The “How’s,” “Why’s,” and “Wherefore’s” of Barbecue
Posted by Warm Southern Breeze on Friday, October 14, 2011
Because ‘back in the day’ – even TOday – poor folks did not have electricity, and certainly did not even have the earliest of refrigerators, the venerable icebox – which was a primitive insulated cabinet into which a large block of ice was placed in the top. Why the top? If you recall your third grade science lesson, cool temperature air falls. The only ‘cooling system’ poor folks had was a creek, upon which they would build a small ‘house’ – or more accurately, a shed – to cool their food. Therefore, they did not have the luxury of storing raw meat. Not having the ability to refrigerate or freeze fresh meat meant that it had to be cooked, prepared and otherwise preserved – either through smoking, salting or other methods such as sausage making.
A common method of preserving meat was to smoke it.
Meat – again, which was most often pork – would be hung in a small-to-moderately sized wooden building in which a constant fire producing tremendous volumes of smoke and heat would be tended. The large cuts of meat – hams, butts, shoulders, etc. – were hung from the rafters and exposed to the smoke and heat. Naturally, there would be a fire pit inside the smokehouse, but there would be only a very small exit for the smoke – just enough to keep the fire from extinguishing itself from lack of fresh air. Sometimes, the smoke would just naturally escape from the cracks and crevices of the wooden planks, and from the door, which was only infrequently opened, and only then to tend the fire or check the curing progress.
Just to let you know, pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered. And pigs become hogs. Or, if you’d prefer the Southern pronunciation, “hawgs.” When the first lengthy cold snap had set in, it would be called “hog killing season.”
Since there was no refrigeration or ice house, the cool temperatures would naturally slow any deterioration of the fat and meat. Warm temperature days do strange things to meat. It causes them to become rancid rapidly – which is why cool temperature weather was favored for slaughtering. And with a large hog, the work that went into butchering it was an all-day affair – from sunrise to sunset – in which neighbors and family would help, which would also sometimes extend even into the night – and would certainly be continued the next day.
The pork fat would be rendered – the term used to describe a melting-type process in which all the pig’s fat would be heated over an open fire in a large iron kettle until it became liquid – then cooled back into a semi-solid state to produce lard, which was used to make biscuits, cakes, pies, cornbread and just about every other type of baked food made from flour or cornmeal – including soap. An interesting note, the finest chefs prefer using lard rather than any other type fat – including vegetable shortening or butter – because it makes such tasty and flaky crusts. And with regard to any health concerns, there are actually fewer health concerns with the use of non-hydrogenated lard than there are with hydrogenated vegetable shortening.
The larger cuts of meat – the shoulders, butts, hams, backstrap (two large pieces lengthwise next to the spine on the outside), tenderloin (smaller, long cuts inside the ribcage underneath the backstraps) and sometimes even the belly (which yields bacon) – would be smoked, while the feet would be pickled, and the ears, brains, snout, tongue and heart would be turned into “head cheese,” the skin would be fried into cracklin’, the liver baked or fried, and the innards – the intestines – would be thoroughly washed, rewashed and cleaned, then boiled into chitlin’s, sometimes more ‘properly’ called chitterlings.
There’s a saying about the efficient use of pigs – “everything but the squeal.” It means that every part of the animal was used, either for food or some other purpose – including the skin, which was also either eaten, or used for garments or acoutrements, such as gloves, knee & elbow patches, etc.