2nd annual End-of-School Homestead BBQ

Friday was the last day with students for Ms. O (that’s me!) and it was marked by some very special moments that I will save for a later post. One of the best parts of Friday was first thing in the morning when my principal slipped a grocery bag of red plastic cups and a copy of the lyrics for the song “red solo cup” into my hand, saying “you’ll need these.”

Folks started arriving shortly after Sean and I got home from school. We built a fire to start making coals to fuel the smoker and to heat a barrel of water for scalding the pig. After a week of rain, though, we didn’t have much dry wood or much luck. It took us hours to get the water hot enough.

Our neighbor, Butch, came over with some of his helpers (rising ninth graders: my future students!) to guide us through the process. He was invaluable to us at last year’s barbeque, when we were slaughtering our very first hog. We’ve been through the process a few times now, but his experience is indispensable. He’s butchered hundreds of hogs in his day.

We had intended to heat water for scalding over our fire, but we wound up digging a hole for the barrel and building a fire around it.

We had intended to heat water for scalding over a fire, but we wound up digging a hole for the barrel and building a fire around it. After some trial and error, this method proved successful.

When the water was hot enough, Sean shot the pig with the .22, then stuck it under the breastbone to bleed it out.

When the water was hot enough (not boiling, but too hot to touch), Sean shot the pig with the .22, then stuck it under the breastbone to bleed it out. Dillon dragged it to the top of the hill and the crew dipped it in the hot water to scald it.

After scalding, the pig is scraped to remove hair and the outer layer of skin.

After scalding, the pig was scraped to remove hair and the outer layer of skin. It was surprisingly white under all that red hair.

Sean and M hung the carcass from an old swing set that we found in the yard.

After scraping, Sean and M hung the carcass from an old swing set that we found in the yard.

I don’t have any good photos of the evisceration process, but it’s fairly simple. Make an incision in the lower part of the belly, cut down toward the head and back toward the hip bones. Be careful to tie off the bung. When you are ready for the organs to spill out, cut through the sternum. On a hog this small, you can do this with a knife. A friend asked us to save the liver for him, and Sean saved most of the other organs to dissect in class. We buried the intestines to keep from attracting critters. Sean halved the carcass and we laid the halves, skin-side-down, on the smoker.

Using the coals from our hardwood fire, the team kept the smoker between 200 and 250 degrees all night.

Saturday:

Sean was still tending the smoker at dawn.

Sean was still tending the smoker at dawn.

The night watch looked tired but happy.

The night watch looked tired but happy.

We kept roasting all day, and Jesse heroically weed-whacked a bocce court. We laid plywood over the worst mud puddles, made a mountain of slaw and set out tables and chafing dishes, borrowed from another generous neighbor. At around 2:00 we pulled the pig off the smoker.

Dan and I helped turn the whole smoked hog into pulled pork for sandwiches.

Dan and I helped turn the whole smoked hog into pulled pork for sandwiches.

Folks were arriving by then, and the party was underway. People hung out in lawn chairs and ate and talked. Groups of folks wandered down to look at the pigs or the garden and congregated at the bocce court. One friend brought 50 pounds of crawfish and boiled them up to share. They were spicy and delicious, and we got some great carapaces to feed to the pigs and add to the compost. At one point, the weather laid down a little bibbity bobbity boo and gave us a rainbow.

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Sean rocked shorts and cowboy boots, and Shannon turned up in an outfit to match.

Sean rocked shorts and cowboy boots, and Shannon turned up in an outfit to match.

 

I wish you could see the rainbow in this photo.

I wish you could see the rainbow in this photo.

Unfortunately for us, the rainbow came before the rain. It started pelting and people grabbed dishes and papers and cameras and dashed onto the porch, laughing. A pot of crawfish was left boiling on the cooker, just like Pompeii.

Everyone wound up a little soggy

Everyone wound up a little soggy.

Some brave souls went out in the rain to bring in the keg, and we finished it before dark. Some folks stayed out on the porch, drinking and watching the clouds, some sat in the living room, chatting, and others shucked crawfish in the kitchen, making a dent in the not inconsiderable bounty in the bottom of a fortuitously rescued cooler.

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Eventually, everyone went home. We stayed up for a while, talking to friends from afar who came down to stay with us for the weekend, then crapped out, absolutely exhausted.

Sunday Night:

We spent Sunday recuperating and tidying up the sodden and abandoned yard. A red velvet cake, soaked in the sudden shower, had bled all over the table, and we discovered a pot of crawfish still on the cooker. In the evening, we ran to town for Game of Thrones and Pizza Night, a Marianna Sunday tradition.

We packed our friends in the back and rolled up to the park for a pre-dinner walk.

We packed our friends in the back and rolled up to the park for a pre-dinner walk.

Can an Arkansas experience be complete without a little wind in your hair?

Can an Arkansas experience be complete without a little wind in your hair?

The pizza bros did it again: yet another delicious Sunday night dinner to fortify us through our journey to Westeros.

The pizza bros did it again: yet another delicious Sunday night dinner to fortify us through our journey to Westeros.

