History surrounds us. I live in an area that until about 40 years ago was completely rural. Today, little remains to even hint at the area's rural origins. Subdivisions, strip malls, convenience stores and chain restaurants line the multi-lane state highway that once was a gravel road.
The remnants of two farm homesteads are located near my neighborhood. The highway crisscrosses the properties, allowing glimpses of life as it existed for many generations. Rusting barns, clapboard houses, and deteriorating outbuildings tell of a time when people lived fairly sulf-sufficient lives off the land and their livestock. Day in, day out, a steady stream of commuters passes these properties, but few people probably notice them.
Commuter traffic james happen regularly near the homesteads. While sitting in standstill traffic, I've tried to figure out how some of the outbuildings were once used. Chicken coops, implement sheds and storage barns are obvious. But each homestead also has a small structure with a high-pitched roof. They're too big and not the usual shape of outhouses. One day it occurred to me that these were smokehouses -- small structures once used for curing and storing meat.
In the days before refrigeration, preserving meat took some forethought and planning. Smokehouses were an important part of working farms. Hog-killing time in the cold days of late fall was as much a part of rural life each year as planting seeds and harvesting crops. If families wanted to eat pork, they raised and slaughtered hogs. Cuts of meat, like hams, that weren't going to be consumed immediately were packed in a large container of salt for about six weeks to remove the meat's moisture and to aid in preservation.
The meat was then hung from nails, poles and rafters inside a small square or rectangular building called a smokehouse. A low, smoldering fire using green wood or the wood from fruit trees was started inside the house and maintained for several weeks, further preserving the meat. The meat remained hanging in the smokehouse until it was sufficiently "cured" and ready for consumption -- usually about two years. Hanging the meat overhead also helped protect it from insects and hungry animals.
In the late 1990s, my parents restored Mom's ancestral home and farm in rural Tennessee. Seven generations of her family have lived on and worked the land. One of the outbuildings located near the main house is a smokehouse. There are no records indicating the building's age, but the construction and door date to the 1800s.
The smokehouse's exterior clapboards have been restored and repainted, but inside it remains rustic and primitive, with a dirt floor where fires were once built. The air inside still smells smoky. Beams and rafters bear traces of creosote from years of exposure to smoldering fires. Square-head nails and twisted segments of wire line the rafters, signs that hams once hung there.
The little smokehouse hasn't been used to cure meats since the mid-twentieth century when my grandfather lived on the property. Chances are it, as well as the two smokehouses located near my Midwestern subdivision, will never again contain meat and smoldering fires.
A few commercial operations around the United States still cure meats using the old-fashioned smokehouse method. Their products are delicious, but somewhat expensive. For the most part, curing meats at home for family consumption is a lost art. Today, most folks get their meats from a grocery or market, not a smokehouse in the back yard.
Meat-curing techniques, like recipes for favorite family foods, were passed down from generation to generation. Both of my grandfathers enjoyed reputations in their respective communities for curing outstanding country hams.
A few years ago, we discovered my maternal grandfather's hand-written recipe for pork sausage. Prior to "hog-killing time," my grandmother sewed long strips of fabric together on her foot-powered sewing machine to form cloth sacks for the sausage. Meat was pushed through a hand-cranked grinder, and then mixed with spices and stuffed into the long bags. The sausage was then stored in the smokehouse. I know I'll never use this recipe, but reading through it gives me a sense of connection to Grandpa, his father, his grandfather and other faceless ancestors I'll never know. It's a tiny part of history. Indeed, history surrounds us. We just have to open our eyes and look for it.
Here's Grandpa's sausage recipe:
16 lbs. ground pork meat
5 tablespoons salt
3 tablespoons ground red pepper
3 tablespoons Watkins' black pepper
3 tablespoons sage
3 tablespoons sugar
Mix the spices together and sprinkle over the ground pork. Work it in with hands, then sack the mixture and hang it up in a cool place.