Salting Down the Meat
The preservation of the meat with salt – or the pickling process – was always the last task of the day. Inside every smokehouse was a pickling vat for hams and shoulders and pickling barrels for pork, hogs heads, and backbone. The vat was anything from a wooden box lined with a sheet of plastic to a vat constructed of brick lined with cement or mortar. The key was to make sure it would hold water. Vats were as large as 8 feet long, 3 feet wide and 3 feet deep. The barrels could be plastic, but most folks had very old wooden barrels that were water tight. Barrels were capable of holding about 50 to 60 gallons of liquid.
A large quantity of salt was required for pickling. We bought salt in 50 or 100 pound bags. Depending on the number of hogs killed, it could take 300 to 500 pounds of salt.
I’ve heard of folks “dry packing” meat, but in our part of the world, everybody used a wet packing process. That is, we packed the meat in dry salt, but we always prepared a barrel full of liquid pickle to pour in the vat or barrel immediately after packing the meat. The pickling solution was simply water mixed with enough salt that a hen egg would float on it. Put an egg in water and see if it floats. Nope, it won’t. But add enough salt and it will.
Hams and shoulders usually went in the vat. You started by pouring a layer of dry salt a couple inches thick in the bottom of the vat. Then you placed a layer of hams, skin side down, on that and poured dry salt on the hams. You repeated the process until all the hams were in. We usually finished off with the shoulders in the top layers because their weren’t as many of them (most went into sausage) and shoulders were much better eaten corned rather than smoked. Once all the hams and shoulders were in the vat and a final layer of dry salt had been poured over them, the pickling solution was poured in to just above the top layer. Because the water was already pretty well saturated with salt, the dry salt did very little dissolving when the pickle was added.
What do I mean by “corned” and “smoked”? It has to do with when the meat is “struck”. Dang! There’s another odd word. Okay. The pickling process takes 5 to 7 weeks. The hams must stay in the pickle in the vat that long to be completely struck. Or as it is sometimes worded – “struck through.” In other words, it takes that long for the salt to penetrate completely to the bone. A “corned” shoulder or ham is taken from the vat in 1 to 2 weeks when it’s just begun to be struck. It makes for an entirely different (and excellent) flavor from being fresh on the one hand or completely struck (very salty) on the other hand.
Now for smoked. When the hams are struck, they are removed from the pickle and rubbed thoroughly a mixture of borax and black pepper. This, of course, gives some flavor, but mostly prevents flies from laying eggs on the meat. The hams are hung on overhead pegs in the smokehouse by the strings that were attached way back when the meat was first cut up. Smokehouses generally had dirt floors. There were a few with cement floors, but even these had a 3 foot square in center with no cement – only dirt. A small fire was started on the dirt floor using green wood so the fire would burn very slowly and produce a lot of smoke. Hickory was preferred but oak was acceptable. Once the fire was started, the smokehouse was shut up tight, but not airtight. The hams would smoke for a day or two with a small fire. You would wait a week or two and do it again. Wait a week or two and do it the third time and that was about it.
What you ended up with, if you’d done it right, was a product guaranteed not to spoil and 100 percent fly resistant. Oh yeah, and it tasted pretty doggone good, too. The moldier it was on the outside the better it was on the inside. (You just washed the mold off, of course.)
Pork, backbones, and hogsheads were put in the barrels. The same pickling process was used as with the hams and shoulders. Pork was fun to pack since you could curve the pieces around in the barrel. This resulted in a really tightly packed barrel. Again, it was a layer of salt, a layer of pork, a layer of salt and so on. And, last of all, the pickle was poured in. Backbone could be curved around the barrel too. Again the same process of layering followed by pickle was used. The only thing different about the hogshead was that you made sure you crammed a little salt under the eyelids around the eyeballs. These meats were not smoked, so they didn’t come out of the barrels until you were ready to eat them.