The Smokehouse – Preserving Meat in Eastern Kentucky

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The smokehouse is a tradition in Appalachia and Eastern Kentucky. Long before the days of refrigeration, meat, mostly pork in Appalachia, was cured and preserved on family farms in buildings called smokehouses. Hams and bacon were the primary cuts of pork you would find hanging in these smokehouses. The buildings were sometimes log, concrete block, or other material. My grandfather’s smokehouse was a building made of lumber, coupled with a root cellar, and it had a sleeping loft as a second floor.

Smokehouses are windowless buildings with one door, a vent, and a smokestack. Of course, there is a stove for the smoking. Most have racks to hang the meat after curing and smoking. You will usually find a padlock on the door because the meat is a valuable commodity. It literally insured the family’s survival for the winter.

Pork was a staple in the diet of the Eastern Kentucky people. Although they raised some dairy cattle, they raised few beef cattle because there was not enough flat land for grazing. Pork and chicken were the primary meats on my grandparent’s table. One of my guilty food pleasures, to this day, is an old-fashioned country ham, just like my grandfather used to smoke. Smokehouses still exist on farms all across Kentucky and Kentucky-smoked hams are expensive treasures that are often part of the feasts at the holidays. For the early settlers of Appalachia and Eastern Kentucky right up into the early 20th century, smokehouses were necessary parts of the family farm. Without them, the population would have not had meat to live.

The process of curing and preserving meat is not complicated but it has to be done properly in order for the meat to be safely preserved. Usually, the meat is rubbed with a coarse salt and then you rest it. You repeat this rub and rest process several times. This is what is called salt-curing and it is done to pull the moisture out of the meat.

After the curing process is complete, you can begin the smoking process. You have to find the right kind of wood to burn to smoke the meat. The first rule is never to use soft wood such as pine. Such wood has resin in it. Always use hardwood and many like to use wood from fruit trees. Hickory is another wood of choice. The fire is lit and the fire burns very slowly. The goal is to kill any bugs or bacteria in the meat by bringing the meat up to a certain temperature for a long period of time, usually a period of months. Then, the meat is wrapped in cheesecloth and hung on racks to dry and cure. Some cure their meat for as long as a year or more, particularly pork. Other meats may not take as long to cure.

My grandfather, in Magoffin County, KY, raised a lot of pigs. I used to love to help him “slop the hogs.” They never let me around when it was time to slaughter them. But, I remember the smokehouse and the smoking meat vividly…..which made for delicious family dinners. Many years later, one of my aunts used to send, for Christmas, a country ham to my Uncle Tincy, who was stationed at one Air Force base or another, some overseas. We all grew up loving those smoked hams.

The largest concentration of smokehouses can be found in Virginia, with many associated with Colonial Williamsburg. Smokehouses are a valuable part of the history and culture of Eastern KY and Appalachia in general. #EasternKentucky #Appalachia #culture #history #amwriting #writers #blogger #bloggerswanted

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