October 18, 2013

When Old Men Speak…

Category: News — Ira @ 6:45 pm

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It seemed to him that if he would only speak, the living past,
the voices of lost men, the pain, the pride, the madness and
despair, the million scenes and faces of the buried life…all
that the old man had seen, would be revealed to him, would be
delivered to him like a priceless treasure…

“It was so long ago,” the old man said.

—Thomas Wolfe
_____________

I didn’t think much of it, one way or the other, when my friend “David” called me one day a few weeks back. He was wondering, he said. Could I pick him up next Saturday and take him over to some friends that needed to sign and notarize some documents? Not unusual from him, such a request. David prepares tax returns, and I’ve taken him on many little trips like that over the years. Including my very first excursion to the deep south end of the county a few years ago. Besides being a licensed attorney, I’m a notary, too. So I come in pretty handy now and then, when such a thing is needed. Sure, I told him when he called. Next Saturday afternoon will work for me. I’ll stop in for coffee around 2:30 or so. And we’ll go from there.

And that’s what we did. I stopped by around my usual time, and we just sat around and talked about things. It’s a comfortable and welcoming place, David’s house. I’ve been going there for years. He got his papers around, then, the ones that needed signing. And off we went, down the road. It wasn’t that far, and soon we pulled into the little Amish farm that was our destination. An older couple lived there, along with one of their unmarried daughters. And today, another daughter would be there, too, a married daughter from out of the area. We stepped out and approached the house. Beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon, is what it was. A gaggle of small children played in the front yard and on the porch. “Is your grandpa home?” David asked. The children turned and looked out across the road, to a rather dilapidated old barn sitting there. And I saw him coming, the patriarch of the place. Large straw hat, galluses, long beard, and gloriously barefoot. Totally comfortable with himself. And we stepped into the house, and were welcomed into the kitchen by the matriarch and her two daughters.

We were seated at the table, and we spread out the papers that needed signing. I got my notary stamps from my briefcase, and we waited. Where was the old man? “Well, maybe we should send someone out to find him,” the goodwife fussed. No, no, I said. I saw him walking in. He’ll be here shortly. And a minute or so later, he stepped into the kitchen. Hatless now, but still barefoot. He’d been around, looked like. Tough and hard nosed with a full head of unruly reddish gray hair and a long gray beard. You could see he’d been knocked around good a good deal, that he’d seen things. And you could see all that knocking around never fazed him one bit, too. He joined us at the table and took a chair. He hardly glanced at me, an English intruder. They signed the papers, then, and I got busy with my stamp and signature. The old man leaned back and he and David visited. Well, mostly David listened while the old man talked. I have no idea how the subject came up, but he just went off all of a sudden, talking about butchering. And the stories rolled right out of him.

“Yep, the most I ever got done was four steers in one afternoon,” he said. “I butchered them by myself. Skinned them out, dressed and cut them up. That was a lot to get done, in one afternoon like that.” Well, he didn’t exactly use those last words. But that’s what he was telling us. And I was impressed. Talk about a hard day’s work, in half a day.

“Well, didn’t you use to work in a butcher shop?” David prompted the man. “You probably learned some tricks about how to do it, there.”

“Yes, yes I did.” The old man replied. “Back in such and such a year (I can’t remember when, but it happened when he was young), I worked at (I forget the name) Butcher Shop.” And that set him off down another little trail. “You know, back then, we ate the whole hog. The best meat is in the head. We’d throw the whole head into a pot of hot water and let it cook. When it was done, we took it out, and knocked it on the counter, and all this good meat just fell out. It was all was ready to eat, right there. And it was all good eating. I always say, they throw the best parts of the hog away, these days, because they don’t want to take the time to get it out. It’s the best part of any hog, what’s in the head.”

