So far we’ve concentrated on the whole hog, getting him to the pole and removing his internal organs. From this point forward, things begin to separate (pun intended, although you may not get it just yet). There are 3 major paths that the work begins to take. And all 3 occur more or less simultaneously. Now we cut up the meat, make the sausage, and render the lard.
A hog is taken from the pole and brought to the cutting table. By the way, all of these tables are just boards placed on top of sawhorses. The boards are stored from year to year, used for no other purpose, and kept scrupulously clean. The boards on the cutting table are thicker (2″) than for other tables because they must bear up under heavy cutting and the weight of the hog.
Around the table there were usually 6 or more people. There were the 3 people who used knives to cut the meat up – one at the head and one at each side. There was the axe man and the meat stringer. And there were people to remove the cut up meat from the table. These folks knew what they were doing. A hog carcass would be cut up in under 10 minutes and they’d be hollering for the next one.
The first step was removing the head. A sharp knife was used to cut along the jowls. Then, with skill, the knife was inserted between the first vertebrae and the skull to sever the head from the spine.
Then (usually later) the head was taken to a heavy wood block for more work. The burr of the ear was cut out with a knife. The lower jaw was separated from the head by the use of an ordinary axe. Then about 4 inches of the snout was chopped off. Next the head was laid face down and split nearly in two with the axe. This opened up the cranium and the brains could be removed. Nothing but the burr of the ear was thrown away.
After the head was removed, the ribs had to be cut from the backbone. The axe we used was not a regular axe like you use to chop wood. I’m not certain what the proper name for this axe was but we called it a meat axe because that was the only thing we used it for. The meat axe had sort of a offset J shaped blade that could be used to cut straight down or straight ahead.
Exactly where the ribs were cut depended on what you wanted. If you wanted porkchops, the ribs were cut about 2 or 3 inches out from the backbone. If you wanted backbone, the meat axe was pushed along where the ribs joined the backbone. Either way, once the rib cage had been cut through on both sides, the chest cavity laid out flat on the table which greatly simplified the rest of the job.
If the cut had been made for porkchops the backbone was hung up on a nail by a string around the tail. Later it was taken down and laid in a makeshift miter box (two boards nailed together at right angles) to help hold it steady. We used a hand-held meat saw to cut across the backbone and then a hatchet to separate the two sides. Presto, you had porkchops.
If the cut had been made for backbone, it was laid aside until later when someone took a regular axe and cut through the bone about every 2 or 3 inches but being careful not to cut completely through. These cuts were made so that the long backbone could be curled around in circular fashion in a pickling barrel. It also made for much more manageable pieces when it came to cooking time.
As the hog was cut into separate parts, the hams, shoulders and sidemeat were trimmed of excess fat (and a little lean meat) leaving a nice smooth curve to the top of the ham or shoulder and a nice squared up piece of sidemeat. These trimmings went to the skinning table. More on this later.
When the hams and shoulders were trimmed, the feet were cut off about 6 inches above the toes. The feet were saved for later processing. With the feet removed, the hams and shoulders were now ready for stringing. And sometimes some sidemeat was strung. We always strung our hams and shoulders through the leg end but I have seen them strung through the top.
There was no real trick to stringing meat. We used what was, logically enough, called a meat stringer. This looked like a cross between a big awl and a sewing needle. At the sharp end there was an eye through which was passed a strand of binders twine. Both ends of the twine were pulled back to the handle and the stringer forced through (in and out) the skin of the shank. The loop of string that had now been passed through the skin was held with one hand while the stringer was pulled back through the skin. This is where the person stringing the meat showed whether they were an old hand at doing the job or a rookie who needed watching. Pulling the stringer back through the skin on the wrong side of the loop meant you had to thread the eye of the stringer again. If you knew what you were doing, you always pulled the stringer back so that it stayed threaded.
Once the stringer was pulled back through the string was cut. This, of course left a doubled string through the shank. The ends were tied securely together. Eventually the hams were to be hung up by the string in the smokehouse for smoking.