Sunday, November 05, 2006

Rites of Passage...

There used to be a time in November when every country boy in New Hampshire participated in a right of passage, known in my parts as a "hog butcherin' ". Sounds like some kind of Druid festival, doesn't it? Far from it. It was a kind of communal gathering for those who raised pigs in the area to help dispatch and prepare your pigs for the freezer. For the most part, it was a men only social gathering with plenty of old timers who always had many a story to tell to us "young'uns" about the old traditions in the early 1900's. Most of the men there had known each other for 50 years or more. Naturaly, there was a good amount of dirty jokes being told, usually out of earshot of young boys, and hard cider was the drink of choice for all.

Clarence was a pig farmer who lived in the "boonies" on the Ashland/Holderness line on top of Holderness Hill. He was the host of this gathering and was as typical as they come...a bit laconic and had a very dry wit to boot. True to his roots, he had a variety of animals; ducks, geese, a donkey, sheep and cows and the biggest pigs in central New Hampshire. Now, most of us raised our pigs to weigh in at around 250-275 pounds come Fall. Clarence must have given the pigs miracle grow...they were 500-600 pounds if they were an ounce. This is fine if you like more fat than meat, plus it means that the pigs were well over a year old.

Usually at these get togethers there are different areas for different jobs; the pen where they shoot the pig, an area for eviserating consisting of a stout tree limb and block and tackle, sturdy tables for butchering and the "pig bath" . Contrary to what animal rights groups tell you, no one I ever met enjoyed taking the life of an animal, it was a somber occasion done as quickly as possible, one shot only. Since we were young, our fathers told us the truth about what will happen to "Wilber" come Fall and to not get too close to him least we get our feelings hurt. Once the pig has been dispatched, bled and eviserated, he is lowered into the pig bath. It is a tank of 170 degree water that has pine "rosin" in it, which, when you dip the pig, it sets the bristles. From there is where the boys start their work, shaving the pig with razor sharp knives...yes, 11 year old boys with knives! Back then, it was not unusual at all for boys as young as six or seven to own a pocket knife, always a gift from Dad. I still have mine, it is my most valuable possesion. Shaving pigs is messy work, the bristles cover you from head to toe, but, it was part of your job and cosidered very important.

The old timers there were the supervisors and let the young men (50's and 60's) do all of the heavy lifting . They had a sense of humor that bordered on the macabre at times. One came up to our table and let out a hellacious sneeze and dropped a pigs eyeball right on the table. The first words out of our mouths... "Jeezum Crow!", we dropped our knives and ran towards the woods, when we looked back, we saw the old timers laughing their asses off and knew we had been had.

The best part of the whole shebang was the dinner. The wives would come up and start cooking in the afternoon, usually something that they made at home. Home made baked beans, corn chowder, rolls, jonny cake, pickles, and of course, baked ham. Butter for the rolls was always hand churned and yellow as sunshine which came from Guernsey cows along with the milk they brought. The milk was un-pasturized, and raw. Funny, no one ever got sick from it. Why? Simple. Start with a healthy cow and clean the its udder well before you milk them and make sure the bucket is clean and sanitized, that's it. Least we forget, dessert. Apple desserts in every form imaginable; pies, spice cakes, Betty, crisps, baked apples with maple syrup, you name it. True to our tradition, apple pie always is served with a slice or two of "rat" cheese. Rat cheese does not come from rat milk! It is super sharp Vermont cheddar, usually 2 or more years old, and makes your mouth water when you eat it. No self respecting New Englander eats mild cheddar. Children are weaned with this stuff. If you want the real Mc Coy, try Shelburn Farms raw milk cheddar,Grafton, or, available almost every where, Cabot extra sharp or Hunter's. This tastes like the cheese of my childhood, especially Cabot's Reserve and Grafton Extra Sharp.

Much has changed there since 1970, hearing the local accent is now a rare occasion instead of the norm. But, there are still a few hold outs who still cling to the old ways and that gives me hope for the future of my beloved state. Even though I live in Florida, my soul is still that of a New Englander.

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