The blue Ford pickup crunches frozen grass as the sun peeks over Stoney Man Ridge. Frank Knight pulls his truck to a halt, then ambles across the yard toward the fire. Caressing the warmth with his gloveless hands, he looks around a circle of kinfolk and friends. Their cheeks are red, their eyes reflect the dancing flames.
Behind the truck, three fat Yorkshire hogs huddle in a horse trailer. Knight lifts his cap, runs a hand through his hair, replaces the cap.
"Reckon it's time to shoot 'em," he says.
"Reckon so," says his father, Earl. Then Earl motions to another son. "Doll, go on and get yourself a knife and get in that trailer. Let's get to it."
So with the pop of a small-bore rifle and the glint of a long steel knife, the traditional Knight family hog slaughter begins. There will be blood in the yard behind the house at Frank Knight's Page County farm, and the turkeys and the roosters and a half-dozen cats will smell the pungent odor and come to hunt for scraps. The humans will cut and saw, tear and grind and cook over bubbling cauldrons. And at the end of this December day there will be Christmas hams instead of snorting hogs; bacon and ribs and sausage and scrapple enough to last the year.
It would be easier, if not cheaper, to buy all these foods at a grocery store. Earl Knight, veteran of 60 years of butcherings, will tell you that home-butchered pork doesn't taste much different than the kind that's bought in a store. But you can't hang a canned ham by a rope in the curing house or season your sausage to taste or get your family and friends together for a day at the Safeway.There's no tradition in pre-packed, even if it is cleaner. Used to be all the Knights, brothers and sisters and cousins, 35 or 40 of them, would get together this time of year for the ritual. They'd butcher 15 hogs or more in one day's time, men killing and then scalding, then cutting, then grinding. "Butcherin' day was a lot like Christmas day," Earl Knight recalls.
But on this day, there are only a dozen friends and family members gathered and only three hogs to slaughter, 680 pounds bought from a neighbor for 57 cents a pound. As it was, they had trouble finding the hogs. Earlier in the week, they had agreed to purchase their pigs from a neighboring farmer, but the night before the scheduled slaughter, the farmer was nowhere to be found.
A frantic search of the area, and then an offer of one-half cent over the going price finally put them in pork. The unavailablity of hogs for sale piqued Earl Knight, who sees it as a function of progress. These days, most farmers sell their hogs to market, he says.
"People nowadays just don't butcher like they used to," Earl Knight says. "They've grown up to where they don't know how to do nothing no more." Standing beside him, Billy Rose agrees.
Billy, 27, and his wife Laurie Ann, 25, have risen at 4 a.m. to drive more than 100 miles for the slaughter at Knight's farm. Billy works with Frank and Jacob, known as "Doll," at his father's roofing company in Arlington, and every year for the last three they have made the trip out from South Glebe Road to lay in a store of pork.
For about a dollar a pound, the Roses had tenderloin up until August, sausage and pork rinds until last month. She still has some scrapple and a ham in the freezer, but she says that the trip to Luray is more a matter of form than it is of necessity. Both she and Billy grew up in the suburbs, but they like to think of themselves as country folk, as people who value the quiet rural peace over plastic city convenience, who love the sound of their jacked-up truck rumbling over gravel roads, and the feel of crisp cold air.
And now, at the first slaughter since the birth of their daughter, Billy and Laurie Ann Rose seem go about the business of butchering with new intensity, Billy taking instruction from old Earl Knight, Laurie Ann helping the men with the butchering while the other wives cook dinner.
Laurie Ann says she and Billy are looking for some land of their own near Luray. "It's just gotten to the point that we don't want to be in the city any longer," she says. "The schools are going to hell and there's too much crime. It's just not the kind of place to bring up a child. We want her to grow up with the good country values that people around here have."
And so it is that the Roses have come to meet the Knights, and blood has been spilled and the tradition has been continued. "Maybe next year we'll be doing this at our own place out here," Laurie Ann Rose says.