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The Fatted Pig

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Farm life has many advantages. Butchering fresh, homegrown meat is just one of them. Recently we butchered one of the pigs we bought last fall. We always buy two pigs, so they can keep each other company and so we can have plenty of meat to get us through the year and to share with family and friends.

Our pigs are raised on corn mash, pasture grass, organic material from the garden, and my occasional attempts at making dessert. We take them to a very good butcher where they are killed humanely and processed for us according to our specifications.

pigs edited

When I was a child, we did our own butchering. It was a big event every fall because we needed cold weather to cure the meat so we wouldn't have to deal with flies. Daddy would shoot the hog in the head for an immediate death, then hoist him up by the hind feet on a massive frame with a pulley (it looked sort of like a doorframe made of huge solid posts). After the pig bled out, Daddy would take a torch and burn off all the hair from the skin. After he skinned it, Granny was waiting to start cleaning the skin inside and out so it could be cut up and later roasted to make "cracklings" (the better version of the pig skin chips in stores).

From the entrails, we would save the liver, heart, and kidneys. Some neighbors saved the intestines to use for sausage casings, but we liked our sausage just ground in packages so Mom could use it in many ways. Sausage was ground with a hand grinder, then mixed with Mom's special mix of seasoning. I wish I knew what she used. Our butcher makes great sausage, but Mom's had a taste all its own.

We used nearly every part of the hog. Jowls was a favorite for breakfast, Mom pickled the feet, Granny liked the brain, and we always made our own lard. When I was small, we used the big cast iron yard kettle to render the lard. Granny cut the lard into pieces, filled the kettle, and put a slow fire under it. She would sit most of the day by the fire, occasionally stirring and skimming impurities from the top. When all of the fat had been reduced to a liquid, it was carefully dipped out with a metal dipper and poured into quart jars and buckets and then stored in our pantry/well house where it was cool year round.

Hams and bacon sides were heavily salted and hung in the smoke house to cure, then be smoked. The rest of the pig was cut up in chops, roasts, tender loin, etc., wrapped in freezer paper, and stored in the freezer.

We butchered 10-month-old calves in the same way, but without the cracklings, lard, pickled feet, or brain. A few times Daddy tanned the hides to use, but that takes a lot of work and he decided he just didn't have time to properly attend to it. Granny did make "calf's foot jelly" and Mom used it as a base for soups, stews etc. Granny just liked it spread on bread.

Today, I am making lard from our pig. Our butcher kindly saves it for me, and makes sure it is clean and well cut. I cut it into small cubes, put it in my cast-iron dutch oven, set the regular oven for about 100 degrees and leave it for about 12 hours, stirring it about half way through. It is a nice clear oil when I take it out. I carefully skim all of the leftover pieces off the top, letting the oil drain back into the pot. These make nice treats for the dogs and chickens. Then I pour it into Pyrex bowls with rubber lids and let it set overnight. The next morning it is a beautiful white, solid mass. I set the bowls in my freezer and simply thaw them out as I need them. Lard, coconut oil, and olive oil are my staples.


100_3259100_3262Lard Process

Granny always cooked every thing with Lard. Her cookies were the most amazing things! And her cakes were out of this world. Cooking with lard is making a come back. One of my favorite cookbooks is the LARD Cookbook by Grit Magazine (Capper's sister magazine). You should be able to find it in the book stores for both Grit and Capper's. Using home rendered lard is actually healthy for you, and gives me a sense of nostalgia. It brings back those frosty autumn days when the whole family worked together to accomplish a major chore. And what tasty rewards!


The Family Plot

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The Family Plot

Memorial Day is here. A three-day weekend that signals the official arrival of vacation fun. But Memorial Day was intended to be a time of remembrance of our fallen soldiers as well as our loved ones that have passed on. For me, Memorial Day has always meant a trip to the cemetery. 

