November 22nd, 2009

The Cauldron Beneath the Kitchen

The old house has a thirty inch cast iron cauldron in the basement under the kitchen. The iron cauldron sits in a concrete wood burning stove that feeds into the old kitchen chimney.

The cauldorn beneath the kitchen

The cauldorn beneath the kitchen

It looks like one of the big pots cartoon cannibals used to cook pith helmeted explorers. One section of the basement was a butcher shop where my grandparents made summer sausage, hams, and bacon for the smokehouse. My grandmother used the cauldron to render pork fat into lard. My grandfather was the family butcher and he died when I was eight. By the time I was seven, my tobacco chewing Grandpa was too sick with colon cancer to butcher pigs and the cauldron was never used again.

Hog butchering was an event that required heavy labor and community involvement. There were always relatives and neighbors around for butchering and they all went home with their share of pig liver, brains, and sweetbreads. Grandpa slaughtered the pigs outside the pig barn, under the pear tree planted for him by his father, Gottlieb. The killing itself was done with a single fatal stroke of a sledge hammer. Grandpa was a calm quick workman who brooked no drama. The pig died before anyone realized what was happening. Then the men used a block and tackle to hoist the pig by its hind legs into the pear tree and Grandpa would slit the pig’s throat to drain the blood. He kept a special knife that was pointed and sharp on two edges like a dagger. Grandma caught the blood in a dishpan and saved it for making blood sausage.

Long before killing the pig, Grandpa would start a fire under the scalding tank, which was like a watering trough with a firebox underneath and a short brick chimney at one end. When the water was hot, the men lowered the pig into the trough and scraped off the bristles loosened by the hot water.  The scrapers, last used in 1956, are still nestled in the fork of Gottlieb’s pear tree.

The next step was removing the offal and trimmings. Then the carcass, suspended above passing scavengers, would hang high in the pear tree overnight to cool.

The next day, a low fire was started early in the morning beneath the cauldron in the basement and Grandpa would begin cutting up the pig with a meat saw, butcher knife and cleaver. The fat was cut in thumb size pieces that went into the rendering cauldron and permeated the house with the odor of mellow bacon. When the fat was rendered into lard, Grandma would ladle it out into crocks which she stored in her pantry. At the bottom of the cauldron were the cracklings, the last crisp bits of meat. Most of the cracklings went into sausage, although for a few days after butchering Grandma would fry up cracklings with scrambled eggs and serve them with molasses or maple syrup and sliced of toasted home made bread for breakfast before the men went out to clean barns and tend the cattle after milking. In those days, calories and fats were something you tried to get enough of, sometime successfully, not avoid.

Grandpa and Grandma never froze the pork they butchered themselves. Everything was made into sausage or was salted and every thing was suspended on poles in the top of the smoke house. Grandpa keep a small smoky fire burning in the smoke house for weeks until he declared everything cured and let the fire go out, sometime after Christmas. The sausages, hams, and bacon stayed in the smokehouse until they were eaten.

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