And I couldn’t contain myself. He was talking to David, not me. But I interrupted. That all sounds absolutely delicious, I said. He glanced my way. “And the very best piece of meat in the head, it’s just a little chunk, stuck way up in there, in a little hollow place in the skull,” he said. “Most people don’t even know it’s there. You have to knock the skull just right, to get it loose. Sometimes you have to reach up in there and feel for it, to find it. And that little round piece (he held up his thumb and forefinger, a few inches apart), that little round piece of meat is the tastiest part of the whole hog.” When someone like that is telling you something like that, you don’t doubt it. You listen, and you hear. And maybe, just maybe, you speak. It sounds absolutely delicious, I said again.

We wrapped it up, then, and David and I took off for the next stop. And I got to thinking about what the old man had told us. We never ate the whole hog’s head, back when I was a child. But we ate a lot of parts of an animal that most people wouldn’t think were fit to eat today.

I remember way back, before I even started school, when I was three or four years old. And how we’d have a butchering day every fall, sometime in November, I think it was. Could have been late October, too, maybe. The neighbors came by early that morning, after the chores were done. And Dad had fetched the old scalding tank that everyone in the community used. A homemade scalding tank, half round, made of heavy galvanized steel. And both half round ends were made of wood. Dad set the tank up and filled it with water and lit the fire a long time before anyone came. And then after breakfast, the water was pretty much boiling. After breakfast was right at daybreak, cloudy, usually, at that time of year. And cold, too. I never remember this scene in any sunlight. The men all gathered around, outside. And then the victim, a fatted hog, was released from the barn and nudged over to the general area of the tank. Someone stood there with a .22 rifle. Stepped up right close, and took careful aim. A spiteful crack, and the pig just rolled over like it had been pole-axed. And then things got real busy, real quick. I stood off to the side and just watched.

The men dragged the carcass up to the tank, where the water was boiling. Two chains had been strung through the tank, down on the rounded floor and out both sides. They then grabbed the carcass by all four legs and heaved it in, careful not to splash too much. Two men then stood on each side of the tank and grabbed the chains the hog was now resting on. And back and forth they pulled, rolling the hog in the boiling water. Back and forth and back and forth. All the hair and bristle had to come off. After the hog’s skin was smooth and soft and clean as a baby’s, then they lifted it out. Then it was hung up and scraped with sharp knives. And only then was it gutted and dressed out. That’s how you scald a hog carcass. At least that’s how I saw them doing it.

Children will always play at what they see, and we did. I remember one day we devised the game of “Butchering” in the living room. I can’t remember who all was involved, my siblings or friends. Probably both. Anyway, one of us was the “pig,” down on all fours, grunting and snorting along, head to the floor. A few others hovered off to the side, tending to the boiling water in the imaginary scalding tank. And one person stood in front of the pig, pointing a little stick as a gun. The pig snuffled along, completely oblivious, until the person with the gun took careful aim, as we’d seen it done, then shouted, “Bang!” And the pig rolled over, instantly lifeless. Everyone swarmed in and dragged the “carcass” over to the spot where the “tank” was. They then rolled the pig around on the floor, as in scalding. It was all quite merry and exciting, until Mom happened to walk by and saw us playing. She seemed rather horrified.

“Oh, my. No, no. You can’t play that you’re shooting someone,” she chided. But it’s OK, Mom, I said. I’m a pig. Sadly, she did not seem to grasp the concept, and so the butchering game was shut down. And we didn’t play it again, because we were told not to.

It wasn’t until a few years later that I actually remember the tastes and smells of butchering day. After I started school. And things were bustling, when we left on such a morning. The neighbors came. But off we went, to school. That’s where we had to go that day, so we went. And all day, our thoughts drifted back to home, where we knew exciting things were going on. School let out at three. And we rushed home, to see what all had happened.

