The scene was worthy of Harry Potter: five grown men attending to five giant cauldrons, with the billowing steam obscuring every other form under the long open shed where they stood.
At 6 o'clock in the morning early this month, an hour before what would be a snowy dawn, the men of the Jefferson Ruritan Club in Frederick County already had been working for more than an hour butchering hogs.
For 35 years or so, Jefferson Ruritan members have butchered hogs to raise money for their civic projects, selling most of the meat but holding back the hams to cure and sell later, in sandwiches, at dinners and during their summer carnival. It's their way of celebrating and preserving their agrarian heritage.
It's also a major social event.
About half the men helping this morning aren't even members of this club; some aren't even Ruritans. There are retired butchers like Larry Jones, the committee chairman for the event; telephone linemen; plumbers; construction workers; and retired federal workers.
"It's a lot of fun, really, the fellowship of guys," explained John Lovell, hours before he would head off to do his "county commissioner duties."
But for now, there was work to be done.
The hogs, raised locally, had been killed and cleaned in a federally inspected slaughterhouse near Hagerstown and brought the afternoon before to the butchering site, adjoining the Ruritan community center and Jefferson fire station, an area southwest of Frederick city.
"We were going to cut 10 or 12 last night, and then they called for snow and we went ahead and cut them all," Jones said.
The cauldrons held the remnants of those 35 hogs: innards, heads and whatever else was left after the meat for chops, tenderloins, bacon and hams had been separated. By midday, the leftovers would be transformed into 60 gallons of pudding and 120 gallons of scrapple.
Two other large kettles in the shed's adjacent bay were filled with fat and skin, and were being cooked down to render lard and the tasty bits known as crackling. Industrial-size propane tanks fed the flames under each of the iron kettles as the men -- little more than voices in the mist -- hollered greetings to latecomers and traded jokes among themselves.
Across a plowed driveway, 30 more men were dealing with the more recognizable cuts of meat, weighing out the chunks of pork shoulder and other odd pieces that would be seasoned and then ground into nearly a ton of sausage. Some prepared the casings, others cut up 500 pounds of pork chops, and still more matched the trimmed meat to the 200-plus individual orders that had to be ready for pickup the next day.
JR Arnold began loading the flanks and hams on the back of his pickup truck to take them to a nearby building for curing. There, Lovell and his lifelong friend Charles Summers, who retired as a scientific instrument maker from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, were preparing the curing agents in large black plastic pans usually used for mixing concrete.
The recipe: 25 pounds of salt, two pounds of ground black pepper, one pound of ground red pepper, four pounds of brown sugar and 15 pounds of Morton Salt Cure with smoke. It would take four times that recipe for the 70 slabs of bacon and 70 hams.
"It's the mix old-timers use," Lovell said. "Everyone will say they have a secret recipe, but that's the one they use."
The 60 hams from the club's December butchering, recently transferred to mesh bags, hung from the rafters along with a couple of dozen mature hams from last year's butchering. Rough wooden shelves where the fresh hams could be placed had been sprinkled with salt.
As Lovell lightly coated the bacon slabs with the curing agents, Summers started on the hams. "You just need enough on the ham to track a rabbit," Summers laughed. Then he translated: A hunter needs only a light dusting of snow to be able to track a rabbit, and that's all the cure that is needed on the cut side of the meat.
The hams then were placed skin side down on the wooden shelves, where they will lie for eight weeks before the cure is scraped off and they are hung.
Lovell stacked the slabs of bacon, cut sides together, four deep on the shelves at the other end of the small room. They need only about a week to cure, and then they will be sold.
Back in the main building, King George of Jefferson seasoned the sausage mix. It seems that George Lakin was chosen king during a bicentennial celebration and he liked the title, so he kept it.
The meat destined for sausage had been divided into 50-pound portions and packed in clean plastic buckets until Lakin could work his magic. He emptied a bucket of meat on the long wooden table, anointed it with his special seasoning (1/2 cup of black pepper, 1 cup of salt or perhaps a little less, and a handful of brown sugar), mixed the meat together and put it back in the bucket, ready for grinding.
Another team of men handled the grinding, feeding the meat into the grinder and catching it in galvanized washtubs that were then carried into an adjoining room where the ground meat was packed into the barrels of sausage stuffers.
But first, the casings (made from hog intestines) had to be loaded onto the stuffing nozzle, a delicate and meticulous operation. The casings, which were purchased already cleaned, were soaked in warm water and carefully separated, then pushed onto the nozzle.
When the casings were ready, one man worked the lever that fed the meat through the stuffer while another handled the casings, monitoring them for any splits.
"Blowout!" cried Charlie Rickman of Frederick, as a casing bulged out and then broke open, spilling out meat. He tore off the filled casing, gathered up the loose meat and tossed it back into the galvanized tub to be reloaded later. Then the stuffing resumed, the long, thick ropes of sausage falling into large plastic tubs.
Back outside, the broth and the cooked meats and offal had been separated, and it was time to prepare the scrapple. Giant sacks of cornmeal and flour were poured into the bubbling cauldrons (the proportion was two parts cornmeal to one part flour), the lumps were whisked out and the scrapple was cooked for about an hour -- "Until you can't taste the cornmeal," advised Sam Pearson, who was stirring one of the vats.
By lunchtime, the men had finished. And by the next day, everything produced had been sold.
The Jefferson Ruritan Club will hold its annual carnival the last weekend of July on the grounds of its community center, just off the Lander Road exit on Route 340. Ham sandwiches from the hams cured by club members will be sold then. The next butchering will be the first Saturday in December. For more information, see www.jeffersonmd.net.