Use it all and make it good: pork loin, seasoned fat from a homemade porchetta, pork liver, figs, almonds, rum, parsley, red pepper flakes, garlic, spices, and reserved pork stock made from hocks. Chop and mix by hand, bake for two hours (in water bath), place weight on top, and cure for a day in the fridge. Serve cold with mustard and pickles, a glass of homemade beer or wine. Enjoy.
Cresting the hill on my tractor on a Saturday evening of bushhogging, I was followed by a long, dry cloud of chaff and dust. Ahead of me, a few hundred yards of brown fields extended to the woods. It has been a dry year, technically, a moderate drought, that has gripped our valley. A claim that, in this year of extraordinary heavy rains or continual rains in many areas of the country, seems oddly boastful.
Making the final turn at the bottom of the hill, the south end of the field, in the shelter of the oaks, I found my green pasture. Like the last of the snow left in the shade of a tree, here lay a swath of grass, no more than five yards across, still exhibiting the trademark signs of life.
As a kid in Louisiana, I saw my first snow at the age of four — a remarkable day in which the white stuff melted almost as fast as it fell. I ran around our yard, gathering snow from underneath the trees, trying to collect enough to make a snowball. Eventually, I brought a golf ball-size ice ball inside to proudly show off. That is what I felt like doing yesterday upon spying the patch of green. “Look, Cindy,” I’d say, “green grass. Quick, get a vase before it loses its color.”
Friday night we drove to the next valley over to another farm. Turning down a small road, we passed the spot where one enterprising local farmer raises fighting cocks for that lucrative blood sport. Hundreds of wooden huts, each housing a single, tethered rooster, are positioned in neat grids up and down the well-manicured hill.
A bit further down the road we arrived, across a small bridge over a diminished stream, at our friends’ farm, where the next several hours were spent deconstructing four sides of hogs into usable cuts of meat for the two brothers’ freezer. In a slightly chaotic assembly line, I focused on removing the ribs and sides (bacon) and deboning the hams. One of the brothers removed the loins and cut the Boston butt from the picnic shoulder roasts. Cindy and the other brother took on the job of vacuum packing the massive piles of meat. Meanwhile, our hosts’ mother kept busy presenting trays of snacks and penning content descriptions on the sealed bags of cuts. We eventually headed home after capping off the butchering session with a late-night dinner and glass of wine.
Saturday afternoon we headed back up our dry valley to another farm, where we joined a hundred or so guests for a pig-pickin’ party. The 200-pound pig was from our farm, bought by a neighbor just that week, then killed, scalded and slow roasted for 13 hours. The resulting meat was something any Southern boy would have been proud of producing. That it was prepared by a native New Yorker showed that the art of the slow-roast pork is not defined by the geography of one’s birth.
After a few hours of conversation and food we returned home. Up the long, dusty drive we went, past the dying fields and drying ponds, where the cattle and their newborn calves kicked up their heels over some pleasure unseen by us.
Reading this weekend: Surviving the Future: culture, carnival, and capital in the aftermath of the market economy by David Fleming.
Perhaps it is barn envy. This farm has never had enough barns or sheds for the equipment, animals, forage, and tools to meet our needs, despite our ongoing efforts. Seventeen years of building hay sheds, equipment sheds, chicken coops, and well houses has provided me with a fair sense of the work, skill, material resources, and neighborly assistance needed to construct those larger hay barns that dot our landscape.
So I feel a particular sadness watching old barns fall into disuse or being torn down before their time, the wood destined to deck a second home on the lake or, more often, simply bulldozed and burned.
Often this tear-down is done by new owners seeking the “country life.” The country life is a consumer choice, bought and sold. It’s quite distinct from the agrarian life, which is a life of work and provision. In the past five years, we have watched two different neighbors tear down perfectly good barns and burn the lumber. One neighbor bulldozed a two-story hay and tobacco barn and replaced it with a poorly constructed lean-to for lawnmowers and weedeaters and leaf blowers. The other leveled a barn built of chestnut and oak so he could have more room to practice his golf swings.
A recent conversation with an extension agent about fencing revealed a similar pattern. According to his statistics, more than 50 percent of fencing in our county has been torn out in the past 20 years.
The destruction of an infrastructure that is often still perfectly suited for the continued productive use of these East Tennessee valley farms is concrete evidence of the demise of a formerly vibrant community of neighbors and family that worked together. From the tobacco barn and smokehouse to the chicken coop and milking parlor, all helped to explain who went before and what worked on this land.
Although not necessarily wed to our predecessors’ choices, we’d be wise to not wholly ignore them either by tearing down the evidence of their accomplishments. That evidence is a blueprint linking the past to a possible future. Because far deeper than the grain in the wood is the pattern to sustain life and community.
Reading this weekend: Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hoschschild. An interesting new sociology of the American right that focuses on my home town of Lake Charles and Calcasieu Parish.
The old man from Maine carried on a one-way conversation with Cindy as I unloaded the truck at our local dump. I could overhear snippets as I emptied the garbage cans:
Commenting that every president who does a stint in the White House comes out gray-haired: “I bleach my hair blonde; otherwise, it would all be white.”
