Monday, January 18, 2010

This Woman's Place is (Sometimes) in the Kitchen

When we arrived in the Valley in 1978, families still held butchering days. Back then, I never would have thought the Austins would have a butchering day. But recently—ugh—we did.

“Butchering” was when a whole family—brothers, sisters, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and children—set aside a day to kill hogs, butcher, process and package them. I attended my first one in 1979.

When we arrived in mid-morning, the butchering was well underway. Several long tables were piled with raw meat and entrails. Huge black kettles hung from tripods, bubbling over a blazing fire. Everyone was busy. Cutting, slicing, cooking, stuffing, stirring, scraping, talking, teasing. They knew what they were doing.

The husband and I were put to work immediately. Someone shuttled me into the kitchen to help the women cook dinner. The woman in charge told me to make mashed potatoes. A bit sexist, I thought. I’d rather be outdoors with the men.

The potatoes had already been peeled, cut and boiled before I got there, so my job was to mash them and get them into the serving bowl. This I was glad to do, because I made really good mashed potatoes. When the husband and I got married, he hated mashed potatoes. Then he tasted mine and was hooked.

But nobody was interested in my Yankee way of making mashed potatoes. The woman in charge supervised me every step of the way. I’d always whipped the potatoes by hand, but she handed me electric beaters. After beating them for a while, I thought they were done, but the mistress told me to “keep beating ‘em.” Every time I stopped she said this. My first lesson in Southern cooking.

When butchering a hog, every part of the body is used. The intestines are used for sausage casings. One black pot was filled with fat. It was boiled until it separated into liquid lard and cracklings. Another pot was for all the otherwise unusable parts, along with white corn meal and seasonings, to make pon hoss.

If you grew up with butchering, the tasks involved may seem routine. But for me, it was gross. In December, we butchered 40 roosters over two days.

Thanks to a neighbor, one aspect of the process was made easier. Dude, who has a butcher shop, loaned us his de-feathering machine.

The husband set up the process: He swung the chickens around, hung them by the feet on a wire and, with pruning shears, clipped off their heads. Then he dipped them in boiling water, a huge pot of it on our gas grill. Patrick, our grandson, had the de-feathering job. My job was to cut off the feet and neckbone and gut them.

The first day was extremely difficult for me. It was cold. A member of our family was going through a crisis, and I was feeling anxious and stressed. As the husband showed me how to pull out the guts, I felt sick.

When I began handling my first chicken, it made a noise. The voicebox was still intact. I pushed down on the chest again. The noise was pretty loud.

I didn’t want to hear this again, so the first thing I did with every chicken was to cut that thing out. Then I cut off the neckbone and feet. Doing this on a chicken that was alive 10 minutes ago is not easy. It kept sliding around.

Then I had to cut out the anus, making a wide hole. I put my (rubber-gloved) hand into this hole and reached all the way up to its neck to pull out its innards. I held the bird over a bucket and looked away, crying. It’s stuff like this that make a real woman out of you. Not.

After I’d done five chickens, the husband was done killing, so he took over my job. My new job was to take the butchered birds into the kitchen for fine tuning. I pulled out stray feathers and guts, rinsed them and packed them into freezer bags.

My kitchen was warm and dry. I put on some music.

Over the past 30 years of country living, I’ve learned to do many things I did not grow up with. I’ve split and stacked cords of firewood. I’ve nursed sick calves back to health. I’ve hauled buckets of manure. I’ve done all these things without complaining.

But butchering? Only if I can stay in the kitchen.