Our family cemetery is maybe one-quarter of a mile from my home, located on a gentle slope surrounded by a cow pasture. One must cross a cattle guard to reach it, but no one minds. Nearly all of the habitats are farm folk and they wouldn't want to be any place else. I went down there early this year to take pictures and think about what I would write for this blog. People start coming to the Bruno Cemetery on the Friday before Memorial Day and continue on through the special day itself. There are family reunions held among the headstones and one has a chance to connect with neighbors not often seen throughout the year. As I was leaving, I chanced upon some more early arrivals. We spoke and quickly learned that my cousin married their cousin, so we greeted each other as family and it was lovely. That is the way of it here; related by marriage is as good as blood, and we are always ready to welcome everyone. 


When I was a child we went there early in the morning to place our flowers. Granny would walk me around the graves introducing me to each family member of long ago and telling me their particular history. I had a bunch of single artificial flowers and I would place one at each headstone. Now Granny is gone, as are my parents. I can no longer afford flowers for each grave because they no longer sell the single roses, daisies, and lilies. So I buy two big bunches for Mom and Daddy and Granny and Grandpa. But I always walk the graveyard and remember all of the relatives and say hello to them. 


When my husband and I were dating I took him there to "meet" my family. We walked from end to end and I told him all about the family he was marrying into. Remarkably, it didn't stop him. We walked for hours looking at all of the stones and I told him about the families of the neighborhood as well as the history of the cemetery itself.

My great grandmother Elizabeth was alive when the cemetery was created. Legend has it that a man was hung from the big oak in the lower part of the cemetery by Yankee bushwhackers. After they were gone, the women of the community cut him down and buried him at the foot of the tree. When the next local person died, they buried them there also to keep the stranger company, and the cemetery grew from there. 


As with all cemeteries, there are some unique headstones. I used to play among them as a child while the grownups visited. Seeing them now is like visiting old friends. We have all sorts buried in our cemetery. The veteran's stones didn't have the flags when I took this picture. Our local VFW always makes sure the flags are there on Memorial and Veteran's Days. My Daddy was in World War II, but we did not get him the official stone. He was buried with a flag draped coffin and there is always a flag by his headstone on the right holidays. The VFW knows all the veterans, even if they don't have the official marker. I will leave you now with photos of some of my favorite headstones. May you have a blessed and peaceful Memorial Day.








Laundry Day

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I love doing laundry. There is nothing so satisfying as clean laundry neatly folded and waiting to be put away. Unless it is the sight of laundry hanging on the clothesline in the bright sunshine. And the smell of line-dried laundry! That is something to cherish.

Of course, I have the luxury to enjoy this chore. Things were very different when I was a child. When I grew up in the 1960s, here in northwest Arkansas, we were still a very rural community, complete with dirt roads. We lived approximately 27 miles from the nearest town and were almost completely self sufficient. What we couldn't make or grow for ourselves, we traveled the 27 miles of dirt road once a month to buy. There was no going to the local laundromat for us. We did all of our laundry at home.

My laundry on the line

My granny had always done laundry on a rub board in the big cast-iron kettle, but Daddy traded something or other for an electric ringer washer for Mother that we kept on the front porch. This was Mother's treasure. She did laundry nearly every day, because it had to be hung on the line to dry and we only had so much line. Monday was blue jeans, so Daddy would have work clothes for the rest of the week (he was a mechanic at the local school). Tuesday was white clothes that soaked in a bleach solution before being washed. Wednesday was colored clothes; Thursday was reds (we had a lot of red things, as that was Mother's favorite color); Friday was towels, aprons, washcloths, dish cloths, pot holders, etc. And one Saturday a month was the day Mother washed all of the bedding.

Mother washed in all kinds of weather. Sometimes, the days were switched around because of rain. Some clothes could be dried indoors on hangers, or hung on the porch out of the rain, whereas denim really needed to be hung on the line. But no matter what the temperature, Mother did her laundry. I can remember the blue jeans being frozen stiff as boards and Mother using a broom to beat them so the ice would break and fall off. Then she would bring them in, hang them over chairs before the wood stove, and let them finish drying.

