would sometimes trade beef for pork.

    Unfortunately, all I ever saw was the selection of our own large animal, (as opposed to those who went to market,) the finish feeding, and then white butcher paper freezer wrapped packages going into our huge chest freezer. The ranch slaughter butchers would always come to the ranch when I was in school. I think my parents thought it would freak me out.

    I don’t know why they thought that, I was there in the spring when the lambs tails got banded (amputated) and the little rams got the same bands to turn them into whethers, and the little bull calves were banded and turned into little steers. Trust me when I say those little lambs and calves were an unhappy lot. At least for a little while. Once the bands caused the numbness set in they were fine and playing with each other once again. The team of Mexican cowboys brought in for the job kept the “mountain oysters” at the end of the day.

    I got to see all of the rabbit and poultry butchering, though. Even though the rabbits were almost my pets, I never had a problem eating them– except the one I named Aunt Caroline, after my aunt. None of us could eat her. I think my Dad took her to work and gave her to one of his employees who had no idea he was eating Aunt Caroline.

  • JCS in SATX

    The food sections of all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books are my favourites, and the section you quote is especially memorable. I’m a city girl born and bred, but those passages always resonated with me.

  • johnny gee

    Your ability to make the simplest things completely bourgeois astounds me. Such industry!


  1.  Memohotel Blog » Blog Archive » Whole Hog
  2.  Whole Hog: Ham Stuffed in Bladder | Michael Ruhlman
  3.  Read It. | SimonThibault.com Read It. | Portfolio, Resume, Blog and Portal
  4.  whole ham stuffed in a pig's bladder | Michael Ruhlman
  5.  Pig Skin | Michael Ruhlman