Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Hog Butcher for the World...

Hog Butcher for the World...

Chicago (Chicago Poems, Carl Sandburg, 1916)

Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:
They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities;
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people, Laughing!
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

The Union Stockyards

The Union Stock Yards and Transit Company formed in 1864 to consolidate the widespread, smaller stockyards common at the time.  Changes in rail transportation made it expedient to bring animals from all over the United States to a central location to be slaughtered and butchered and then shipped out in a packaged and prepared form.  By 1865, 320 acres of swampland southwest of the evergrowing City of Chicago were bought and channels were cut to drain the area into the South fork of the South Branch of the Chicago River.  The newly built "Yards", as they came to be known, were connected to the main rail lines passing throught the city by 15 miles of track.

The growth was dramatic.  By 1900, 82 % of United States meat consumption was supplied by the Yards and 25,000 people were employed to produce this abundance of meat.  The Yards had grown to 475 acres and had 130 miles of track along its perimeter, along with 50 miles of road within its borders.  At its height, in the 1920s, the Yards grew to one square mile and employed 40,000 people in total.  The first truly global multinational corporations, Armour and Swift, were prominent players in the development of the meatpacking industry and made the Yards what they were.  By the 1930s, the Stockyards built the International Amphitheatre as a means to showcase the livestock.  Eventually, the Amphitheatre outlived the stockyards by a number of years and became the venue for a number of rock shows, rodeos, religious conventions, and the infamous 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Between 1908 and 1957, the Yards even had its own L line to bring in the workers and tourists.

Stockyard "L" Being Built

I was alive when the line was running, but I never rode on it... I guess my mom didn't want me making a scene by trying to get to the meat!  My first and only memory of the Yards was when my Mom took us to Rodeo Shows at the Amphitheatre when I was about 8 years old.  We would take the Congress L to Halsted and then transfer to the #8 Halsted bus to go south to the show at 42nd Street.  I remember getting on the bus and seeing the University of Illinois Chicago Circle Campus being built and my mom presciently saying that maybe, someday, I would go to college there. 

Behavioral Sciences Building at UICC Under Construction

The rodeos were awesome and my brother and I enjoyed them thoroughly.  I remembered seeing nicely penned and groomed stockyard animals (these were the showpiece animals, after all), although my mom mentioned that there were a whole lot of animals that weren't so lucky.  I don't remember seeing any of the outdoor pens or the working area of the Yards.

After 106 years, a number of forces conspired to lead to the demise of Yards.  During World War II, rationing of meat led to farmers killing cows behind their barns and selling directly to retailers on the black market, bypassing the middlemen of the stock yards.  After the war, this practiced continued and flourished.  The tremendous development of the West, with the establishment of Stockyards in Denver and Omaha, also eliminated the necessity of bringing the live animals all the way to Chicago.  Finally, the rise of refrigerated trucking in the 1950s made shipping from smaller, closer facilities more practical.  The Yards finally closed in 1971.  The area eventually became one of Chicago's most succesful industrial parks due to its proximity to expressways and the tracks left over from the Stockyards.

An unfortunate byproduct of the billion or so animals slaughtered over the operational years of the Yards was their blood, excrement, and offal.  A lot had been done to utilize every bit of the animal possible and the Yards were home to oleomargarine plants, violin string manufacturers, shoe polish companies, tannning factories, and the like.  But, not everything could be used and much of what wasn't was dumped into the Stockyards slip of Bubbly Creek.  At one time, 250,000 gallons of Chicago River water a day were pumped into the yards and much of it was returned as waste contaminated water.  Whole entrails and hoppers of blood were also dumped into the waters... all without treament.  A good part of the reason for the reversal of the Chicago River in 1900 was to handle the waste from the Stockyards before it got into Lake Michigan and the drinking water supply for the city.  Upton Sinclair says it much better than I (although the stream was on the North side of the Yards, not the South) in his novel, "The Jungle".

"Bubbly Creek" is an arm of the Chicago River, and forms the southern boundary of the Union Stock Yards; all the drainage of the square mile of packing-houses empties into it, so that it is really a great open sewer a hundred or two feet wide. One long arm of it is blind, and the filth stays there forever and a day. (My note:  This arm has been filled in and Pershing Road runs where it once "flowed".) The grease and chemicals that are poured into it undergo all sorts of strange transformations, which are the cause of its name; it is constantly in motion, as if huge fish were feeding in it, or great leviathans disporting themselves in its depths. Bubbles of carbonic gas will rise to the surface and burst, and make rings two or three feet wide. Here and there the grease and filth have caked solid, and the creek looks like a bed of lava; chickens walk about on it, feeding, and many times an unwary stranger has started to stroll across, and vanished temporarily. The packers used to leave the creek that way, till every now and then the surface would catch on fire and burn furiously, and the fire department would have to come and put it out. Once, however, an ingenious stranger came and started to gather this filth in scows, to make lard out of; then the packers took the cue, and got out an injunction to stop him, and afterwards gathered it themselves. The banks of "Bubbly Creek" are plastered thick with hairs, and this also the packers gather and clean. ”