Of course, we made our own laundry soap. It was basically shaved lye soap with baking soda and borax added. I used to help Granny make the soap in the fall when we butchered the pig. After rendering the lard in the big outdoor kettle, Granny would take only the white ashes from the fire under it, mix it with water, and make her lye, which she would put in the kettle with some leftover lard and cow milk. My grandfather had made her some wooden frames with an insert of wooden squares so that it fit together like an old-fashioned ice tray. We filled these frames with the soap, slid them under her bed to set up, and then a few days later when they were solid we would pull out the insert and carefully wrap each piece in newspaper and store them in the pantry / well house.

My laundry days are not as strenuous as Mothers, as I have my own modern washer and dryer. But I still love my clothesline, and use it as much as possible. I also make my own laundry soap, though it is a little different from Mother's. I use 2 cups Borax, 2 cups washing soda, 1 cup Oxy, and 1 grated bar of Fels-Naptha soap.

In 1986 when Mother finally got the house of her dreams, Daddy bought her a very modern washer and dryer set, and the old ringer went into the barn. Alas, the ringer top has been lost, and the tub is rusting. One day, if I ever have a good dry place to keep it, I'd like to bring it out and set it up for display, replacing the lost parts. It played a very large part in my childhood, and I will always have a fondness for it.

The main tub of mothers old ringer washer

Of Fur and Feather

farm signOne of the joys of living on a farm is the animals. Each has his own special place and usefulness. But sometimes I have my doubts about the farm cats.

Oh, I love my cats. I'm very much a cat person. But farm cats are hunters, and occasionally they like to share their successes.

My oldest cat is a yellow striped tom named Ginger. I made him one of the leading characters in the book I wrote because he always shares his kills. In fact, I have yet to see him eat anything he brings in. I suspect he makes two kills: one for himself, and one to give away. Because that is exactly what he does — give it away.

Ginger - Guardian of the Garden

I am one of those stupid cat owners who installed a cat door. Yes, it does away with the litter box and yes, I am no longer required to be the doorman to my cats, but it also provides a way for them to bring in anything they decide they want to keep or share. And Ginger loves to share. We have what is called "Mouse Alert" at our house. In the early hours of the morning, my husband and I are frequently awaken by a soft muffled meowing. It grows in volume until one of us gets up, turns on the light, praises the catch of the day, and unceremoniously dumps both it and Ginger back outside. If we fail to respond to "Mouse Alert," Ginger simply brings it onto the bed to make sure we are aware of how wonderful he is.

The evening of my 50th birthday, Ginger arrived early with a present for me. We were watching a movie when he came through the cat door dragging a huge rat and dropped it at my feet with a chirp as if to say “Happy Birthday!” The rat was still alive and mostly unharmed. We gaped at each other in astonishment (the rat and me, that is), while my husband grabbed his work boot and proceeded to give said rat a concussion.

Another morning I got up to find my dog, Huckleberry, eyeing a dead mouse on his bed, and Ginger sitting there staring at him as if to say, “Here, I've brought you breakfast in bed.” Huckey is half basset hound, so he gave me one of those droopy-eyed looks as if to say, “Please, take it away.” Ginger seemed very insulted when I scooped up the mouse in a dust pan and pitched it out the door.

My other cat is a Siamese. DC (which stands for various words, depending on the mood and circumstance at the time) invented paranoia. He is convinced that the entire world is out to get him. At least, he was. Now that I am home full time once more he is beginning to gain courage and will slip outside for small forays into the "wilds" of the backyard. And good old Ginger is teaching him to hunt. So far his kills have consisted of baby mice and lizards. Until this morning.

DC in the wilds of the back yard

I was just pouring myself my second cup of tea when I saw DC come charging out from under my bed at the speed of light and almost instantly charge back under. “He's got something!” my husband cried. But I just shook my head. “Another lizard.” I replied. “One of these days he's going to get poisoned.”