On the way home, I rode in the back with Sarah and watched the indecisive clouds skid back and forth over the silver treetops. We stopped for a swim under the star-littered, rain-laden night sky and dried off as best we could in the humid night, watching the fireflies glitter in the fields along our dirt road. It’s the best show on earth, folks.

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My New Hat

Last night I got into bed, all ready to have an early night. Sean was just about to climb in with me, but he heard something out front.

“Chunky’s on the porch. I’m going for it”
“If you get him, what are you gonna do with him?”
“he’ll be too blown apart. I’ll just throw him away. It’d be a different story if we could get any .22 bullets.”

From bed, I heard that shotgun noise (ch-chk), then a while later, BOOM. Sean came back inside.

“It was a clean kill. I kinda feel like I should do something with it”
“But you said —”
“I’d feel bad”
“okay. Let me get dressed”

five minutes later I was kneeling on a tarp in the middle of my kitchen floor, helping Sean process a raccoon. The entry wound was small, just the size of a quarter. The sternum was shattered and the lungs were full of shot. Chunky didn’t suffer, and most of the meat and fur was in good condition.

I’ll be honest. Sean and I are amateurs when it comes to this stuff. I’m sure any of my students could have gutted and skinned this thing faster than we did, but we’re learning, and at least we have the gumption to try.

Sean froze the head separately for me. When I get home tonight, I’m going to thaw out the hide and scrape it, then wash it and tack it to a board to dry. When it’s dry, I’ll try my hand at brain-tanning. If all goes well, I’m going to try to make Chunky into a hat. We messed up the tail a little, but it’s a first try, and skinning a tail isn’t easy. The head skinned out nicely though.

Raccoon is edible, though my students don’t recommend eating it in the summer. I need to do more homework on that subject before I make a decision. Right now, I don’t know whether we’ll eat it. If we don’t, it’ll go to the chickens, circle-of-life-style. We don’t kill for sport, but to control pests, and we try to make sure that every part is used somehow. We even saved the Arkansas toothpick.

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Time to Bring Home the Bacon

Last year, we were a little more on the ball when it came to purchasing feeder pigs. We tracked craigslist for a while, made some phone calls, and finally reserved our pigs a few weeks in advance. We didn’t yet have a truck, so we borrowed a dog carrier from a neighbor and drove the three stinky little critters home in the back seat of the Nissan. We had to ride the whole way with the windows rolled down to keep from gagging on the stink.
When buying feeder pigs, it’s important to get healthy animals from a knowledgeable, competent source. If they aren’t healthy as piglets, they’ll grow more slowly and convert feed to bacon less efficiently. Meat from intact males can have what’s called boar taint. I’ve never tasted it, but it’s not supposed to be delicious. If you don’t want to deal with castrating your own, ask for cut males. Last year we purchased two barrows and a gilt. Barrows are cut males, and a gilt is a female who has never had a litter. They were part China-Poland and part something else.
At that time, our chickens were only a few weeks old and still lived in a Rubbermaid tub in the living room. We brought the pigs home and locked them in the chicken house overnight to get them used to their new home. In the morning, we let them romp in the fenced chicken yard. I remember flipping out the first time we saw one snurfling in the dirt with its little spade face. We had set up the electric fence just inside the chicken yard fence to train them to the electric wire. With the fence set up this way, if they ran through the electric fence, they’d hit a real fence and have to turn back. Pigs are very smart, and these learned quickly. They’d bump the fence with their sensitive snouts, squeal, and back off. A week or so later, we put them out on the site of our future garden with nothing but the electric fence to keep them in. After one mishap (which I described here) they were fine. By the summer, our pigs wouldn’t cross a single strand of electric fence lying on the ground unless they were in a panic.
The first of last year’s pigs, BigUn, was slaughtered for a whole hog barbecue to celebrate the end of the school year. A neighbor helped us butcher the hog, which was a tremendous learning experience for us and for everyone who came to be a part of the festivities. It was fun to watch the fascination and revulsion take turns on our friends faces as they passed around a warm heart. We shared that meat with our community, and I had a ton of delicious pulled pork in the freezer to get me through the summer. The second hog, Raccoon Eyes, we butchered with the help of some visiting friends and the internet. That process was much longer and more challenging for us, since there was no one experienced there to help. We ground meat for almost two days straight to make several kinds of sausage.
Finally, there was Pinkie.

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Pinkalink was the last man standing, and he must have weighed over three-hundred pounds. We hoisted him with a rope slung over a tree limb and tied to a comealong attached to our truck. It looked like the truck might come off the ground before Pinkie did. Butchering Pinkie was a slow and careful process because this was the pig we had saved for cuts: porkchops, shoulder roasts, bacon, etc. Sean actually cured the bacon and hams himself. We saved lard from Pinkie (he had plenty) and are still rendering that to make soap.

chunking the frozen lard

chunking the frozen lard

Sean is grating the lard and rendering it in the two pots.

Sean is grating the lard and rendering it in the two pots.

Sean made a lard-pig!