In 2010, Kath and I went fishing in "Origins Park" at the junction of Bubbly Creek and the South Branch of the Chicago River at 31st and Ashland.  While we saw fish, we also saw bubbles rising from the bottom.  It is estimated that many parts of the bottom of Bubbly Creek have 4 to 8 feet of decomposing animal parts being eaten by huge populations of blood worms.  We didn't catch any fish, although we saw people who did.  I could not imagine eating them.  The Metropolitan Sanitary District, during times of heavy rain, still pumps untreated wastewater from a 5 square mile area of the South side into what remains of Bubbly Creek, only to be drained away from the city by the reversed flow of the Chicago River and the Chicago Shipping and Sanitary Canal which starts feet from where Kath and I were fishing.  There are proposals before the Army Corps of Engineers to remediate this situation, but the funding just hasn't been forthcoming.

The pork that I used to make my ham was from a pig grown on a farm, humanely killed and did not contribute to the pollution of Bubbly Creek.  As I mentioned in a previous post, I began making my ham about 5 weeks ago.  If you have ever brined a turkey for Thanksgiving, you can do a home cured ham.  Here's how it goes...

1 Fresh Ham (by fresh, I mean a raw upper leg of a pig with absolutely no processing outside of butchering)
Curing Solution:
3/4 cup Pickling Salt or Kosher Salt
2 liters Water
1 cup packed Brown Sugar
4 teaspoons Prague Cure #1
(1 tablespoon Pickling Spices, optional)

1.  Place ham in a brine bag.
2.  Make enough of the solution above to cover the ham in the bag.  Bring the water to a boil, add the ingredients and stir to dissolve, then let the brine cool to room temperature.(I ended up making a double recipe for a eight pound ham.)
3.  Cover the ham with the brine cure, seal the bag and place in a refrigerator. 
4.  Some recipes say to let cure for 1 day for each two pounds, others say to let cure for 4 days for each pound.  I let mine cure for 5 weeks and it came out perfect.

My ham, in brine bag, taped to keep ham in the solution.
The tape is securing a tupperware bowl which is keeping the ham under the curing solution.  The cardboard is keeping the solution from spreading out, making it difficult to cover the ham entirely.

5.  After the ham is cured, smoke to desired flavor (mine was about 8 hours) with either hickory or fruit wood.

Ham in the Smoker

6.  Even though this ham is cured and smoked, IT IS NOT COOKED!  You could bake it in the oven at 350 degrees F. until 140 degrees internal temperature or make my Ham in Beer and Molasses.


A note about Curing.  If you cure meat, you will change the flavor of the pork into a "ham" type flavor and give it that pink or rose color.  You cannot get this flavor and color any other way.  Curing means that you must use some form of sodium sulfite, sodium sulfate, or any of ten other sodium or potassium something or others.  Curing prevents botulism from growing and leaving behind a toxin that can kill you.  Curing salt is, itself, poisonous in large quantities.  In the pioneer days, they didn't worry about using sodium sulfite.  They just dug up salt and used it to cure their hams.  What they didn't know was that natural salt contains saltpeter, which breaks down into sodium sulfite.  It took the development of gunpowder for people to find out about saltpeter, so this whole curing thing is surrounded by the spectre of death.

What am I trying to say?

To get a ham, you must use either a curing salt (Prague Cure #1) or saltpeter.  I chose to use Prague Cure #1 because it gives a precise amount of sodium sulfite and you limit the potential of getting sick from it.  (Please note that Cure Salt (of whatever brand or name) is ALWAYS colored pink to differentiate it from regular salt.  Its pink color does not contribute to the meat's pinkness after curing... that is a separate chemical reaction.)  As I researched the web for this post, several people noted that you could get by with 3 teaspoons of cure in the recipe I gave you and it will still come out great.  I would not go with less than that because of the botulism issues.  Just my opinion.


  1. I much prefer the smell of your ham to the smell of sewer any day!

  2. I'm impressed! This entry brings on some nostalgia... I remember riding the orange line and looking out over old bubbly (I don't blame you for not eating the fish), reading the fish). I loved the Jungle but it can be a tough read! And I never knew there was an L for the stockyards...and I love your rationale for why you never rode it! Lol - great blog, Dan!

  3. Sorry for the typo - I don't blame you for not reading the fish. This is what happens when I post from my phone.

  4. Another great post, Dan. To anyone who is wondering how that ham in beer and molasses is. I've had the opportunity to have some and it is wonderful! Like no other ham I've had. I typically get a bored palate with ham, but not with this one.