On a piglet his family raised as a pet when he was a boy: “Well, then my mom named her Sally, after my dad’s old girlfriend. She’d stand outside and holler, “Fat Sally, Fat Sally,” with a smile on her face, until that fat sow came waddling up from her sty for a meal. That pig would follow us into town. We had this summer kitchen outside with a couch where Sally would rest, waiting for the scraps, when Mom was cooking. Finally, one day we came home and Sally was gone. My parents never told us where she went.”
On Hurricane Carol in 1954: “Hurricane Carol blew the whole crop down — 4,000 Macintosh apple trees. Dad called up his friend at the cider mill, and his friend said, “Jim, I’m firing up the mill right now. Get those apples to me.” We kids picked up apples off the ground all day and all night, I’ll never forget.”
He finally sputtered to a halt, overcome with that memory, as I finished unloading the truck. I climbed back in the cab, then said our goodbyes and headed back to the farm.
The moms voice a quiet lowing to their calves, “stay close, be at ease”. We walk a bit closer to snap a photo and check that all is well. They turn their massive heads in our direction, “I’m watching you”. We answer back in soft reassuring tones, “hey, pretty mamma”, and, “it’s ok”. They turn back to their calves and to the grass and ignore us.
Reading this weekend: Hillbilly Elegy: a memoir of a family and a culture in crisis, by J. D. Vance
We spent last evening having dinner with some friends, staying late at their farm, and enjoying some great home cooking. We followed up dinner with an excellent apple cake by our host and some of my muscadine port. That fact, combined with the need today to slaughter an injured pig, mill many trees loaded with apples and pears, leaves me leaving you with one from the archives.
Saturday morning: With no warning the steer turned in open field and charged head on at Cindy and her horse. It hit her Morgan squarely in the chest, throwing her backwards. Cindy went flying, making a rough landing on her back and neck. Stiff and sore all week, she was reminded why she wears a helmet.
The young steer, just 425 pounds, turned and ran down the hill, leapt a fence and disappeared into the woods. Cindy returned to the barn and took off the saddle. I put away the tack and returned Oksana to the field. We left the steer behind, wherever he had gone.
The night before: We had bought him, along with four other steers, the previous day. The farmer 20 miles to the south, with a large acreage devoted to purebred Angus. The old man introduced himself as “the “M” in L&M Motors” (a local auto dealership). He had a dozen or so calves to select from for our needs. We bought five of similar weight. While loading, one steer was spinning around, in mad desperation trying to escape. We gave it little thought.
We hauled the trailer back to our farm, and I backed it up to the outer corral. The outer corral is fenced with barbed wire, while the inner corral is oak slats. Cindy hopped out of the truck and opened the gates and the door to the trailer. The steers ran out. I pulled away and parked the trailer.
We typically leave new livestock up for a few days to make sure they settle down and have no health issues before releasing them onto pasture. As we walked back out to inspect our new steers, Cindy said, “I thought we bought five.” In the 15 minutes it had taken to close the gates and park and unhook the trailer, one steer had leapt the fence and was nowhere to be seen.
After watering and feeding the steers, we spent a few fruitless hours looking for the steer. He was not to be found anywhere on the property, pastures or woods. If he didn’t show up it would be a heavy financial loss.
Saturday morning. The next morning when we headed out to feed, the calf had reappeared in the upper pasture with the older steers. Cindy saddled Oksana and went to move the partial herd down to the barn with the new steers. The older steers turned toward the barn. The young steer threw his head back and ran for the woods.
Cindy took followed on horseback moving the steer along the fence. Cue the aggressive turn and the aforementioned collision.
We have dealt with many frightened cattle before. But this was the first truly aggressive, belligerent and dangerous one. When he knocked Cindy off the horse, leapt the fence and disappeared, we wished him Godspeed to the next county. We went ahead and let the other steers out to join the primary herd.
Sunday morning. Sunday dawned and I did the morning chores, once again counting an extra steer in the herd on the hill. He’s back. Cindy wanted him gone from the property. I, not having witnessed the previous day’s assault, was inclined to let him settle down. After all, we had had wild livestock before that had grown docile.
Cindy was adamant. Later in the day I noticed a group of steers heading to the barn… The rogue steer was among them. We closed the gate to the inner corral. With Cindy at the gate, I began to move the other steers out. Cindy would swing the gate open and closed as needed. Meanwhile I kept a close eye on the crazy one. He was running wildly around the corral, head thrown back, tail swishing, looking for a way to escape. The other steers were docile and filed out, leaving him alone. I exited the inner corral.
Even though the wooden corral fence was high, we were both concerned he would go back over and once again take to the hills. So when he ran into the barn, I swung the gate closed quickly behind him. Snorting like a bull in the matador arena, he turned on a dime and charged full force at me, bouncing off the metal gate. I instantly became a believer: away with him to the stockyard.
