Sunday Journal: Would wartime pigs of promise become smoked ham?

Rationing of basic goods like sugar and butter were par for the course during World War II. Quality cuts of meat were scarce. To supplement what my father considered a great deprivation, we raised chickens for eggs and sometimes Sunday dinner, but smoked ham browning in a pan, thin edges curling, wafting salty succulent vapors, was a memory by 1945. A whole country ham, brined and cured in a smokehouse for Christmas, was a wish that would fall on Santa's deaf ear that year. But it was a wish my father decided he could grant by raising pigs.

"There will not be another Christmas without a ham."

Like the war poster compelling that THIS MEANS YOU, well, that meant me. In the spring he staked a low fence with barbed wire to form a pen in the field behind the barn and bought four half-grown pigs called shoats. For a few days they were content with uprooting all the grass inside the pen, then continued their search for fresh grass and new digs. A neighbor called, "Tell your dad we saw some hogs run by. Are they yours?" Dad, Mom and I jumped into the 1936 Dodge and began searching the road beyond our neighbors. "There they are, just ahead," Mom said. But I only see three."

Dad quickly drove away looking for the fourth, leaving Mom and me. We began shooing the other three with cries of "sooie . . . sooie." Pigs zigzagged across the road with little progress toward home. The squealing and grunting attracted a neighbor who called from the safety of her porch, "When are we going to have the pig roast?" We picked up some stout sticks and with frequent swats they ran for home, little corkscrew tails bobbing on their naked white rumps.

After repeated escapes, a local farmer came by. "Heard you are having trouble with them pigs. Only thing to stop them critters is to electrify the fence." For a time this was a workable solution until they learned to escape by digging deeper.

Neighbors thought it a great sport to interrupt the party line we shared with four families, "The Wolfs' pigs just ran by."

By autumn, they stopped digging and found entertainment at feeding time by crowding the fence and leaving nearly nowhere for me to step without touching the electric fence. Despite rubber boots, I was terrified of being shocked. I could distract them by throwing table scraps far into the pen, but soon they recognized the slop pail and stood staring with their piggy eyes daring me to enter their domain. Feeding became easier when Dad decided to fatten them with corn. Throwing the cobs far from the dreaded fence distracted the hogs enough for a dash to the trough to pour the slop and escape.

Dad worked in Washington, D.C., but on weekends wanted updates on his porkers. "Dad, they're so big, they shove and push me into the fence. I'll be electrocuted. I'll fall in the muck." His reply: "Just think, we'll have ham for Christmas."

In November, Dad found a farmer willing to butcher the hogs, brine them and then smoke them. His payment would be a share of the meat. It was a relief to be rid of the critters. Upon their departure, Dad rubbed his palms as though preparing to sit down to a glorious feast. "Ham for Christmas. Real pork in the freezer for winter."

Weeks went by and the farmer stopped one day and asked my mom, "The mister around?"

"Alfred's in Washington. Do you want him to come for the meat? I don't have a car this week."

"Ma'am, just have him stop over when he gets back."

Dad came home Friday night, and rather than sleep late on Saturday he was up at the crack of dawn, eager to see the farmer. "He'll be up early. I'm going over to get the meat, Ethel," he said to my mother. "Ham tonight, nothing but ham tonight." And he left humming a three-note tune.

At lunch we sat around the table and talked about the upcoming feast. "Let's fry it." "No, bake it." "Can we have ham and eggs?"

"We'll let Dad make the choice," Mother said. "I wonder what's taking him so long."

A car door slammed and all eyes turned as we heard footsteps on the porch. Dad quietly entered, hands limp and empty.

"Where's the meat?" we asked.

Dad couldn't speak.

"Alfred, what's wrong?"

With tears in his eyes Dad said, "They're all spoiled."

Mom's voice quivered. "What do you mean, spoiled?"

"That damn farmer didn't know what he was doing, the brine was wrong, and the meat got too warm."

"Surely some of it is good? Just one ham?"

Dad shook his head, opened the door to the stairs, climbed slowly up and slammed the bedroom door.

For supper, Mom cooked our wartime substitute for baked ham: a can of Spam covered with brown sugar and mustard.

Dad refused to eat.

Pat Brown is a facilitator at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Eckerd College and teaches memoir writing in the lifelong learning program at St. Petersburg College.

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Sunday Journal: Would wartime pigs of promise become smoked ham? 05/22/10 [Last modified: Friday, May 21, 2010 5:55pm]

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