FROM PIG TO PORK CHOP:
How Our Ancestors
Brought Home the Bacon

The Cleveland boyshave arranged their quarters in such a way that they are both comfortable and healthy. Sixteen compose a mess. Each mess appoints a mess Captain, mess cook, and mess dishwasher. The camp-fires are built in the rear of the barracks, each mess having the privilege of a fire. Our rations have been improved, fresh beef having been added to-day. The cooking utensils are--one metal kettle, two sheet iron buckets, two frying pans, a tin plate, cup, spoon, knife and fork. These constitute the soldier's "cooking kit." Barracks are rapidly going up, and the sound of hammers are heard from early morn until late in the evening all along the line of the camp, which extends a distance of about one mile and a half.

Strolling parties can be seen winding their way over the hills every day, and I am sorry to say that they show a disposition to rob hen coops, &c. Yesterday a Dutchman came into camp with a sorry face, complaining that the soldiers had shot his choice "pigs." He said they had taken all his chickens, but when it come to taking other property he could not stand it. He was paid for his "pig" and assured that all trespassers on his property, when found guilty would be punished.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer May 10, 1861
Camp Dennison--Officers of the 7th and 8th--Quarters and Fare--Incidents of Camp Life.
(courtesy CWReenactors.com)

As you can tell from the date on the above piece, the writer describes the very earliest days of the Civil War. Men, having rushed in the first burst of patriotic enthusiasm to enlist, now find themselves soldiers. They also find themselves in the unfamiliar position of having neither wife, mother, sister, maiden aunt or any other female to do that most essential of "women's work"--cooking.

What's the first thing they seek out, besides chickens? A pig. They may not know how to tend a stove, or make yeast, or bake bread, but give them a dead pig and they can make out well enough to get by. Years later and well into the war, a stray swine could be a lifesaver to desperate men on the run from near-certain death in Andersonville:

We had now again been without food nearly two days and a night, and having, by activity and freedom with plenty of pure air, largely thrown off our prison contracted ailments, our appetites had returned. Here was a chance. We were in sight of a farm house and between us and it was a large apple orchard in which we discovered a pile of hogs. Thorp still carried the butcher knife in his boot leg; we reconnoitered the premises and waited until midnight, when a jump, a scramble of pigs, a single squeal and the law of confiscation of the enemy's supplies is obeyed. The two hams are all we can take. With these we again start northward eating warm fresh pork as we go, raw and without salt, but it was good.

Morning dawned very cold, but clear. We secret ourselves and rest until noon, then start through another pinery and thicket. Toward evening we reach a "logging" where a fire, (log burning) the first to which we dared approach during our trip of eight days. Here we roast our pork, after which our journey is resumed.

(account of Harvey Hogue of the 115th Ohio Volunteers, who published this Civil War memoir in 1900. This section describes an attempt to return to Union lines after being captured by Confederate troops. Details can be found
here.)

Pigs are not native to North America, and the first recorded swine came to mainland North America with Hernando De Soto in 1539. Upon arriving in what would one day be known as Tampa Bay, Florida, the first thing several of them did was run away. While many no doubt promptly became lunch for alligators, the others went feral, resulting in the wild boars that delight hunters today.

The human settlers were entirely busy building their own habitations, clearing land for planting, digging wells, and generally settling in. This set the pattern which would continue for the next several centuries over the east coast of what is today America. Fences were built in great numbers, but they aimed in the opposite direction, if you will, from fences built today. They surrounded the crops to keep out animals rather than the other way around.

The most common practice was to keep cows, horses and chickens close to hand as they were used on a daily basis, but to let pigs run loose in the woods to forage for their own food. (As villages grew into cities the occupationally-named "garbage pig" and even more unfortunately termed "privy pig" became common, but that discussion is best left for another time.)

The types of pigs brought over by the early settlers were leaner, meaner and way faster moving than modern swine, and they could hold their own against most predators. In addition, the hog is not a grass-eater. While able to survive nicely on roots, tubers, worms, fruit, lizards, frogs, and clams (hey, they don't call 'em omnivores for nothing!), their preferred food was nuts. North America came equipped with endless acres of beech, oak, hickory, walnut, pecan and other nut-bearing trees. Voila.