But how to load the little bugger? We dropped a water trough over the gate and I began filling it. It only agitated him more, and he began to charge at everything in his vision–the floor-to-ceiling metal barn door, the walls, and the trough. I gave him some hay, thinking that might calm him down. He swished his tail, looked me in the eye and resumed the charge.
About this time friends arrived for dinner, on their way back from a sustainable farming conference in North Carolina, headed to their farm outside of Nashville. We showed them the rogue steer–he greeted them by climbing the walls.
Monday morning. Monday morning broke, Cindy went off to work, and I worked from home on the computer. As soon as Cindy got home, she called the stockyard in Athens. They were taking cattle until 8 in the evening for the Tuesday noon sale. I was still hoping the steer would magically disappear. She insisted we try to load him.
It took only a few minutes to hitch up the trailer and back it to the corral gate. By now it was dark. The steer thundered around in the barn. We turned the corral and barn lights on and began to set up the corral panels, interlocking 16-foot metal panels used to create a chute to drive docile animals into the trailer.
Nerve wracking it was to have him snorting and charging up the chute, and then back to the barn, only the panels separating us, but after about five runs, he finally ran into the trailer. Cindy, who had been in the barn, on the opposite side of a gate, waving her arms trying to move him out, sprinted to the trailer at my hoarse yelling of “HE’S IN, HE’S IN!” and slid the trailer door closed. Surprisingly, the whole operation went fairly smooth. We were both nonetheless sweating.
We made good time to the stockyard, ran the gauntlet of pin hookers. A pin hooker is an old-fashioned term for men who buy cattle at cut-rate prices. The name was given to Yankees after the Civil War who came down and preyed on a defeated country, offering low prices to people who had no other recourse but to sell. It is still used for people who buy and sell on the cheap. As I drove the trailer up to the gates, they gathered on both sides.
“What do you want him for him?” “What do think he will bring?” “I hear you, but what do you really want to get for him?” “Well, you won’t get that much. I’ll take him right now.” “What do you think he weighs, and how much per pound do you want? I’ll give you $200.”
Cindy and I resisted their not-so-enticing offers and put him in the auction for the following day. The check came in the mail on Friday, and we barely made back the money we’d put into him. Last night we walked up among our peaceful herd, grazing and paying us no mind.
As it should be….
Reading this weekend: Hot Earth Dreams: what if severe climate change happens, and humans survive? by Frank Landis
My bookishness, my Louisiana childhood, my habit of looking at a rooster at the end of his procreational contributions and seeing a pot of coq au vin — sometimes I feel the odd duck in this Tennessee valley. But what I and my neighbors do share is a respect for the land, work, and community and the pleasure that comes from doing for yourself.
The homes in this valley are often unattractive, built piecemeal, their landscapes strewn with the debris of a wasteful industrial world. But one man’s junk is indeed another man’s treasure. Tell a neighbor that a weld broke on your bushhog and he immediately rummages around in the weeds before emerging with a stack of metal bars from an old bedframe he salvaged from a scrap heap 10 years earlier. “These should do the trick,” he says, then helps you weld the bushhog back together.
This is a poor but resilient rural landscape, a land inhabitated by multi-generation hardscrabblers seeking only privacy and independence. Chickens, a pig, maybe a cow are common even on an acre or two, and often a well-tended garden of tomatoes, okra, and pole beans sits alongside the house or barn.
In our valley, neighbors seldom call a specialist to fix the plumbing or dig out a clogged septic line. They repair tractors, mend fences, wire a barn, butcher chickens, cure hams, make wine, deal with an intruder (With wandering dogs, one old neighbor adheres to the three S’s: shoot, shovel, and shut up), or any of the thousands of other skills essential to living a rural life. They do it all themselves or shout over the barbed-wire fence for help.
A neighbor may help you run the sawmill for an afternoon, accepting payment in a few beers, conversation, and the side rounds from the logs for firewood. When you step into their hot summer kitchen, you may find them hovering over the stove canning endless jars of garden produce. Sometimes you’ll come home to find homemade loaves of bread, a jar of jam, a bottle of fruit wine, or a basket of vegetables leaning against the front door.
For better or worse, our neighbors have a yeoman’s obstinacy to rules and regulations and change. Even after a couple of hundred years (or maybe because of it), they still do not take to outside government intervention with enthusiasm. They prefer to be left alone to live in a manner that has been repeated down through the generations.
And this valley is certainly not unique. Across the continent rural values of community, cooperation, and resilience, while battered, still have life. Perhaps we are fortunate that while the urban centers still glow pink-cheeked with wealth, these rustics have more or less been abandoned to muddle along and do for themselves. It’s that abandonment that has preserved and nurtured self-reliance and partnership.
Definitely not an Eden, theirs is a resourcefulness often born of poverty. But it is one model, of sorts, that offers an emergency escape plan for the hard times to come: a poor people without the necessary capital resources to stripmine the future for their benefit — a gift that this planet might appreciate at this particular juncture in its 4.5 billion years.
Reading this weekend: various winemaking books. This is the season of country wines. We have a plum mead and elderberry wine bubbling away merrily.