has not always been available for purchase in nicely sealed packages,
cut and ready for the frying pan or a pot of pinto beans. Nor has
ham always been findable in a grocery store’s meat department.
Back in the day, pork came on cloven hooves in rural Texas. Just
about anyone who grew up in the country, particularly in East
Texas, prior to the 1960s remembers when most families raised
their own hogs.
One of those East Texans is 77-year-old W.T. Rials, a native of
Anderson County who now lives in Sherman.
In Rials’ boyhood, domestic hogs stayed penned spring through fall,
fed on corn and slop. But in the winter, farmers let their pigs
find their own groceries.
“After all crops harvested, around the first of November, until
first of March, folks would let their hogs run amuck,” he said.
Hog owners released their animals so they wouldn’t have to worry
about feeding them when there was no corn in the field. The porkers
had to fend for themselves, giving rise to the old Texas expression,
“Root hog or die.”
If hogs are capable of rumination, they must have looked forward
to their annual winter break. But not every hog got to run, um,
hog wild. Families would keep two or three penned up, feeding them
the last of their corn until the first good norther of the year
blew in and chilled things off.
Then it was hog-killing time.
“Hog killing was something to behold,” Rials recalled. “Every time
it got cold, one family in our community would butcher a hog. Everyone
else showed up to help. They’d pass the labor around from family
Folks pitched in because butchering a hog was hard work.
“The same day it was killed, we had to render the lard,” Rials said.
“What was left from lard was the cracklins. We had also got ham
and midlin’s, the sides where we cut bacon. We’d salt-cure the front
legs and sugar cure the ham.”
From jowls to pickled pigs feet, as another old saying went, about
the only thing a family couldn’t use off a butchered hog was its
Not everyone thought the free-range system was a good idea. Rials
said one farmer in his area got tired of other people’s hogs tearing
up his land using their snoots to dig for roots and grubs.
“A hog has a ridge on its nose that it uses to root,” Rials said.
“One particular feller, he’d catch a hog and cut that ridge off.
Its nose would be so tender, it couldn’t root. It wouldn’t hurt
the hog in the long run, but then it had to be fed from then on.”
Some hogs were more notable than others.
“We had a big ole red hog, a Durock Jersey, that was our sire,”
Rials said. “He stood waist high to a normal size man.”
Perhaps because he was tall, this hog had a skill not common among
the porcine set.
‘He could jump up and catch a chicken on the wing,” Rials said.
The Rials family lived in a modest “bat and board” house in the
Myrtle Springs community, the nearest town being Elkhart.
The house’s board floor was about three feet off the ground, setting
“The free-ranging hogs would get under the house to stay warm,”
he said. “They’d get to fighting and rooting and start shaking the
When that happened, Rials’ mother knew what to do.
“We had a cook stove that had a reservoir of water,” he said. “Mother
would get up, put some of that water in a pan and bring it to boil.
Then she’d pour it through the cracks in the floor. The hogs would
start squealing and running, and I’d think it was going to knock
the house off the blocks.”
In hard times, hogs under the floor were the least of a rural family’s
“My dad was a sharecropper and we were poor with three o’s,” Rials
said. “We ate a lot of beans and potatoes, and for variety we would
have potatoes and beans.”
That made baked ham a real treat. But one Christmas in the late
1940s, Rials learned for the first time the truism of the conventional
wisdom that it is possible to have too much of a good thing.
“In 1949,” Rials said, “we drove in Daddy’s old International Harvester
pickup truck from Elkhart
to Fort Thomas, KY, across from Cincinnati, to visit Mother’s brother,
who worked on the post.”
To feed her family on the long trip, Mrs. Rials baked a ham.
When you are used to beans and potatoes or vice versa, ham is pretty
tasty. Even so, by the time they got to Kentucky, having eaten ham
for every meal, Rials was ready for a little culinary variety.
That’s why it came as something of a let-down when his uncle and
aunt proudly set baked ham out on the table.
Soon, portions of two hams under his belt, Rials and his family
drove to Georgia to visit another aunt and her husband. They, too,
graciously offered baked ham for their holiday dinner.
“That was my three ham Christmas,” Rials said. “By the time we started
on that third ham, I would just as soon have eaten popcorn.’
© Mike Cox
- September 18, 2014 column
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