Smoke Houses: Fading Icons of Southern Life
Let’s Get Really Honest
about my topic: smoke houses. First, let me tell you what a smoke house is. This is a cute little building on the property of most rural southern homeowners in the 1940’s throughout the 1950’s, and I say this in hopes that my years are close to be correct. A smoke house was used as a means to smoke choice cuts of meat carved from slaughtered pigs and smoked for hours (sometimes days) in order to save them for the winter and so they will not go bad.
A smoke house is NOT a cute little place for the children of said southern homeowners to hang-out, learn cussing, and sneak a smoke or two of home-grown tobacco that was also chewed. Was this a rite of passage for these southern young men? Quite possibly. With one exception: young southern belles were not allowed to enjoy a smoke with the young bucks because the southern young ladies were conditioned to work in the house—cooking, cleaning, having kids, and taking care of their husbands. But when “hog killing” rolled around, the entire family, girls and all, worked as a team to slaughter hogs and let the men hang it in their smoke houses to slowly smoke for days so the family (many times a big family) could have meat to have in the bitter cold days ahead.
Don’t be deceived. Smoke houses were far from nice, neat, and cuddly. They were unkept (thanks to all of the wood chips that came from hickory wood used to smoke the meat) as well as the inside of a smoke house was swept from time-to-time, but not good enough to be photographed in Ladies Home Journal, as the smoke house was used each winter like clockwork And as the proper ladies know, the men who used smoke houses were not that concerned about a smoke house being picture-perfect and clean enough to one could eat lunch from its floor. There was many times when the blood of a slaughtered hog would be found on the outside walls of the smoke house when “hog killings” were held each winter time.
Now you have heard (in this hub) about how the southern menfolk slaughtered the hogs, dressed the choice pork parts to be smoked, and how they kept the fires of hickory chips going to create that thick smoke that made the meat so delicious, so what did the farmer’s children do during this time? To be brutally-honest, they helped clean-up the intestines of the slaughtered hogs and disposed of them somewhere outside of the yard as well as help the women (and girls) to carry meat from the tables where the hog meat was being collected to be smoked, so a hog-killing was not a one-man show. No. The early southern family helped with filling their smoke house with tasty pork to enjoy in the cold winter ahead.
In Light of History Past
our rural, country-based smoke houses served the meat smokers and storing meats, for communities and neighborhoods of people who depended on being fed from their farmlands. And it worked fine. Food preservation was a yearly-event by salt curing and extended cold smoking for two weeks or longer. Smoke houses were always secured to keep animals and robbers from stealing the valuable pork products. In the smoke house, the meat is hung to keep it out of reach from of varmints and robbers.
Prior to the wides-spread ease of freezers, meat was kept by heavy salting. Hogs were killed after the onset of cold weather (late January and mid-February), and hams and other pork items were salted and hung up on poles near the roof, so the meats could last into the following summer.The smoke house was not at first, a family-convenience, but slowly-evolved into a family-need.
Smoke houses were not built according to a cookie cutter pattern. In fact, there were smoke houses of all design, types of wood, and the smoke filter system. Some early historians believe that day smoked meat started in Turkey and brought to Romania by seizing Turkish armies. Sharp-thinking Romanian Jewish butchers helped to evolve the smoke-curing method of resulting in exquisitely tender delicacies The real mystery here is that it is near-impossible to securely nail-down the exact year or nation in which smoke houses were first invented or used.
I Remember Well
many cold and painful mornings that for me were dreaded when the sun came up because my dad knew the time well, it was “hog killing” time. And to be totally-honest, he was the most-excited of all the family because although he did most of the work, his spirit was undaunted. Many is the time that we could hear him whistling as the “hog killing” day unfolded. You might think that “hog kllings” were a one day thing, but the truth is, depending on the size of the family to be fed, that told the farmer how many hogs to buy and raise to slaughter and raise to take care of his family when ti came to eating time.
One of the painful memories about “hog killings,”and smoke houses, were how I would always grow attached to my dad’s hogs that he bought as small as possible, so we could feed them, watch them grow up only to hear dad’s .22 rifle take the lives of his hogs and begin that sad time we called “slaughter time,” and us being hungry was instantly-forgotten. On a personal note, I could not help appreciating all types of animals when I was growing up. Cats, dogs, even the hogs. They were my good friends.
Now across the landscape of the rural sections of the south, you might be able to see an original smoke house or two still standing on a family’s once-thriving farm and they decided to keep the smoke house as a wonderful way to preserve one of their favorite memories: the smoke house.
I have to agree.
May 7, 2020______________________________________________________
© 2020 Kenneth Avery