By then, things were winding down. The meat had been cut up in the washhouse. And Mom and my sisters and the neighbor women had stuffed much of it in glass jars. The pressure cooker sat humming on the kitchen stove, sealing glass jars packed with meat. The guts of the hog had been scraped and cleaned, and they were stuffing sausages and coiling them in large stainless steel mixing bowls. Dad would smoke those with hickory wood, later. There never was any better smoked sausage anywhere than that. And Mom’s large cast iron skillet sat on the hot stove, too, fresh sausage patties simmering in their own juices. I can still see it, and I can still smell it. I can taste it, too. We made sandwiches with slabs of homemade bread and wolfed them down. The best after-school snack there ever was. Then we headed out to the barn to do our chores. And after those chores were done, we went right back in and feasted on more of that fresh meat for supper. It was a beautiful thing, butchering day.

Mom never did cook up a whole hog’s head, though. Somehow that little practice got lost along the way, if it ever was there in the lineage of my ancestors. Which I’m sure it was somewhere back there, because it was food that you could eat. Here, now, we never saw or heard of such a thing. But I look back on it now, too, and see that Mom came pretty close to doing that. Hog’s head or cow’s head, it didn’t matter. She got some good stuff from it. Brains, is what I remember, mostly. Fried up nice and brown. You put a little mayonnaise on bread, load it with fried brains, and that there is just flat out delicious. I’d eat that any day. My friend Dave Hurst at work gets cow brains from a local organic farmer. And once a year or so, he’ll invite me to stop in on the way home from the gym. And I always do. His wife, Ruth, fries them up, just exactly like Mom did. It always takes me back to those days at home, the taste of that.

And Mom fixed other things, too, things that are mostly thrown out today. Mostly from cows. Heart, liver, and tongue. It’s been a long time since I’ve eaten pickled cow tongue. Served cold, it was bitter and salty and just delicious. And we all ate it. I still would, if I could find someone to make some for me. I’ve never been much of a liver eater, though. Except for chicken liver. From a chicken, the liver is the very best part. Mom always saved the liver for me when she fried up a batch. “This is for Ira,” she’d say. No one else seemed to mind, much. And once in a while, I still get to eat liver over at Steve and Wilma’s house. Wilma fixes chicken liver just like Mom did. I’m always astounded, when I see it there in the pot. And I always load up quite greedily.

We never did cook up a whole hog’s head, back home. A whole hog’s head. I’m fascinated by such an idea, such a lost custom. And I’d sure try it, if someone invited me to, someone who knew what it was to do that. Because from the gleam in that old Amish man’s eyes, it sure would be worth checking out, I think. And see if what he said is true. “They throw out the best parts of the hog, these days. The best parts are in the head.”

The other evening, I got a call from my brother, Titus. He checks in now and then, just to chat. That day, though, we talked a little longer than usual. He had some stories to tell me.

They had attended a wedding in Daviess a few weeks before that, him and Ruth. They didn’t really know the couple that well, but somehow they got an invitation anyway. So they went. Daviess. The land my parents come from. “The food was Daviess food,” Titus said. “It tasted just like Mom’s cooking, like the stuff we grew up on. And they only had spoons to eat with, and no knives on the table,” he chuckled. “When the pie came around, I asked the man next to me to cut me a small piece. He just took the spoon he was eating with and lopped off a chunk and put it on my plate.” I howled. I hope you ate it, I said. “Yes, yes, I ate it,” Titus said. And he told me more. That afternoon, an old man walked up and talked to him. Titus didn’t know him, but the man had a few things to tell my brother.

“Way back, when your parents lived on their farm just north of Montgomery, I was their neighbor,” the man said. “I’m eighty years old, now. I was a teenager then. And when your father got a notion to go check out the new settlement in Piketon, Ohio, me and another neighbor boy did their chores while they were gone. That was the first trip they took to Piketon, just to see if it was what your Dad was looking for.”

Titus locked in. A firsthand account we never knew was out there. “How long were they gone? Was Dad excited when they got back? How many cows were they milking then? What all did he have around the place?”