After Greg left for work, I went in to make the bed and raise the shades. And when I lifted the shade, low and behold there sat a sparrow. We eyed each other for a moment, then I carefully pushed out the screen of the window and the poor bird shot out to freedom. And DC? Exhausted from all of his "hunting," he was found sound asleep on his favorite perch on the cat tree.

Despite all of the hassle, I really would do anything for these two fur balls. Ginger is the guardian of the garden, for one thing. He spends most of his days and evenings lying among the raised beds and containers. I have never had damage from rabbits, squirrels, mice, rats, etc. Even the crows seem to fear my mighty hunter. And I haven't had mice living in my house for at least five years now. In fact, mice and rats are so scarce, I often wonder where he finds them to share.

And DC? I call him my "Purry Home Companion." He purrs a deep, throaty sound that I find very soothing. They say cats are the number one stress-relieving pets. (Dogs are almost tied with them for the honor). When I worked full time, it was nice to come home and have a cat land in my lap, purring and cuddling. After a long day at the office dealing with unhappy customers, it was nice to know someone out there still loved me (besides my husband).

So I think I'll keep my farm cats, even if I do have to respond to "Mouse Alerts" and rescue kidnapped birds. A farm just isn't home without the cats.

A Cast-Iron Legacy

farm signA legacy is an important part of a family. What sort of inheritance will be left to the children? Not just monetary, but ethically, spiritually, physically? My family has never been financially wealthy. Our legacies have consisted of knowledge and physical items. My father left me a legacy of integrity and honor. My Granny left me a legacy of old-fashioned know-how, an unshakable faith in God, stories of my family, and local legends. My mother left me a legacy of cast-iron.

Old cast iron cookware

No one could cook like my mother. She could throw together a meal in minutes for unexpected company and never break a sweat. She could cook, bake, preserve, and can to perfection. And she did most of it in either her stainless-steel cookware or her cast-iron. As an only child, I inherited all of it. At least, the cooking utensils.

Cooking has never come easy to me. I love to do it, but am not gifted like my mother was. I am quite good at cooking meals. But when it come to baking, most of my attempts supplement the pigs' breakfasts. Alas, my desserts must remain store bought.

My favorite cookware are the cast-iron skillets I inherited from my mother (a few pieces even belonged to my grandmother). They are my prized positions, and I would be lost without them. Mother taught me how to use them and how to care for them. I keep them stored in my oven when not in use. I keep them wiped down with homemade lard. They are as clean and shiny as brand new. The secret is keeping them warm and wiped down. Whenever I use the oven and then turn it off, I return the cast-iron to the oven while still hot. This keeps them seasoned. In the winter, we occasionally turn on the oven with the door open to add warmth; I leave the cast-iron inside. I also render lard in my big "pot" and the dutch oven. When through, I simply wipe them down with a paper towel and leave the residue.

Contrary to most experts, I actually do wash mine when necessary. I put mild dish soap on a damp 'scrubby' and wipe down the interior, rinse it good, dry it, and re-coat with lard. I have done this for years (as did mother before me) with no harm coming to the skillet. I will even use an SOS pad, rinse, re-coat with lard, and return to a warm oven.

I always have a skillet on the stove. I am southern, therefore I fry. Not everything we eat, but we have fried sausage or bacon every morning with occasional fried eggs. Fried potatoes are a weekly event, and I adore fried chicken. After frying something, I simply slide the skillet off the burner, put a lid on it, and leave it. The next time I fry, I use the same grease. This not only flavors my next meal, but keeps the skillet well seasoned. I have several skillets of various sizes; I keep them swapped out so all get used on a regular basis. To refresh the grease that has been used for several days, I simply fry a pan of potatoes. Potatoes seem to absorb impurities, and the grease will be fresher the next time it is used. Well-used grease is also a must for a pot of beans.

