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.

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