Meat Preservation and Smoke Houses

Before twentieth century refrigeration, farm animals were customarily slaughtered in the late Fall after being fattened during the summer months; consequently there were feasts of fresh meat during this season. However, most of the meat was carefully preserved to last throughout the long winter months and the following summer season. This Heritage Paper looks at how meat was preserved before refrigeration, and at smoke houses, an important part of the preservation ritual.

In Upper Canada most preserved meat was pork — pigs were cheaper to buy and easier to keep because they could root in the woods for their food. While almost all the flesh on the hog carcass was used, the sides, hams and shoulders were selected as the best pieces, and were often sold at local markets or to butchers for a little extra income.

Pork was preserved by a combination of salting, pickling, and smoking. Salting was a dry method of preservation in which salt was rubbed vigorously into fresh meat by hand, which was then packed into a barrel to await smoking. Pickling involved packing the meat into a mixture containing saltpetre, which helped to preserve the meat and retain its colour. The following recipe for a “pickle for Hams, Cheeks and Shoulders”, is taken from, “The Canadian Settler’s Guide” — Catharine Parr Traill.

“Fourteen pounds of good salt, half a pound of saltpetre, two quarts of molasses or four pounds of coarse brown sugar, with water enough to dissolve the salt, and a pint of good beer or of vinegar, if you can command either … The addition of pepper, allspice and cloves is made by some who like a high flavour to the hams.”

This pickle was boiled and the impurities were removed. When cold, it was poured over the hams and left to sit for six or eight weeks. Meat in salt or pickle barrels was turned and basted occasionally, and watched to make sure it stayed under the brine. Scraps of pork meat were utilized to make souse or sausage, which were stored in large crocks, and the fat was rendered into lard for cooking. When required, the meat scraps were chopped, seasoned and then stuffed into the washed entrails or cotton bags.

Eventually most of this salted or pickled meat was smoked. It was removed from the wooden barrels, washed, rubbed with salt again, and hung in the smoke house until cured.

After smoking for about two to six weeks, the hung meat was removed and covered with a linen, cotton or flannel bag. To keep flies, moths, worms and beetles off the meat, Mrs. Traill suggested that the bag “be whitewashed”, another method involving dipping the bag into salt water several times, until it “becomes saturated with salt, which on drying, crystallizes, and forms an impervious barrier to flies and is quite air tight”. The smoked meat or shambles were then hung and examined occasionally for mould or infection from flies or worms. Tainted meat was taken down, washed in vinegar, and eaten immediately, infested joints were fed to the dogs.

Most established settlers had a smoke house — an out-building which was reserved for smoking meat. These were amazingly simple, being nothing but an airtight little shed with a dirt floor — large enough for a person to enter and hence the name house. A fire pit was set in the centre, on which green wood was burned, preferably hickory, birch, sugar maple, white ash and beechwood. Maple chips and corn-cobs gave a special flavour to the meat which was hung above — often protected by a tin screen, and as far away as possible from the rising heat.

Some smoke houses had ash bins where ashes would smoulder till dead; meats were sometimes buried directly in the ash bin for better preservation. Although most smoke houses were completely airtight, some had vents at the sill line, and others had a chimney with an adjustable cover so that the fire could be better controlled.

Today, the smoke house, like the root cellar and the spring house, is numbered and found wanting among the buildings on the up-to-date farm. Only two smoke houses are known still to be existence in East Flamborough Township. A small stone example at the Buchan house, Main and Hamilton Streets, Waterdown, shows little evidence of such use; the floor has been filled in, and when purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Aird Wilson, it was surrounded by overgrown bushes and in use as a tool shed.

At the Rising Sun Hotel in Baker’s Hollow on Centre Road, between the Fifth and Sixth Concession, there is a large brick smoke house on the property that was formerly owned by the Baker family. This smoke house was in a state of near-collapse when purchased by the present owners in 1978. The outer rubble foundations of the fire pit were exposed and crumbling, causing the upper walls to show signs of weakness. The building was of such historical interest that the owners decided it should not be lost — the upper structure was jacked-up and the foundations were carefully removed so footings could be put in. When excavated, the foundations of the fire pit were between five and six feet in depth and eighteen inches wide — suggesting that the building may have been constructed to last. A small hole in the roof may have been where a chimney formerly existed.

Mr. Norman Creen remembers visiting the Baker home during his youth, and recalls that the smoke house was in use at that time — hogs slaughtered on the Creen farm were taken to the Baker smoke house in the late fall/early winter for smoking into hams.

References:

“The Canadian Settler’s Guide” – Catharine Parr Traill, 1855. McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, 1966.
“Out of Old Ontario Kitchens” – Christina Bates. Pagurian Press, Toronto, 1878.
Conversations with Mrs. Aird Wilson, Mr. Norman Creen and Mr. Cecil Hamilton.

Originally published in Heritage Happenings, April 1983.

© The Waterdown-East Flamborough Heritage Society 1983, 2020.

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