“They were gone for four days. Oh, yes, he was excited when they got back,” the old man said. “They had seven or eight cows to milk. And a few hogs and a few chickens. Yes, he was excited. I’ll tell you something else that happened, too. Soon after they got back, he came over one day and asked if I had borrowed his bolt cutter. He couldn’t find it. I told him I hadn’t. Then he went over and asked the other neighbor boy who had helped with the chores. Had he borrowed the bolt cutter? And the other boy hadn’t either. And you know what?” The old man leaned in. “The next spring when the snow went off the ground, he found that bolt cutter out by a fence post, right where he’d used it last.”

We laughed together over that, me and my brother. That’s good stuff, I told Titus. That’s real good stuff. I have got to get out there and spend a week sometime. Track down those old people and talk to them. I have got to get that done. I don’t know when, though. I have to work. It’s hard, to take a week off to do something like that.

“Well, if you’re going, you’d better get out there soon,” Titus replied. “Those old people, the ones who remember firsthand, those people aren’t going to be around long anymore.” That’s true, I told him. But that’s the way it’s always been, I think.

And I didn’t think to say this to Titus, right that moment. But I thought about it later. And it makes sense to me. If you can’t go to where you want to go to hear all those old stories told firsthand, you just listen for the stories you can hear right where you are.

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(14 Comments) »

  1. Great tales!
    P.S. I haven’t tasted any pig products yet that weren’t prime.

    Comment by Rhonda — October 18, 2013 @ 8:19 pm

  2. Ira-so many times we would like to ask our parents about the past, however, they are no longer with us, so….we too, listen for the stories we can hear right where we are.
    And…. fried brains—-they don’t appeal to us—however, we found your blog very, very, interesting. Barry and June Kinsey.

    Comment by June Kinsey — October 18, 2013 @ 8:40 pm

  3. Your playing Butchering Day reminded me of how we played funeral after an old neighbor lady died. Our toy box was the coffin and I had died. I had to lay real still with my eyes closed and hear my siblings wail. They wailed until Dad saw what we were doing and put a stop to my funeral.

    Comment by Katie Troyer — October 18, 2013 @ 8:51 pm

  4. At my Grandmother Hochstetler’s funeral, somebody had brought some cold pickled cow tongue for my Dad. He had his fill, and there was still some left, so it was guardedly passed around to other important people. I managed to get my hands on a piece. I pretended to like it, but didn’t ask for another. I guess it’s an aquired taste.

    Comment by Reuben Wagler — October 18, 2013 @ 10:12 pm

  5. The store in Kidron (Ohio) used to sell all those rare cuts of hog and beef. Lydia’s mom stood at the meat counter one day and when the meat cutter came to wait on her she asked, “Have you got any brains?”

    That has become part of her family lore.

    Comment by John Schmd — October 18, 2013 @ 11:05 pm

  6. I can also remember the cold cloudy days of butchering, as a young child at my dad’s home place and they would do three or more hogs in one day for five families, & I also remember that my grandma would use the fresh lard to make some salves, such as drawing, and lunga feva for each family. Later when I was in school, at the crack of dawn usually on a Saturday, dad would go get the Amish man from the community who he would pay to do the killing & gutting & skinning of a cow & afterward we would “work up” the meat. Later on we then would take our animals to the local butcher shop. I also like pickled tongue and heart, and fried sweet bread and brain but, not with mayonnaise, just on some brown bread.

    Comment by Ina — October 18, 2013 @ 11:14 pm

  7. An older woman in our office was married to a pastor. They went to Nova Scotia on their vacation each summer and visited the pastors of their denomination in each little village and town. I asked Irma if they were treated to lots of lobster dinners. “No,” she said sadly, “it was canned venison every place we went. I used to just sigh when I saw that glass jar sitting on the kitchen counter.”

