For years we raised pigs—not breeding them but buying two young pigs in the spring, feeding them through the summer and fall, and butchering them when the weather turned freezing—usually around January. When we moved to Madison County in 1975, this was a common feature of the local economy. Most of our neighbors raised feeder pigs; many cured the hams and sold them, keeping the tenderloin, side meat, backbone, and making sausage from the shoulders and trimmings for home consumption. Feeding pigs was a good way to use up extra milk or buttermilk (and when you keep a milk cow, as was another common practice that we adopted, there’s lots of extra.) It was also a fine way to dispose of kitchen scraps.
Most farms back then had a little wooden building that looked like an outhouse (most farms also had an outhouse) but was a ‘meathouse’, a place to smoke or cure hams and bacon. Clifford, our local mentor memorably once said of Richard Nixon, “I wouldn’t trust that man in my meathouse with a muzzle.”
When we had just moved here, Clifford assumed we would need a milk cow, a pair of feeder pigs, and a team of mules, and he made sure that we got these necessary adjuncts to rural life. He taught us how to milk; his wife Louise taught me to make butter. He helped John learn how to plow with Pete and Molly, our red mules. And he showed John all about butchering pigs (the worst part is shooting the pigs but that’s quick and the rest is very messy but fascinating—all those guts fit in there so neatly and there’s no way you could ever put them back.)
As the years went, Clifford and Louise moved away but pig butchering remained a social event of the winter season—usually Super Bowl weekend. On Saturday, John and a couple of his friends would do in the pigs, scrape off all the bristles, and cut the carcasses into quarters, leaving the meat in the barn to cool overnight.
Saturday always involved major amounts of wood fire, boiling water, and Wild Turkey or Famous Grouse. All I had to do was cook a really good lunch for the guys and maybe cut up the liver and kidneys to freeze for catfood. And render the lard. If I’d followed the mountain tradition, I’d have made liver mush and cooked the brains and boiled the heads for souse. But John assured me he really didn’t want any part of that tradition.
The next day, usually Super Bowl Sunday, involved reducing the quarter sections into slices, ribs, backbone, and sausage, then wrapping and labelling same for the freezer. The guys would set up our big maple dining table so they could watch the pregame stuff while they dissected the joints, and I would be in the kitchen, grinding meat for sausage and wrapping pork parts.
All the while out boys were growing up, we did this—the milk cow and the pigs. But once the boys were off to school, keeping a cow and raising pigs didn’t make economic sense. So, we stepped back from the traditional way of life—as had many of our neighbors.
But that’s not what this story is about. This story is about the very last time we bought pigs.
All the old farmers we used to buy pigs from had died or quit keeping breeding sows, and there were no young pigs to be had in our area. Finally, we saw an ad in the Asheville newspaper for feeder pigs, called the number, and got directions to a place on the other side of Asheville. Off we went in John’s pickup with a big metal dog crate in the back to put the piglets in.
The directions led us to a semi-rural area with nice tidy home, occupied, it seemed, mainly by Black families, but we couldn’t find the exact place we needed. At last a man we asked directed us to a nearby clump of woods where a derelict house trailer sat.
We got out and warily approached the trailer. It was surrounded by rusting washing machines, ruined upholstered furniture, and other assorted junk. It really didn’t look as if anyone could live there but as we stood, waiting for inspiration, the sagging trailer door swung open and the fattest man I’d ever seen leaned out. He was unshaven and his grimy white undershirt failed miserably to reach his greasy trousers, leaving a great bulge of pale belly flesh lolling free.
“What you want?” He eyed us suspiciously and we explained that we were looking to buy some pigs.
“They ain’t my pigs—they belong to a colored feller lives over there—up the road a ways. He’s at work now. You uns just go on back there and get you two then come back and pay me. I can’t get around so good so I can’t take you up there but you just follow that road there through the trees and you’ll find ‘em.”
The road through the trees was a pair of deep ruts—so deep that it was impossible to get out of them, impossible to avoid running over the rumpled carcass of a dead speckled rooster that lay in one track. Amongst the trees were several rusted-out school buses, more old appliances, some puzzling blue plastic stuff, and other things, possibly nuclear waste, that we really didn’t want to investigate.
At the end of the rut road was a series of pens, some with flimsy tarpaper roofs, and mostly constructed of old pallets that were held together with rusty wire. The little pigs—about sixteen of them—were in the leftmost pen and we peered into the gloom to see a scrum of black piglets, milling about in at least an inch of pig shit. (Pig shit, if you didn’t know, is about the most obnoxious and long-lasting smell there is. Cow manure is pleasant in comparison.)
But the piglets looked healthy, so John (my her0) crawled in through the low door to attempt to catch a pig, trying to ignore the slippery, stinking floor and to concentrate on the two largest pigs, about thirty pounders. He made a desperate grab and snagged a candidate by the hind legs, the accepted method for dealing with small pigs. Young pig squealed bloody murder and in the next pen, The Mother Pig from Hell reared up her six-hundred-pound bulk, put her front trotters on the flimsy boards separating her from John, and glared at him over the partition. She was solid black, red-eyed, and frothing (literally) at the mouth. Which mouth, by the way, displayed wicked yellow two-inch ‘tushes’ (tusks) on either side.
Mama didn’t like what John was doing with her baby and the pen shook with her disapproval. John, thinking quickly, opened the pen door and thrust the little pig out at me—but I had jumped up in the back of the truck at the first sight of Mama.
“Take the goddam pig!” he hollered. I did and he dived back in with the piglets, grabbed a random second pig, and was back in the truck in about thirty seconds, keeping a keen eye on the swaying and totally inadequate wall between himself and the Black Sow of Doom.
Piglets secured in the crate, we backed back down the ruts, over the rooster and past the appliance graveyard, paid the very fat fella, and headed home.
“Well,” I said, wiping the pig shit off my hands onto my jeans, “that’s as much fun as I’ve had in quite a while.”
“I’m just glad,” said John, “that your mother can’t see us now.”
On the way home we stopped at a little country store to get some cold drinks. John said I should go in as I had less shit on me, which was true.
As I paid for our cans of Coke, I became aware that all the grubby, tobacco-spitting old men lounging around the place were looking at me real strange and sniffing meaningfully in my direction.
I grinned as I climbed back into the truck. It had been a day to remember.