RIDGEVILLE, S.C. — It was 37 degrees at 4 a.m. in this small town about 40 minutes northwest of Charleston. Under a black February sky, a few men gathered logs to start a fire in a large backyard.
Among their gruff voices, the grunts of a large, black hog — a Red Wattle cross — could be heard from a nearby trailer. In a few hours, the 650-pound animal would serve Marvin Ross and his community, preserving a tradition that has spanned generations.
Though they aren’t as common as they once were, hog slaughters are still occasions of culinary and cultural preservation in many places around the world. In the American South, they unite Black people around a tradition that dates to enslavement, yet even here these gatherings are disappearing.
“It creates a sense of community and family getting together,” said Mr. Ross, 38, an owner of Peculiar Pig Farm in Dorchester, S.C., and the organizer of this annual hog slaughter, once led by his grandfather Thomas Henry Ross.
“At the end of the day, we divide the meat among the people that are there to give them something to take back,” he said. “It’s a reminder for them that you don’t have to rely on grocery stores, and you still can get out there and provide for yourself.”
Mr. Ross and two of his brothers, Jair and Jada, remember standing outdoors with their grandfather on cold winter mornings, getting ready to kill, deconstruct and devour a large hog. The family’s process has largely remained the same. Before this mid-February morning, Marvin had selected one of his own hogs and corralled him into a red trailer. As the sky faded into a serene light blue with strokes of morning orange, the Ross brothers and their friends, all men, boiled water over a burn barrel.
Just after 9 a.m., the hog was shot in the head and then its throat was slit; the men watched as blood drained from its neck. Though somewhat gruesome, the process allows the animal to die faster, sparing unnecessary suffering.
Several men helped move the hog from the trailer to a large, mobile tub. There, they poured the boiling water over it. Adding lime to the water, they scraped the black hair from the hide and discarded it. As the men toiled with the huge swine, a small but growing group of visitors arrived, some of whom grew up going to hog slaughters in their own communities and some who were attending their first. The men made jokes and comments to ease the workload and entertain their mesmerized audience.
“It’s a slow process, but believe me, wait till you see the outcome,” Willis Spells said as he worked. “It’s like meat butter in your mouth!”
From left, Mr. Ross, helped by Bernard Williams, Akeem Wilson and Greg Snell, moved the hog from the trailer to a mobile bathtub. Credit…Clay Williams for The New York Times
Once the men hoisted the hog, nose down, with a cable winch, Mr. Willis grabbed his knife, carved into the pig and began to remove its internal organs.
Charles Young Sr., who has played a role on the processing team for about 25 years, said he and his family have long taken part in the tradition, both for community and for a deep appreciation of the meat, from the farm to the table.
“Believe it or not, it’s almost like a work of art,” he said, while gazing up at the animal. “Everything has to be in a systematic order.”
Adrian Miller, a food scholar and the author of “Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue,” said hog slaughters are rooted in the American South.
“Hog butchering or hog killing, as it was commonly called, was the high point in the agricultural calendar in the rural South,” Mr. Miller said. “It was a time when typically, in the antebellum period on the plantations, several hundred hogs were killed at one point, and the idea was to have enough meat to last through the rest of the year.”
In the ritual, performed in the fall or winter before the return of flies, the slaughtered hog was broken down. Cuts like ham and belly would be kept in a smokehouse for long-term use and some of the meat would be pickled. Large quantities of fat were preserved to make soap and for cooking, and parts like chitlins, lungs and the liver were eaten almost immediately.
“Those had to be processed and eaten very soon after, because these were the days before refrigeration,” Mr. Miller said.
At the Ross event, the processing happened right away. Mr. Young is affectionately known as “the head man,” for his knack for cleaning and processing a hog’s head, which in some regions, can be used for “souse,” a head cheese, or the pork- and rice-based dish known as puddin’.
The rest of the body was sliced into four parts, and for a few hours, numerous men hacked away, slicing, dicing and salting as they saw fit. The work is so intensive that a celebration usually follows.
Nora E. Doctor, 73, is a Ridgeville town council member who was unable to attend during the pandemic. For her, returning to the event was a reminder of the joys and flavors of her childhood during the 1950s and ’60s.
“I remember when I was a little girl, my mother and father would always kill a hog, and my mom’s sister and her husband, they would all come together and do it,” she said.
Ms. Doctor recalled making cracklin’ cornbread with crispy pork skin and pork pot — a dish of hog parts like maw (stomach), fresh neck bones and pig ears, stewed down with onion, sage and coriander, and served with rice.
As she spoke, a pot of grits simmered near another, smaller hog that had already been processed and was smoking over a fire pit. A cast-iron pot of smoky Sea Island red peas with pork helped to ward off the persistent chill — and bring in the salty, porky flavors that often define Lowcountry cuisine.
“It’s history, and it’s something to be kept alive and kept around,” said Ellis Ross, Marvin’s uncle. “Future generations need to know how things were done by the ancestors and where they came from.”
For the Ross family, the ritual is about the awareness — and the honoring — of how food systems work. “I always thank the animal for its life, and for what it’s giving us and our community,” Jada Ross said.
At his farm in Dorchester, just under 10 miles from their grandmother’s home, Marvin Ross continues this ethos. Raising goats, pigs, ducks, hogs and chickens, Mr. Ross is constantly thinking about regenerative agriculture and sustainability. Serving nearby clients like The Grey and Husk, he has created incentives for customers to purchase and use an entire animal, rather than just the ribs or loins.
A fifth-generation farmer, Mr. Ross believes he is one of just a handful of Black farmers in the area. Farming and continuing the hog-killing tradition is one way he helps preserve his family’s legacy and connection to the land, and to rewrite false narratives about Black food and eating.
For Mr. Miller, the author, some of those false narratives show up in food histories.
“The fact that the internal organs were eaten really feeds this narrative that soul food is really about the parts that white people did want to cast off,” he said. “Which is like a lot of things, partly true, partly false. Because there’s a lot of white people who eat those same things.”
As the day pushed on, the smells of charred onion, smoky beans and tomatoes filled the yard. Some of the meat was now going through a grinder, to be cased and served as sausages for guests to take home. On a table filled with cookout staples like macaroni and cheese, there was a pot of conch, oxtail and smoked pork; red rice with sausage; chili with pork sausage. Also on offer was one of the most important dishes at a hog slaughtering: hash, a dish of liver, head, lungs and various seasonings served over rice.
The afternoon became evening, and visitors dug into tender bits of pork while talking and laughing with one another, as children ran around the yard. Marvin Ross and his brothers — marked with dirt and ash — looked deeply satisfied as they dug into another bowl of Mr. Ross’s red peas.
Until the mid-20th century, hog slaughters were a regular event. Now, Mr. Ross believes he is one of only a few who still do this sort of work. It is a loss attributable in part to the dwindling number of Black farmers (less than 2 percent of American farmers are Black), according to the food historian Michael Twitty, but also to the shame that emerged from doing long, grueling and exploitative labor on American land.
Mr. Twitty said: “The elders were on the Great Migration tip, and they’re like: ‘We ain’t doing that no more. I’ve had enough. I’m not gardening; I’m not fishing; I’m not doing a hog killing. I ain’t doing no damn chitlins, all of that work.’”
While the relationship between Black people and land was corrupted by slavery, Mr. Ross is among a growing group that is reclaiming American land and working to transform agriculture.
“People always want to talk about, you know, how do we make this better?” he said. “You’ve got to get close to the land to learn how.”
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