Cooking beans in cast iron

I have a cast-iron dutch oven for beans. I look over the beans, rinse them thoroughly, put them in the dutch oven, add a good quantity of salt (I like sea salt), and pour my skillet of used grease over them. Then I cover them with boiling water and let them soak for 2 or 3 hours before cooking. I will also add bacon or ham hocks if I have them thawed out. Then I wipe out my skillet with a paper towel, put it back in the oven, and set out a new one to be ready for breakfast the next day.

I make biscuits in my cast-iron. I bake cornbread in them. I roast or bake vegetables in them. I bake casseroles and shepherd's pie in them. I make quiche in them. There simply isn't much you can't do in cast-iron. Mother would bake cakes, pies, and even cookies in them. And every time I use them, I remember all the mornings I woke up as a child and smelled the bacon or sausage cooking in my mother's kitchen. I would go in to find one cast-iron skillet with meat, one with gravy, one coming out of the oven with biscuits, and the dutch oven with beans already soaking for the noon meal. Mother not only left me a legacy of her cast-iron cookware, but one of security, love, and comfort.

Old photograph of Willia Roberts

This Old Garden

farm signI spent this morning working in my greenhouse separating tomato seedlings. I can never seem to throw any of them away when I thin them out. I carefully re-pot each one and hope for the best; I usually manage to save most of them. Then, when it comes time to transfer them into the garden beds, I am overrun and have a terrible time choosing the ones I want to keep. I always give the rest away to friends.

My tomato starts.

For a few years now, my husband and I have been doing raised beds. We fenced an area directly off of my picnic area and have built the beds a year at a time. Greg puts the composter in the frame and, when spring comes, simply opens the hatch and dumps the compost into the new frame. Then we finish it out with mushroom compost from the local grocery store. It’s a far cry from the way we gardened when I was a child. I often wonder what my Dad would think.

My garden today
My garden today.

Daddy grew up in the Depression Era. They grew or hunted all of their food. He learned to work in the garden as a small child, and consequently he was one of the most successful gardeners I've ever known. He planted by the signs of the moon and tilled the soil with an old-fashioned plow.

All of my life, Daddy kept a donkey for plowing. Usually the inevitable name was Kate or Jenny, except for one male donkey who was christened Jack. I used to love sitting for hours watching him work his way back and forth across the garden. I learned the names of all the equipment, and when I was old enough, he would let me help to harness the donkey out. I still have all of that harness equipment carefully stored away in our barn.

Daddy was a man slow of speech and methodical movement. He and his donkey always worked well together. I can still hear his voice: “Gee, Kate, gee now” (Gee means right), or “Haw girl” (Haw is for left). He never used any stakes or string to line up his rows, but they were always straight as an arrow.

Daddy and Kate
Daddy & Kate breaking new ground for a garden.

I used to help with the planting — mostly onion sets. I was small, and it was easier for me to get close to the ground. Once I was sick with the flu, and I dreamed over and over of planting onions in the hot sun, the rows stretching on for miles with no end.

After Daddy passed, we tried to maintain his garden patch by plowing with a tractor. But we never had much success with vegetables. Then we began to see articles in Grit and Mother Earth News about raised beds and tried our hand at that. A friend of ours gave us some big plastic tubs used by the feed store to provide mineral licks for livestock. I usually plant my tomatoes and eggplant in those. Cabbages, Brussels sprouts, peas, carrots, okra, and onions all go into the raised beds.

I like the tubs for tomatoes because I can mix my soil the way I like, with plenty of crushed oyster shells for calcium (the same ones from the feed store that I use for the chickens) and Miracle Grow tomato food. Tomatoes are my favorite thing in the garden.

So much has changed since my Daddy was with us. So many new ideas and so much technology. I wish every day that I could share them with him. I'd love to show him my garden. As different as it is from his, I think he would approve. And he might even go to raised beds himself. But I know deep down, he would always still have that donkey.