Sunday, March 23, 2008

Swine Lake, Part I

Swine Lake, Part I
©Ken Harris, 2006

Sometime in the 1970s my brother-in-law, Fritz, his wife Ruth, and their three hopeful daughters, Katrina, Leslie and Holly (see, moved from the fair sized Southern California community of Thousand Oaks to five acres outside of Orosi, a small town in the Central Valley. Even by Central Valley standards Orosi was something of an armpit. (But that was almost 40 years ago. Maybe it has anatomically improved itself by now.)

In Thousand Oaks Fritz had worked as a computer engineer, but they didn’t have any of those in Orosi, so he accepted employment with the local irrigation district. The move made sense in certain ways. The Sixties were not too far in the past, and there was still a healthy “back to the land” movement afoot in the nation. Mother Earth News had a large circulation.

The land that the Heyser family moved back to was very sandy, great for walnuts, citrus and grapes. Fritz decided to raise pigs. We, the rest of the family, could buy the pigs, and we did so gladly. Fritz’s handraised pork was some of the best I have ever tasted anywhere.

But the pig project did not come easily. For one thing, pigs are not among God’s most gracious creatures. They are stubborn, insensitive, immune to pain and very intelligent, an unfortunate combination of traits. Raising pigs is full of surprises, few of them pleasant.

Fritz put his pig pen next to an outbuilding under a huge walnut tree. Later he discovered that pigs are almost immortal save for human intervention, but don’t fare especially well on sandy soil under walnut trees. Be that as it may, the pigs all lived long enough to slaughter, butcher and eat.

For those uninitiated into the genteel mysteries of porcine processing, slaughtering consists of killing, drawing, skinning and quartering the animal. Butchering is the art of taking pig quarters and cutting them into hams, chops and sausage meat. Not to forget the bacon. Never forget the bacon. After the pig has been reduced to parts, he is wrapped, frozen and, voila, the butchering she is done.

Since anyone with some tools and a misplaced faith in their own competence can slaughter, we did that for ourselves. The butchering we left to others who knew what they were doing.

Slaughter time always seemed to coincide with tule fog time. That is another matter that requires some explanation. The Central Valley of California extends from a little north of Redding to a little south of Bakersfield, a matter of almost 500 miles in length. It is almost 100 miles wide. Several rivers run through the valley and eventually drain into the Pacific Ocean by way of San Francisco Bay.

The Central Valley is great for plants, but animals have some problems with it. For one thing, it is very hot in the summer. Then in the spring, when other places find flowers, the Central Valley displays tule fog. The entire valley can be submerged in a huge cloud of dense fog, 24/7, for months. Imagine a black and white photo of clam chowder in a white bowl. You see vague, murky things that you can only hope are benign. And that’s daytime. Visibility can run from quarter of a mile to your hand in front of your face. At night visibility can drop from the hand in front of your face to nothing at all. Day time temperatures may rise to 37°F. Nights plummet to 33°F. This weather can last for weeks. After a while, people just feel like killing pigs.

Fritz had obtained some U.S. Department of Agriculture pamphlets on hog slaughtering. He had lots of experience with deer, but hogs just might be different. The pamphlet advised the prospective hog slaughterer to slice the pig’s skin and cut the flesh of his hind legs near the trotters so hooks can be inserted between the Achilles tendon and the leg bone. Then, using the hoist you have thoughtfully provided beforehand, lift the pig until he is suspended upside down free of the earth. Then cut its throat and the pig will bleed freely. As a final precaution, the U.S.D.A. advised against upsetting the pig, since he was going to be alive while you were doing all this.

We always killed the pigs before we suspended them upside down. They didn’t get so upset that way.

Slaughtering was also a social event. Sometimes we had coffee and doughnuts before and celebratory wine after.

We shot the hogs with a .38 caliber hand gun, slit their throats, suspended them, and then skinned them. This latter process turned out to be laborious because pigs are firmly attached to their hides and do not easily relinquish them, even in death. But we cut and pulled and tore and tugged and, in due course, had a vaguely pig-shaped blob of lard. It looked like modern art. And standing in a ring proudly admiring the greasy creation, stood a ring of artistes, drinking a celebratory libation. The visibility was still 10 feet in front of your nose and the temperature was up to 37°F. Killing pigs and drinking wine. Life is good.

On occasion the Heysers even had a hog rendering. Fritz would start a fire under a cauldron, and how often do you see one of those except in a production of Macbeth. Bit by bit pieces of lard would be added to the cauldron until it was filled with liquefied lard. Then we could all skewer bread cubes and cook them in pig fat and drink more wine. Fritz and Ruth invited the neighbors in. It was the social event of the Orosi Season.

One other thing should be mentioned about slaughtering pigs at Fritz’s. It was wet. Since the fog never lifted, things that got wet stayed that way for a long time. The pigs’ pen attained an ectoplasmic state in just a very few weeks. At those times we called it Swine Lake.

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