While the meat was left to chill, the farmer rendered the lard. This process required considerable amount of time—approximately three hours. Lard rendering was another on of those butchering skills which many said they learned from watching. One said, “It wouldn’t be possible to learn it from written directions.” The farmer rendered lard because he needed it for preserving the various cuts of meat, and the farmwife used it for one of her choicest cooking fats before Crisco.
First, the fat was removed from the rind. This was called “skinning the fat.” The fat was cut into small ¾ inch squares. If the pieces were small and uniform in size, the lard rendered faster, and the lard yield was increased. A 400 pound hog usually yield about 100 pounds of lard. The pieces of fat were run through the coarse plate of the sausage grinder, and put into the thoroughly cleaned and cooled kettles on the cook stove, or in the cast iron kettle in the wash house. The farmer avoided using copper or brass kettles for rendering the lard, because contact with these metals caused the lard to get rancid quicker.
Before the fat was thrown into the rendering kettle, all the lean meat was trimmed off. Any fat with lean meat on it would drop to the bottom of the kettle and scorch, and thereby discolor the lard. This discoloration prevented housewives from obtaining their goal of having snow white soap. The fat was cooked slowly at a low temperature until it began to melt, and could be stirred freely in the kettle. The fat boiled and hissed as it released its oil or lard. From that point on the rendering process was speeded up by keeping the fire moderately hot. This meant that someone had to stir constantly the melting pieces, called cracklings by most, or “fryings” by the Amish Mennonites. This was to keep them from sticking and scorching, and boiling over. The German-Russian called the long wooden paddle, with which they stirred the rendering lard, a “reaholt.”
26. Some bricked up the kettle, Levi Prieb with meagrope, firekeeper stirring lard with a reaholt, located in wash house on rural farm near Lehigh,
27. Another rendering kettle with wooden paddles, reaholts, at Adobe Museum, Hillsboro, Kansas
Harley Stucky recalled that as a child he kept the fire stoked and the cracklings stirred. He said that it was not a such bad job, because he warmed himself, and at the same time told real or imaginary stories. The “keepers of the flame” was a responsible person who had to keep the fire at the right temperature, and he had to have patience to stir constantly the seething, foaming mass. The purpose of melting the lard was to steam off as much moisture as possible.
When the rendering lard became very hot, some farmers put the spare ribs into it and cooked the ribs until they were done. The German-Russians called these rendered ribs “reschpa.” To see if the ribs were done, a farmer took a rib out of the rendered lard and checked. If the bone twisted loose easily from the meat the ribs were ready to be removed from the lard. The rib spears were placed on a pan and salted, and some of these delicious spare ribs were sampled immediately. John Jost claimed that if he fried the spare ribs in the rendering lard, the cracklings and lard both had a better flavor.
The farmer kept watching the progression of the lard rendering, and when the porous cracklings turned brown and floated to the top, he removed the kettle from the fire, or he raked out the fire from under the kettle.209 Better yet, if the cracklings were just about ready the “keeper of the flame” left the fire die down. Some would chew around the pieces of fat before they reached the point of being crisp cracklings. The Amish Mennonites literally called this “chewing the fat.” The lard was properly rendered when it was sparkling clear, and the cracklings were dry, crisp, and golden brown. The aroma of the hot lard floated all over the building and even the farmyard.
Levi Prieb learned a unique trick from has German mother, who had immigrated to Kansas from Russia at the turn of the century. He learned that if the lard was correctly and completely rendered that he could stick his hand into the boiling hot lard and not get burned. Several confirmed that they saw him do it.
Many had their own way of determining the length of time to render lard. Some stopped cooking the fat when the cracklings were still floating, but others claimed that the lard was more completely rendered with the cracklings gradually suck to the bottom of the kettle. Yet others claimed that the lard was done when the steam ceased to rise. Sam Ratzlaff said the lard was done; that is, when the water was all out, and that was when the foam was completely off. So each used their own way of determining time.
The better the farmer rendered the lard, the more moisture he removed from the lard, and the lard kept longer. The rendered lard was allowed to settle and cool slightly before being emptied from the kettle. The liquid lard, containing the cracklings, was dipped out and strained through cheese cloth and colanders, or some put them directly into an upright black two gallon container. This had a built in lid, and a crank, and was called a lard press. The lard press was used to increase the amount of lard and to improve the quality of lard. When the crank on the lard press was turned, the lid went down and squeezed and excess lard out of the cracklings. This squeezing process resulted in the gushing out of clear, steaming oil from the holes at the bottom of the lard press and into a waiting crock. If the cracklings were to be kept for eating, then the farmer did not squeeze them hard. Joel Goertz said his father reported that seven to eight gallons of cracklings were yielded from fifteen to twenty gallons of lard. Cracklings have been often referred to as “Mennonite” delicacy. Some saved the cracklings and used them for breakfast food, Some fixed them with scrambled eggs, or put them as flavoring in cornbread, or cookies. Cracklings were stored in crocks, just like the lard, or the larded down meat. However, cracklings did not keep as long as lard. The leaf fat was often rendered separately. It made exceptionally mild flavored and textured shortening. This delicacy was saved for making cakes, cookies, and pastries.
28. Lard Press and sausage stuffer of Levi Prieb
29. Lard press, bell scraper, and hand meat grinder, Adobe Museum, Hillsboro Kansas.
If the finished lard product was not pure white it meant that the farmer had scorched the lard, or had left too much lean meat on the fat. The finished product was left set, to allow the settlings to go to the bottom. The German-Russians called these settlings “Greasi Schomt,” and they salted and used them like butter for homemade bread, or they saved them for later soap making. To store the lard properly the farmer had to watch out for light, air, and moisture. These were the three main causes of rancidity in lard. To avoid these the lard was stored in a covered crock in a dark, cool place, such as a cellar or cave.