The pig thus raised has a predictable life cycle. As the nuts rain down from the sky in the autumn, happy hogs fill up with the food they love best, which conveniently enough transforms into the tastiest pork there is. Some of the most expensive hams in the world today are the Spanish varieties from pigs still raised in exactly this fashion, then smoked and dried for a year. And just as the nut supply has been pretty much devoured and the swine are at their fattest, the weather turns very cold.

The first hard freeze of the year, usually in late November or early December, marked the season of the slaughter of the swine. First the hogs would be rounded up from the woods, a job often undertaken by young men and teenaged boys accompanied by their family dogs. Some portion of the resulting herd might be transported to town for sale, a project which often provided a substantial portion of the family's cash income for the year. No matter how self-sufficient a farm might be in other matters, the county tax assessor still demanded cash money and would take neither pig nor potato in barter.

Those pigs chosen to stock the family larder were confined. Some felt that feeding them on corn for the last few days improved the meat; others fed them on surplus milk, either whole or the skimmed milk left over from butter or cheese production. Still others just didn't feed them at all, making the upcoming job of cleaning out the intestines for later sausage production somewhat easier.

At last the big day arrived. Neighbors often gathered together for the job of pig-slaughtering, which allowed the sharing of heavy work and heavy utensils like large cast-iron pots for lard-rendering. In a time before telephones and TV, any opportunity to get together and socialize was a welcome break from the grueling grind that made up 19th century farm life, particularly for women.

Details on the butchering process varied (we recommend reading some of the links listed below before trying any on an actual pig) but one constant throughout history is the usability of "everything but the oink." Pigs were covered with considerably more hair in those days than is usual now, and their snouts surrounded by long thick bristles useful to a creature that roots in the soil for its food. The bristles now were cut off and stored away, to later serve in brushes for applying everything from paint to toothpaste.

The internal organs were removed and cleaned for cooking over the next few days. Pork liver and kidney were considered delicacies. Even glands like the pancreas and thyroid, known as "sweetbreads" were often fried for dinner. Items not eaten directly like lungs ("lights") and even the animals' blood were saved and incorporated into souses, sausages and meat puddings. Hooves were boiled to make glue.

Intestines were cleaned, turned inside out, scraped and put in brine (salt water) for preservation until it was time to make sausage. The carcass was then dunked into a pot of hot water and the hide scraped to remove the rest of the hairs. (The hide of the pig is relatively thin and delicate compared to that of cows, sheep, goats or deer, so it is rarely made into leather. Instead it was--you guessed it!--eaten. What, you never heard of fried pork rinds?)

Some cuts of meat had the hide left attached (hams in particular) and in others it was peeled off before the cut went to the next step in the preservation process, the brining barrel. Here we come to our first major choice: wet versus dry.

Both of these procedures require the presence of vast quantities of salt. Anyone near an ocean can get this without major fuss, although the use of some shallow pans in which the seawater can be placed is handy. Fill with water, let evaporate, scrape out salty residue, rinse, repeat. Those in a greater hurry can use pots with fires burning underneath to speed the evaporation process.

Further inland, salt was most commonly mined. While very large deposits either made their owners wealthy or even led to the establishment of whole towns like Saltville, VA, hunters could follow the tracks of animals to naturally occurring salt licks where sufficient quantities could be obtained for household use.

The mineral was so important that when an emergency--such as the Civil War-- cut off of usual sources of supply, the land under old smokehouses would be dug up and the salt which had dripped into the soil over the course of years recovered for reuse.

The other chemical normally used in pork preservation is saltpeter. This is potassium nitrate, a material whose history as a food preservative is inexorably tied in recent centuries to the fact that it is, along with charcoal and sulfur, one of the three essential components of gunpowder. (A fascinating, and Civil War-relevant, description of the process from the farm to the industrial level can be found in Instructures for the Manufacture of Saltpeter from the University of North Carolina document collection.)

The use of saltpeter and other nitrates/nitrites in processed meat is controversial to this day. Even organic meat producers have returned to using it though, since nothing else does the job of preservation from poisonous bacteria, particularly botulism, and keeping the meat an attractive red color, quite as well.

