A huge pig, a long day and a nourishing southern tradition

RIDGEVILLE, SC – It was 37 degrees at 4 a.m. in this small town about a 40-minute drive northwest of Charleston. Under dark February sk...


RIDGEVILLE, SC – It was 37 degrees at 4 a.m. in this small town about a 40-minute drive northwest of Charleston. Under dark February skies, a few men collected logs to start a fire in a wooded backyard.

Among their gruff voices, the grunts of a big black pig – a Red Wattle cross – could be heard from a nearby trailer. Within hours, the 650-pound animal would be serving Marvin Ross and his community, preserving a tradition that has lasted for generations.

Although not as common as they once were, pig slaughters are still opportunities for culinary and cultural preservation in many places. around the world. In the southern United States, they unite black people around a tradition that dates back to slavery, but even here these gatherings are disappearing.

“It creates a sense of community and family coming together,” said Mr. Ross, 38, owner of Particular pig farm in Dorchester, SC, and the organizer of this annual hog slaughter, once led by his grandfather Thomas Henry Ross.

“At the end of the day, we’re dividing the meat between the people who are there to give them something to bring back,” he said. “It’s a reminder to them that you don’t have to rely on grocery stores, and you can always go out and support yourself.”

Mr. Ross and two of his brothers, Jair and Jada, remember being outside with their grandfather on cold winter mornings, preparing to kill, deconstruct and devour a large pig. The family process has remained largely the same. Before that morning in mid-February, Marvin had selected one of his own pigs and locked it in a red trailer. As the sky melted into a serene light blue with hints of morning orange, the Ross brothers and their friends, all men, boiled water over a burning barrel.

Just after 9 a.m., the pig was shot in the head and then had its throat slit; the men watched the blood dripping from his neck. Although somewhat gruesome, the process allows the animal to die more quickly, thus sparing unnecessary suffering.

Several men helped move the pig from the trailer to a large mobile tub. There they poured boiling water over it. Adding lime to the water, they scraped the black hairs from the skin and threw it away. As the men worked with the huge pigs, a small and growing group of visitors arrived, some of whom grew up going to slaughter pigs in their own communities and others who were attending their first. The men made jokes and comments to lighten the workload and entertain their fascinated audience.

“It’s a slow process, but believe me, wait until you see the results,” Willis Spells said as he worked. “It’s like meat butter in your mouth!”

Once the men hoisted the pig, nose down, with a cable winch, Mr Willis grabbed his knife, carved the pig and began removing its internal organs.

Charles Young Sr., who has been a part of the processing team for about 25 years, said he and his family have long been part of the tradition, both for the community and for a deep appreciation of meat, from farm to table. .

“Believe it or not, it’s almost like a work of art,” he said, looking at the animal. “Everything must be in a systematic order.”

Adrian Miller, food scientist and author of “Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecuesaid hog slaughter is rooted in the southern United States.

“The hog slaughter or hog slaughter, as it was commonly known, was the high point of the agricultural calendar in the rural south,” Miller said. “It was a time when usually in the pre-war period on plantations several hundred pigs were killed at any one time, and the idea was to have enough meat to last the rest of the year. ‘year.”

During the ritual, carried out in autumn or winter before the flies returned, the slaughtered pig was decomposed. Cuts like ham and brisket would be kept in a smokehouse for long term use and some of the meat would be marinated. Large amounts of fat were retained for making soap and for cooking, and parts like chitlins, lungs, and liver were consumed almost immediately.

“These had to be processed and eaten very soon after, as those were the days before refrigeration,” Miller said.

In the Ross event, the processing happened right away. Mr. Young is affectionately known as ‘the head man’, for his skill in cleaning and processing a pig’s head, which in some regions can be used for ‘souse’, a head cheese or the base dish pork and rice. known as puddin.

The rest of the body was cut into four parts, and for a few hours many men sliced, sliced, diced, and salted as they saw fit. The work is so intense that a celebration usually follows.

Nora E. Doctor, 73, is a Member of the Ridgeville City Council who was unable to attend during the pandemic. For her, returning to the event was a reminder of the joys and flavors of her childhood in the 1950s and 1960s.

“I remember when I was a little girl, my mom and dad would always kill a pig, and my mom’s sister and her husband, they would all get together and do it,” she said.

Ms Doctor recalled making cracked cornbread with crispy pork skin and pork pot – a dish of pork cuts like the maw (stomach), fresh neck bones and pig ears , cooked with onion, sage and cilantro, and served with rice.

As she spoke, a pot of porridge simmered next to another smaller pig that had already been processed and smoked above a hearth. A cast iron pot of smoked Sea Island red peas with pork helped stave off the lingering cold — and brought in the salty, porky flavors that often define Lowcountry cuisine.

“It’s history, and it’s something to keep alive and keep around,” said Ellis Ross, Marvin’s uncle. “Future generations need to know how things were made by the ancestors and where they came from.”

For the Ross family, the ritual is about becoming aware of — and honoring — how food systems work. “I always thank the animal for its life and for what it gives to us and our community,” said Jada Ross.

AT his farm in Dorchester, just under 10 miles from their grandmother’s house, Marvin Ross carries on this philosophy. Raising goats, pigs, ducks, pigs and chickens, Mr. Ross is constantly thinking about regenerative agriculture and sustainability. Serving nearby customers like Grey and Shellhe created incentives for customers to buy and use a whole animal, rather than just the ribs or kidneys.

A fifth-generation farmer, Mr. Ross believes he is one of the few black farmers in the area. Farming and continuing the tradition of pig slaughter is one of the ways he helps preserve his family’s legacy and connection to the land, and rewrite false narratives about food and life. black food.

For Mr. Miller, the author, some of these false narratives appear in food stories.

“The fact that internal organs were eaten really feeds into this narrative that soul food is really about the parts that white people wanted to get rid of,” he said. “Which is like many things, partly true, partly false. Because there are a lot of white people who eat the same things.

As the day wore on, the smells of charred onions, smoked beans and tomatoes filled the yard. Some of the meat now went through a grinder to be crated and served as sausages for guests to take home. On a table filled with staples like macaroni and cheese was a pot of conch, oxtail, and smoked pork; red rice with sausage; chili with pork sausage. One of the most important dishes of a pig slaughter was also offered: mince, a dish of liver, head, lungs and various seasonings served on rice..

Afternoon turned to evening, and visitors dug into tender pieces of pork while talking and laughing amongst themselves as children ran around the yard. Marvin Ross and his brothers – scarred with dirt and ash – looked deeply satisfied as they dug into another bowl of red peas from Mr Ross.

Until the middle of the 20th century, pig slaughters were a regular occurrence. Now Mr. Ross thinks he is one of the few still doing this kind of work. This is a loss attributable in part to the decrease in the number of black farmers (less than 2 percent of American farmers are black), according to food historian Michael Twitty, but also to the shame that emerged from having done long, grueling and exploitative work on American soil.

Mr Twitty said: ‘The elders were on the Great Migration board, and they’re like, ‘We don’t do that anymore. I had enough. I don’t garden; I don’t fish; I don’t slaughter pigs. I don’t do fucking chitlins, all that work. “

As the relationship between black people and the land has been corrupted by slavery, Mr. Ross is part of a growing group that is reclaim american land and work to transform agriculture.

“People always want to talk, you know, how can we improve on that?” he said. “You have to get closer to the earth to learn how.”

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