Processin’ A Deer by Gary Benton
In the Missouri Ozarks, processin’ a deer rates right up there with the excitement of a wedding. It’s a gala affaire and is as well planned and organized as a wedding. See, you can’t just kill a deer and throw him in the smokehouse. It has to be done correctly and properly. Not necessarily for the deer, but for those involved in the process. People come for miles around to help and to socialize at this special event.
As a youngster, the violence and the whole process that took place at this event always amazed me. Now, I was smart enough to realize that meat didn’t grow setting on a plastic tray wrapped in plastic wrap. Something had to die. On a farm you learned at a very young age that if man was to survive something else usually died to assure this survival. It is a basic fact of life.
The deer fell twice as the 30.06 caliber slug struck him right behind his left leg, but the last time he didn’t get up. Before he’d stopped twitchin’ my uncle was out of his tree-stand and had a butcher knife stuck up to its handle in the deer’s throat. Almost immediately the animal was dead. We then gutted the critter and dragged (you don’t lift a big buck) him onto a sled made out of an old car hood. The hood was tied to the rear bumper of a truck. From there we would pull him to our house, under one of the big oak trees. Now the real work was about to start.
The deer, tied by the hind legs, was hoisted up until his nose was about 18 inches off the ground. Then the free end of the rope was draped over a large limb and tied to the tree trunk. By raising or lowering the rope you could control the height the deer was hanging at. While all of this was going on the men would be discussing their farm problems, rain, coon huntin’, or other backwoods subjects. The women, now that was a different story all together.
As a young male, the house was off limits to me at all times during the day. The house belonged to my momma, and it was her territory. Regardless of the weather I was expected to stay out of-doors. This policy was ok with me; after all, I had only seen one lizard in the house and maybe one scorpion, not much to keep my attention with a limited critter list like that. So, throw me out of that brush pile bro’ fox.
Anyway, on this particular day I walked into the house just to see what the women folks were up to. I should have stayed outside. I had just entered when I heard momma’s strong Missouri voice say, “Looky here ladies, we got us a volunteer.”
Not being a rocket scientist, but still smart enough to cipher a little, I knew I had wondered up the wrong trail. I smiled, looked at the group of women and said with a weak voice, “I jest came in fer a drink of water.”
“Well, now yer here, ya can help us a bit.” My mom said with a grin.
“What now?” I thought to myself. I figured whatever it was, it beat cuttin’ up a deer. Boy, was I ever wrong.
The ladies were gathered around my momma’s quiltin’ frame working on some ugly old patchwork quilt. I knew she didn’t need my assistance in quiltin’, but I was unsure what she did have in mind. My mother and grandma prodded me toward the kitchen and up to mom’s old wood cookin’ stove. Maybe they wanted me to keep the firewood stacked up for what ever was cooking on the stove. Well, that was part of it, the easiest part.
I noticed a very large pot on the stove and it was sending a cloud of steam into the air of the kitchen. Grandma removed the heavy lid and said with a grin, “Since you like the house so much, ya can turn this thing every once in a while”. I took one gander at the contents of that pot and almost lost my lunch. It contained a hog’s head one of the ladies had given my momma. It was looking at me with a lopsided grin.
I spent hours turning that head so it would cook down and become an important part of grandma’s headcheese recipe. I was grossed out every time I had to turn it, or add water. It’s never closing eyes would stare up at me as if to ask, “Now, how did this happen?”
I’ve not really cared much for headcheese since then and know exactly what a label means when it says “meat byproducts.” I don’t remember ever entering the house again unless the weather was really fowl and I had no choice. I can assure you, I never entered the house ever again during the processin’ of a deer or right after a hog butcherin’.
For many folks in the hills, deer processin’ and hog butcherin’ were times to gather with friends and socialize. For some of us it was a time to experience the shock of violence, to realize that man killed to survive, and a time for those of us who meandered a little too close to the kitchen it was the time to turn a hog’s head all day.