Appalachian Fall: Memories of my Favorite Time of the Year

The official start of Fall began just a short time ago. Trendy sweaters, boots, scarves and jeggings are being brought out of the closet. Pumpkin spice is in everything and Halloween decorations are sprouting from the ground. For me though, Fall brings on a whole other host of thoughts. Leaves are changing colors and dropping to the ground. The smell that the dead leaves leave in the air is unique and always bring back fond memories of squirrel hunting. Squirrels will be easy to find, hunt and ultimately eat. Also, the fall crappie bite will heat up and that means skillets full of fresh crappie filets. More than anything, Fall, means that my family will undertake one of the most Appalachian activities I can think of; making lard.

My pappaw lived to be over 90 years old. His doctor would always ask him what his secret was to his long and healthy life. His answer was always the same. He'd tell him he doesn't use vegetable oil (and then he would pull out his tobacco pouch just for fun). I never, not one time, saw him use anything other than homemade lard to cook with. If you do not know what lard is, don't be alarmed. I'd imagine there are a lot of people that have never seen or used it. Lard, for us, was cooked down pig fat. You can make lard from a host of other animals (bear comes to mind as a particularly cherished lard).

The process began with making an hour drive to his favorite butcher shop outside of Wellston, OH. Mammaw would make 2-3 pies and we bartered those for approximately 75-100 lbs of frozen pig fat. These were just large pieces of fat cut from the hogs during the butchering process. After we got them home, the work began. We spent 1 or 2 evenings (depending on how much help we had) taking these large pieces of fat and cutting them into small 2 inch cubes. This made rendering them down easier and faster. It produced one other benefit that I'll talk about in a minute.

With the cutting completed, we turned our attention to prepping our cooking utensils and gathering firewood. Gathering wood was easy. It doesn't take much and we lived adjacent to a large section of forest where dead wood was plentiful. Prepping the utensils was the hard part. To start off with, our kettle was a large, cast iron behemoth. It hung on the wall of his garage and stayed there until rendering time. He never cleaned the kettle directly after use. That meant that the entire kettle was coated in a thin layer of the previous years lard. This preserved the cast iron and kept it from rusting. It also meant before we could make a new batch of lard, we had to pack cookers of hot water out to clean it. So, at 5 a.m. in the morning, we would load up the stove with the biggest cookers we had and boil water. After 10 minutes of scrubbing and wiping, the kettle would be deemed suitable for this years batch. The process was repeated for our stirring stick (also iron) and old lard press. I'll talk more about the press in a second.

We would build a small fire inside the kettle stand and place the kettle over it. There are two very crucial steps to adhere to at this time. Step one is to always have a small amount of water in the bottom of the kettle. This keeps the fresh pig fat from scorching at the beginning. The water boils off and has no effect on the end product. The second step is to start with a small fire. You want your cast iron kettle to heat up slowly and evenly. If you put a blast furnace fire under you kettle you are guaranteed to burn your lard. So, with those things in mind, we would start packing out our cubed pieces and dumping them into the kettle.

At this point, there were two important considerations. We always kept our fire small and directly under the kettle and continually stirred the raw fat. You don't want to just let them pieces of fat sit in one place. They will burn and leave a bad taste in your lard. So we stirred and flipped the fat until they had cooked off enough to create their own boiling liquid. Stirring can be treacherous because if a stray 2 inch cube fell out of the pot, you were sure to get a disapproving look and passive scolding from pappaw. Eventually, like magic, you would see the translucent liquid creeping up the sides of the kettle. We still stirred but the work got much easier for a short time.

As the pig fat cooks, it releases the natural fats in the meat. Ultimately, that was what we were after. However, there were secondary benefits to the process. Once the grease was suitable, we would cube potatoes and throw them in the mix. They sunk to the bottom but as they cooked, they would float to the top. Once they popped to the surface they were golden brown and, as an old family friend would say, "They were so good they'd make your tongue slap your brains out". Then there was the second benefit, what we called cracklins.

Once all the grease had cooked out of the fat, it turned golden brown. But we had a tool that allowed us to squeeze every last drop out. Our lard press was an ancient contraption built in probably the late 1800's. It was a cast iron cylinder with a crank on the top. The cylinder was lined with a thinner cylinder that had holes in it. The holes allowed the liquid to pass through while catching the solid material. The crank was attached to a solid plate that squeezed the fat cubes, flattening them into thin chips and extracting the very last of the lard. Once pressed, the fat cubes were crispy and one of the most delicious things you could eat. So, as we dipped our lard out of the kettle and pressed it, we gorged ourselves on, well, pig fat. Once the liquid cooled it was divided into old ice cream buckets and used throughout the year.

The whole process probably took until 1:00pm. At the end of the day you smelled like a campfire soaked in pig fat. My wife would make me strip at the door and immediately wash my clothes. It is something I can do in my sleep. I've made it 100 times and enjoyed it every time. It is an old school activity that not many people do. We got together as a family, spent the morning together telling stories and reminiscing of people we've lost through the years. We laughed and ate all day. It is one of the things I will never forget. There is something to be said about the simplicity of it all. When we finished, we had a cooking oil that contained nothing more than fat, water and maybe a little stray ash. And that is the quintessential aspect to Appalachia, simplicity and family.

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