Once the preservative chemicals have been chosen, the last decision is whether to employ them in a wet or dry process. Historically the wet type seems to have been vastly more common. A quantity of salt and other additives--besides saltpeter, sugar and a variety of spices were often used--is dissolved in water. The meat is packed into a barrel and the salt water is poured over it, with stirring to assure that it comes into contact with all portions of all cuts of meat. A round flat rock may be used on top to make sure all the meat stays under the surface of the water. Or as Mrs. Lettice Bryan put it in her 1839 Kentucky Housewife
:

Get a tight tub, that will not leak one drop, put into it eight gallons of water, eight pounds of salt, eight ounces of saltpetre, six pints of molasses, and two spoonfuls of capsicum [hot red pepper]; cover the cut, and let it stand for four days, then boil it for a short time, skim it well, and when it gets perfectly cold, put it in the tub again; this brine will be sufficient for one hundred weight of pork; having it cut up in the usual manner, place it in the brine in such a way as for it to rise over the top of the meat, and sprinkling between each layer a small portion of salt. Cover the tub securely with a piece of carpet and boards, so as to keep out every particle of dirt, and set it in a cool, dry place. Pickled pork should be soaked in fresh water for at least twelve hours before it is cooked, to draw out a part of the salt; otherwise it would be uneatable, and should always be boiled in plenty of water, with some suitable vegetable, such as cabbage, green beans, dried beans,peas.

The dry process is more or less the same minus the water. The salt(s) are mixed dry and rubbed on the outside of the meat in as thick a layer as will stick to the surface. The meat is then set aside to dry, either on shelves in a storehouse of some sort or in barrels, the object being to protect it from attack by insects or other vermin. The meat is turned every few days and additional rub applied as needed. Some of the salt will be absorbed into the meat, and some of it will run off as liquid from the inside is sucked out by the action of the chemicals. The natural liquid inside the meat is the place where bacteria lives, so the more of it that can be removed, the longer the meat will last without rotting.

No hard and fast rule told how long to keep the meat in salt. The following recipe was written by a "town man," one who bought (or had his servant buy) produce at the market rather than putting it up himself. The "pickling" claimed in the title was nothing of the sort, though:

BOILING PICKLED PORK
1 leg of pork, preserved in salt
Water
Accompaniments:
Pease pudding
Parsnips
Mustard

Pickled pork takes more time than any other meat. If you buy your pork ready salted, ask how many days it has been in salt; if many, it will require to be soaked in water for six hours before you dress it. When you cook it, wash and scrape it as clean as possible; when delicately dressed, it is a favourite dish with almost every body. Take care it does not boil fast; if it does, the knuckle will break to pieces before the thick part of the meat is warm through; a leg of seven pounds takes three hours and a half very slow simmering. Skim your pot very carefully, and when you take the meat out of the boiler, scrape it clean.
If pork is not done enough, nothing is more disagreeable; if too much, it not only loses its color and flavor, but its substance becomes soft like a jelly. It must never appear at table without a good pease pudding and, if you please, parsnips. They are an excellent vegetable, and deserve to be much more popular. Remember not to forget the mustard pot.

(From The Cook's Oracle by William Kitchiner M. D.; New York, 1832)


If the meat is packed in barrels the process may be considered completed. You have just produced "salt pork," the standard meat for soldiers in all theaters of the Civil War. Feeding mass armies however was a new phenomena in the Civil War. Transportation was not always reliable (nor contractors always scrupulously honest about the quality of their product) and barrels occasionally sat longer than was really good for them, allowing the meat to spoil just a bit. Salt pork (and beef) which was not so far gone as to have to be thrown out became known as "salt horse."

After the salt has pulled as much of the moisture out of the meat as it can, which it will do within a week or two depending on the ambient temperature, the last decision must be made: to smoke, or not to smoke. Judging from the number of smokehouses found by archaeologists at historical sites, the decision was most often made in favor of "smoke 'em if you got 'em."

The resulting products, although gathered from all parts of the pig, were quite commonly referred to as "bacon," according to researchers at Civil War Surgeons.com. They gather considerable primary sources which suggest that military records implying soldiers lived on bacon, bacon, bacon did not refer to the thin strips of sliced pork belly called by that name today.