Sean made a lard-pig!

soap! We have to let it cure for a few weeks, or the lye could make it too harsh to use.

soap! We have to let it cure for a few weeks, or the lye could make it too harsh to use.

Slaughtering Pinkie was an emotional experience. As I’ve said, pigs are intelligent. They are also sensitive. With Raccoon Eyes gone, Pinkie was less active. He would lie in his shelter all day, only getting up when someone would come to feed him. When someone was down there, he’d be all exuberance, running up to scratch against your legs, sometimes even rolling over to get his bacon scratched. It looked a lot like loneliness, and it left perfect muddy snout prints on my legs every time I’d go into the pasture. Pinkie was really attached to Sean and would roll right over when Sean walked up like nothing so much as a hugely oversized pink puppy. When it came time to shoot him, Sean put the .22 right against his skull and Pinkie didn’t budge. He went down completely relaxed and easy, which is what I would want for any animal in my care. I cried over that pig for two days, but I was also proud of what we had accomplished.

Sean and Jesse proudly display the New Years roast.

Sean and Jesse proudly display the New Years roast.

At New Years, when we ate that roast, our friends shared a perfect Wendell Berry poem, For the Hog Killing.

For the Hog Killing

Let them stand still for the bullet, and stare the
shooter in the eye,
let them die while the sound of the shot is in the
air, let them die as they fall,
let the jugular blood spring hot to the knife, let
its freshet be full,
let this day begin again the change of hogs into
people, not the other way around,
for today we celebrate again our lives’ wedding
with the world,
for by our hunger, by this provisioning, we renew
the bond.

—Wendell Berry

Raising my own meat is important to me. With a very few exceptions, I don’t eat meat that wasn’t raised with respect for the animal, the planet and people anymore, and in this part of Arkansas that pretty much means raising it ourselves. Sean was a vegetarian for years before he had the revelation of “happy meat.” I became aware of the issues around meat around that same time and transitioned to a mostly vegetarian diet with what happy meat we could afford when we could afford it. If you’re interested in hearing more about why we eat the meat we eat, ask me! I’m happy to talk or write about it all day, but this post is about our new piggies, so I’m cutting myself short.
This year, we didn’t reserve pigs ahead of time and actually had a pretty hard time finding any. Nobody nearby has feeder pigs for sale, or if they do, they aren’t posting on craigslist. We wound up getting three Hereford gilts from a man a few hours north of us who is selling off his stock in preparation for a move. Since the truck isn’t working this week, we had to drive them home in the dog carrier again. My most recent experience with pigs was with Pinkie, so it was impossible to believe that three pigs could fit in such a small carrier. We hopped out of the car, put on our gloves and the man walked us over to his pig enclosure. He had a network of very clean pens on a concrete slab, and we got to see a few young Hereford hogs before we got distracted by our little squealers. When you pick up a baby pig, it screams bloody murder and releases any solids or liquids it can come up with all over you. Sean got a nice poop splatter down the front of his pants. The man we bought them from carried one by its back leg to avoid this. I wasn’t sure I could pull that off without hurting it or dropping it, so I carried my pig under my arm and it relaxed a little and stopped screaming, which surprised me and confirmed the rumor that Herefords are easygoing pigs. I also managed to come out clean. When we got them into the crate, they hardly took up half the space.
We got home around ten thirty last night, and put them out in their temporary enclosure. For shelter they have the a-frame structure that Sean built for our pigs last summer, and we’re, once again, using the chicken fence as a backup against the electric fence’s failure, though we made the electric fenced area about half the size of the chicken yard, and it doesn’t include the chicken house this year, so our birds still have someplace to scratch.

You can see the electric fence/chicken fence arrangement here, as well as the pig shelter.

You can see the electric fence/chicken fence arrangement here, as well as the pig shelter.

When we set them down, they stood still for a moment, then scampered away from us. It’ll take a few weeks before they’re really friendly, but these babies are already less skittish than the last bunch. They bumped the fence a few times (squeeeek!) and then stopped, already miles ahead of what we expected. They immediately began rooting in the mud, searching for tasty grubs and shoots and roots to eat. We went to bed listening to their soft little snores through the bedroom window last night. They are awfully cute when they’re this little.
Our freezer is still nearly full of homegrown pork, as well as turkey and chicken, so we won’t be raising these girls to full size. IMG_1629
One of them is for the end-of-year barbecue, and a second is for Sean to practice his charcuterie on. The third is for a friend, who has asked us to raise a pig for her family. I’m thrilled that we have the opportunity to share what we do here. It’s all very well for us to try to eat sustainably, but the two of us aren’t that big a deal in the grand scheme of things. Spreading the skills and desire to raise and eat good meat is what it’s all about, and our friend is going to leave here knowing how to turn a hog into porkchops!
It’s time to get up and get ready for the week. I don’t want to: I can see the little piggens snurfling in the corner of their pen from bed, and I can hear them grunting and occasionally squeaking as they bump the fence. What more could I want? But there’s gardening to do, and, as you can imagine, laundry. It’s a beautiful day for it. I’d best put on my work pants and get busy.
Here they are! I saved the best for last.
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