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Butchering Day 2010

Butchering’s a family tradition

By Elwood Yoder

Why would 15 members of the Risser family gather early on a bitterly cold January day to butcher three hogs?

From left, Maria Yoder, Lena Risser and Leah Risser cut meat on butchering day at the Risser farm in Greencastle, Pa., on Jan. 9.

From left, Maria Yoder, Lena Risser and Leah Risser cut meat on butchering day at the Risser farm in Greencastle, Pa., on Jan. 9.

For one, it keeps us in touch with the farm, our heritage and the ethos of the Earth. We also butcher because it is a fun family event that the younger generation enjoys and insists we plan again.

Since as long as anyone in the family can remember, probably going back hundreds of years to Europe, the Rissers have had butchering days. Whenever someone joins the family, he or she is invited to sharpen a knife, come for the day, eat fresh pork tenderloin, liver, mashed potatoes and sauerkraut, and risk the bitter cold on an 86-acre dairy farm in Greencastle, Pa.

Stirring the pudding pot and keeping the fire going all day are jobs that help the younger generation appreciate farm life and understand where their food comes from. The family spends the day cutting fat off pork, carving up tenderloins, grinding sausage meat, making pudding, and at the end, pouring out hot pans of ponhaus, which is cornmeal mixed with the meat broth from the big iron kettle that’s been simmering over the fire.

Butchering pigs is not a tradition I grew up with. But soon after I started dating Joy Risser I was invited to a butchering day, probably to see whether I could work and whether I would fit into farm family dynamics. Years ago the Rissers scraped the hair off the pigs’ hides, which was hard work. Today we don’t need or want the lard, so we skin the pigs after we kill them in the morning.

As our three children grew older, I thought they would reject butchering day as archaic and gross, something that didn’t fit with their digitally connected, college-educated lifestyle. But I was wrong. Now it is our young-adult children — 24, 21 and 17 years old — who insist on another butchering day.

The Risser and Yoder young adults like the day of work so much they bring their friends. My oldest son brought his Korean college roommate two years ago, and this year he brought a work friend from Washington, D.C. Neither of my son’s friends had ever seen such an event before.

Each year we have several non-family members helping out. Neighbors drop by to help. College friends come along to see what butchering is all about. Everyone goes home with sausage or tenderloins or other cuts of meat.

Recently my oldest son, who works in a biotech research lab just outside Washington, told his colleagues that he has two uncles who own and run dairy farms. His city friends, some of whom had never seen cows milked, were astonished that he had those connections to rural America.

At some point this fall, Phil Risser and I will hold a very short conversation. My wife’s brother and I will ask each other, “Are we going to do it again?” With hardly a nod, we’ll start figuring out a day when it will suit the most members of the family to butcher.

Elwood Yoder teaches history and Bible at Eastern Mennonite High School, Harrisonburg, Va., and is a member of Zion Mennonite Church, Broadway.

March 1, 2010 Mennonite Weekly Review