    Comment by cynthia r chase — October 19, 2013 @ 12:47 pm

  8. Just got back home from my oldest granddaughter’s birthday supper. She turned 24. Time sure goes fast.

    I enjoyed your post, however I can’t relate to the hog killing and all. Unfortunately, I was raised in town. My father was not a farmer, he was an iron worker.

    It was good and I enjoyed hearing your stories as usual. They are so interesting to read.

    God Bless you.

    Linda

    Comment by Linda Morris — October 19, 2013 @ 9:11 pm

  9. Our family doesn’t eat pork, but I really admire those who don’t waste any part of the animal.

    Comment by Jenifer — October 20, 2013 @ 11:18 am

  10. I can remember when my Dad would butcher a hog. I was pretty small and thought it was disgusting, so other than watching the scalding, I can’t recall much of it. Hey, I live real near Piketon, Ohio. It’s probably about half an hour or less from me. Enjoyed this blog very much.

    Comment by Diane Bell — October 20, 2013 @ 4:11 pm

  11. Yes, a great many of those old folks who told those stories are no longer around. I wish now that I had asked more questions when I was younger while my grandparents were still alive. Some of those stories are lost to us forever. We must be sure we tell our grandchildren our own stories so they will know what life was like for us. Good post, as usual.

    Comment by Rosanna — October 20, 2013 @ 8:09 pm

  12. This whole piece, including the comments was fun!

    Comment by Margaret — October 20, 2013 @ 8:32 pm

  13. Hi Ira
    Just finished reading your book “Growing Up Amish” very moving and has a lot of similarities to my story, but different in detail. I was brought up an Irish Cahtolic, which until I read your book I felt was the strickest religion in the world. In some ways it is just as difficult, but in others it is more relaxed, but eitherway it loads a lot of guilt on the indivual, who the smallest misdemnior is likely to send him to hell if he dosent confess and repent.

    Like you, I too was haunted by the guilt that was loaded on us as children growing up. Like you too, I was a rebel without a clue. I had no idea of what I wanted in life, I just knew what it was I did not want.

    My phylsicaal journey to freedom was also hampered by going back into what you calls the box. The spiritual and emotional journey has taken many years, but has been worth the fears, and the doubts. Today and for many a day I have been free of the bondage of my past religion. Freedom is not strong enough a word for it. It is a breeze on a calm day.

    I haven’t read your blog as I have just finished reading your book. Thank you for writing it, it has made a deep impression in my mind, and one that I will not forgot for a long, long time, hopefully never.

    For years my children have been onto me to write my memoirs as I have led such a different life from my siblings. I too took a bus out of my home town and 24 hours later landed in the heart of London, England. Your book may well get me working on my story. I am already the authour of two railway volumes.

    In conclusion, I must say Thank You Ira, it is a moving story, but also an inspiring one for anyone who thinks that bit different, or to be more precise, thinks for him or herself.

    I remain gratefully yours

    Patrick O’Sullivan
    England

    Comment by Patrick O'Sullivan — November 8, 2013 @ 8:55 pm

  14. I just love these stories. The part about your mom not getting it cracked me up. And it’s so true about kids acting out what they see in day to day life. My siblings and I used to play church. One of us was the priest and the rest were in line to receive communion-potato chips and whatever drink was available. I think I wrote this in one of my other comments. We used to play school, too. My sister or I would take a long sleeve shirt, usually a turtleneck, pull it up over our heads to where it looked like the head piece of the habit. (My gosh, I don’t even remember what it’s called). We’d grab a ruler and get bossy. Oh, the joy.
    I do love pork, ham in particular, but I have no idea what to do with the head or feet I see in the grocery store. Why just yesterday I made a turkey and thought I’m going to do something with this neck. I put it in a pot and boiled it. Then I threw it away. My excuse-I don’t have time. Huh! More like, I don’t know how.
    Enchanting story telling. Thank you.
    (That John Schmid is a hoot)!

    Comment by Francine — January 16, 2014 @ 11:43 pm

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