Rendering the Fat – Lard and Cracklings
Lard is not polyunsaturated anything. Modern wisdom tells us it’s bad for you and seldom is it used. Vegetable oils are what we cook with today. But my friend, until you’ve eaten chicken fried in lard, you don’t know how good fried chicken can be. It’s a pity, particularly to one who staunchly believes that living kills you.
The process of rendering the lard begins at the skinning table, as does the process of making sausage. All the trimmings from the cutting table – from the hams, shoulders, and sidemeat or pork – go to the skinning table. Here the skin is cut from the fat with sharp butcher knives like removing the skin from a fish filet. Any lean meat is also removed and used for sausage. And, as was mentioned before, the gut fat has already been removed from the large intestines.
Now we grind the fat. A meat grinder was used to grind the large pieces of fat into small pieces for rendering. In our neighborhood the grinder was hooked to a truck. Sounds like overkill but it was really pretty ingenious. All pickups were straight shift back then. You threw blocks under the front wheels and jacked up one of the back wheels clear of the ground (no positive traction, either). There was a small shaft that ran from the grinder with an inch wide piece of flat metal about a foot long welded perpendicular to the other end. In each end of the flat metal, holes were drilled the right distance apart to fit on two opposite lugs. A couple of lug nuts were removed, the shaft slipped on, and the lug nuts replaced and tightened down. All that remained was to put the truck in first gear and let her idle. It worked clean as a whistle. Eventually we switched to an electric motor to run the grinder.
Rendering the lard was a long, slow, careful process. You could ruin it if you cooked it too fast. It was an art really. Rendering, or cooking the lard as we called it, was done in large cast iron pots, black on the outside from long years of use. You started off with 3 or 4 pounds of gut lard in the pot and just a few sticks of stovewood. (Stovewood was usually pine cut about 2 feet long but to a diameter of no more than a couple of inches). Once the gut fat had begun to give up it’s lard, you added more of the ordinary fat. And ever so slowly and gently, you eventually brought the pot to a boil by adding a little more wood and then a little more wood but never a raging fire.
Cooking the lard usually took two to two and a half hours. And all during this time the person cooking the lard was constantly stirring the pot with a lard paddle. A lard paddle was a boat paddle with a long handle that never went in a boat or the water. It was kept clean and safe from year to year.
While the lard cooking was going on, it was traditional for young and not so young kids to sneak a tenderloin off of the meat table and throw it in the lard pot. Talk about deep fat frying – this was the ultimate. In 10 or 15 minutes, a beautifully browned piece of meat was brought to the surface of the pot on the paddle. You skewered it with you pocket knife, sprinkled on some salt, and split it with your buddies. You thought you had died and gone to heaven.
There is a bushy plant that grows in the woods around here called bay. It’s very aromatic and has preservative qualities for lard. So near the end of the cooking process a branch of bay leaves was plunged into the boiling pot of lard. I can hear it crackle as it’s dipped into the pot and smell the sweet scent right now. It’s a little sad to think that no one will experience that maybe ever again. Shucks, in later years, even we left the bay behind for a preservative that came out of a bottle.
When the cracklings were a golden brown and floated to the top, the cooking was ended and it was time to take up the pot. We had a set of pot hooks for removing the pot from the fire. There were 2 hooks for catching in the pot ears connected by a gently curved metal rod. A stout wooden pole was run under the metal rod with a man on either end to lift the pot from the fire and sit it down again where the lard could be strained.
Straining the lard was done through a clean white cloth. Two people would hold both corners at either end of the cloth over one side of the pot while a third person would use a big metal dipper to dip lard and cracklings into the cloth. The lard would run through the cloth back into the pot and the cracklings stayed in the cloth.
When all the cracklings were removed from the pot leaving only the lard, the people holding the cloth would twist the cloth together so that the cracklings would not fall back into the pot. One of the men, usually the strongest one you could find, would squeeze the rest of the lard from the cracklings over the pot. We used what looked like two boat paddles connected at the wide end with a hinge to squeeze the cracklings as dry as possible. The cracklings were then dumped into a tub and salted. Almost magically hot sweet potatoes, peeled halfway back, would appear in the hands of children (and some adults, too). You’d stick your sweet potato in the cracklings and it would come out looking like an orange Nutty Buddy with cracklings stuck all over it. It tasted better than ice cream.
After the lard that was left in the pot cooled a little while, it was dipped from the pot into metal lard stands. These lard stands were round, had handles on either side, and held about five gallons of lard. They came with a metal lid which fit tightly over the top when the lard had cooled. When the lard completely cooled, it became a soft solid and white as snow. You had all the cooking oil you needed for a year.
As an aside, pork has been promoted as the new white meat. What this means is that hogs have been continually bred to produce lean meat. And the breeding has worked. I can attest to that fact given my experience with lard. As a young boy, if 15 hogs were killed we might get 20 or more stands of lard. By the time I was a grown man and we were coming to an end of hogkillings in our community, you were lucky to get 10 stands of lard from the same number of hogs. And that was 25 years ago.