The needs f
smoking procedure were simple. A small structure with sturdy roof beams was required. If many hams and rashers were to be smoked, it was preferable to build more small structures rather than one large one, as the important consideration was that the smoke density remain constant.

A cleared earthen floor supported the fire. The wood used was always hard--softwoods such as pine contain resins which not only burn too hot and fast but which give off nasty aromas of turpentine and tar--but which hardwood varied by area. Hickory and pecan were readily available in the South; apple wood was common and popular in the North.

As the Civil War went on, life got progressively harder, particularly for the Southern population both military and civilian. North Carolina Gov. Zebulon Vance wrote a famous letter in which he laid into Richmond officials for allowing rebel soldiers to forage freely in parts of North Carolina, where the soldiers cleaned out some communities' food supplies:
"If God Almighty had yet in store another plague worse than all the others which he intended to let loose on the Egyptians in case Pharoah still hardened his heart," he wrote, "I am sure it must have been a regiment or so of half-armed, half-disciplined Confederate cavalry."
Little did those soldiers (and Union ones as well, needless to say) realize that the act of filling their bellies day after day was going to, in a mere four years, complete the destruction a system which had been in place for centuries. Free-range, mast-feeding pig raising was to be no more. Part of the loss was, obviously, the eaten pigs themselves, but they would have rapidly recovered their population. More serious, scholars note, was the loss of the fences torn down
, first to facilitate military movements and then to feed the fires to cook the said swine.

The situation is described in a paper called "The American Civil War: An Environmental View" by Jack Temple Kirby of Miami University. He summarizes thusly:

Beginning in seventeenth-century Virginia, colonial legislatures had decreed that crop fields be securely fenced so that settlers might let great numbers of cattle and hogs range at large. The open range, a sensible accommodation to heavily forested eastern frontiers, permitted the rich and poor alike to accumulate subsistences and even wealth in animals that fattened for free.

By the early nineteenth century, however, wealthy planters began to attack the range and its essential fencing laws as archaic: animals should be fenced instead of fields, they argued. Timbers for countless miles of fencing grew scarcer and expensive, range animals were more subject to disease epidemics, rural neighborhood peace was continually disrupted by disputes over broken fences and tramped crops. Edmund Ruffin and his friends proposed "reform" in Virginia during the 1830s, but their effort was promptly crushed. Virginia was, after all, a white-male democracy, and ordinary rural men understood that those with little or no land could hardly grow feed crops for confined animals. Fence reform would deprive them of their herds and reduce them to dependency.

In the North, meanwhile, fencing reform succeeded and spread westward through the free states, so that by the time of the Civil War, the southern countryside was truly distinctive and, ironically, considering the prevalence of plantation slavery, a "democratic" countryside where even poor men (white, mostly) could feed their families and, as drovers and sellers of surplus beef and pork, participate in markets.

Thus the [Civil] war destroyed not only thousands of miles of fences but consumed range cattle and hogs. In a subregion which I studied intensively for a longitudinal environmental history—seventeen counties in southeastern Virginia (below the James River) and adjacent northeastern North Carolina—there were nearly 360,000 hogs in 1860. According to the next federal census, in 1870, after five years of peace, there were still less than half that number. ...The post [World War I] high recorded in the 1920 census still did not equal the 1860s figure. Ordinary and poor southerners' hog heaven was gone forever.

#####

A variety of interesting sources for further reading:

Reference on the Manufacture of Saltpeter

A British firm which produces pork in the old style, with discussion of the pros and cons of saltpeter use.

A history of various methods of food preservation

Discussion of how the pig came to be domesticated, including When, Where, By Whom, and How Many Times This Happened

US Department of Agriculture page on pigs

Homepage of historic village at Connor Prairie, Indiana, where they raise pigs in the old manner

A history and discussion of sausage

An interesting discussion of pig history, including how two gentlemen named Proctor and Gamble came to be involved in the process

How pigs kept Tennessee from being as badly affected by the Civil War as other parts of the South

The American Civil War: An Environmental View

A discussion of smokehouses, from Colonial Williamsburg


 

 



 

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