I may be wrong about this (I have been wrong at least a time or two before since starting this column in 1979), but unless I’m badly mistaken we have not yet had the Indian summer of 2016.
The reason I say this is because I grew up being told that Indian summer didn’t happen until we’d had the first freezing frosts and all the leaves had fallen. I don’t believe that happened anywhere in Kentucky before the weekend of November 12-13. I’m sure someone will happily correct me if I’m wrong.
By the way, I don’t mind — most of the time — when readers remind me that I was wrong about something, but do be careful if you throw back in my face how wrong I was about The Donald’s ascension to power. And do rest assured that I’ll be keeping a close eye on that one.
In the meantime, when I was growing up on Blair Branch in my preteen years you could count on one hand the number of freezers (“deep-freezes,” they were called) that were not located in one of our three grocery stores. By the time I finished 8th grade, we were down to two stores. Today there’s not even one store.
In those days, most families fattened at least one or two hogs to get them through the winter and stored the meat in an outbuilding, commonly called a “smokehouse,” even though I can’t recall ever seeing any smoke in one unless it was coming off a lit Camel or Lucky Strike cigarette.
I was told that, at one point in time, my grandpa (Pap) had sealed up the cracks in our old “smokehouse” and that he had actually made some attempts at using woods smoke to season meat and keep it from spoiling. Whether or not he was ever successful in that endeavor is still a mystery.
By the time I came along, it had been a bunch of years since anyone on Blair Branch had actually used their “smokehouse” to do any smoking that did not involve a cigarette or pipe tobacco. Much easier and tastier, they surmised, to wait until the first hard freeze after the end of Indian summer to kill your hogs and then let 50 pounds of salt and winter weather keep the pork from spoiling. Kill a hog before Indian summer and you ran the risk of that little warm spell causing your fresh meat to rot instead of curing out.
As I mentioned earlier, very few people had a “deep-freeze,” and that little ice-cold compartment at the top of their refrigerators would not come close to storing even one ham or pork shoulder. In case you’ve never noticed, a hog has a combination of four such appendages as well as numerous ribs, backbones for pork chops, and several other delicious body parts that had to be stored somewhere so that it could be used for sustenance throughout the months to come. That is why the weekend and days just before Thanksgiving on the Blair Branch of my youth included a flurry of hog killings.
I can remember helping slaughter hogs on Thanksgiving Day and every other day of that long weekend, because it was the first one we’d had since an unseasonably long Indian summer or because it was the first few days miners had been able to take a break from shoveling coal long enough to take care of making their hogs a food source as opposed to oinkers that had to be fed large volumes of corn and table scraps twice a day.
A hog will, in fact, eat almost anything even though my brother, Keith (Keeter) maintains to this day (he is 65) that even a hog won’t eat a cucumber and that’s the reason he doesn’t care for them. Despite my brother’s strong conviction, I can almost guarantee you that a hog will eat cucumbers for supper if you didn’t feed it anything for breakfast and “cukes” are its only choice.
I can also say with some assurance and experience that your younger, non-farm children will lay off eating bacon if you make the mistake of telling them that it comes from dead pigs. I once made that mistake but somehow explained that it came off hogs — not pigs — and that seemed to make it okay to eat the stuff, even though we do still have one daughter, over 40, who is a staunch vegetarian to this day.
In the meantime, it has been well over three decades since Loretta and I last fattened a hog. And even then we had it trucked to a slaughterhouse, sliced into edible portions, or ground into sausage. We were not directly involved in the actual killing and the results never once saw the inside of a smokehouse. I’m not absolutely sure that made a lot of difference in the way it tasted, but sometimes I wonder.
I know for sure that I would have been a lot more thankful for it in the 1960s than I’m apt to be next Thursday.