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Survival Secrets from The Big Woods: Tree Trunk Smokehouse

I opened up a book I haven't read for quite a while: The Little House in The Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I have always loved these stories but I hadn't read them in a long time. My son is now five and we read to him every night. He is able to stay engaged with a longer chapter book so I blew the dust off this old goodie and began to read. 

Although I have read this book many times, I  know so much more about traditional survival skills now that I found myself enthralled with each lesson Laura teaches us throughout the pages of this book. Not only was I thrilled to be sharing traditional American values with my son but I wanted to take notes on everything Laura was describing.

The first survival skill that Laura describes is the story of her Pa hunting deer in the fall. Anyone who is a hunter knows that the deer season doesn't open until the fall but have you ever thought about why the season at this time? Besides the fact that the bucks are so horny they turn into crazy idiots that are easier to kill, Laura explains that the deer are fattest at that time, which absolutely makes sense. Also, all of the babies are grown so if you do take a doe, the baby should no longer be relying upon mama.

Pa would hang the deer that he killed high up in the trees so that they were not eaten by wolves or bears. After hanging, the deer would be carefully skinned and the meat would be cut, sprinkled with salt and laid on a board. Then Pa would use a tall length of hollow tree trunk and put nails in it from either end as far as he could reach. He would stand it upright and put a roof over the top and a little door in the bottom that had leather hinges. 

After the meat had been salted several days a hole was put in the end of each piece with a string through it. Then, it was hung on the nails inside the log. A fire was built inside the little door with tiny bits of bark, moss and green hickory chips to make a smoldering, smokey fire. The fire was fed for several days and when the smoke died down, more chips were added. After several days each piece was wrapped in paper and hung in the attic or place where they would be safe and dry.

I have lots of meat stored in freezers and I am constantly on the lookout for ways I can preserve the meat if we could no longer use our freezers. This sounds like a fairly easy way of preserving meat so I had to find out more. I referenced this information by my go-to source for traditional survival skills: Back to Basics, How to Learn and Enjoy Traditional American Skills by Reader's Digest.  I found out that Pa was right on.

Pa was correct for hunting in the fall when the temperature outside is lower. Meat decays rapidly above forty degrees. In order to hang your meat the temperature must be maintained between forty degrees and freezing, which tends to occur in the fall. Back to Basics encourages a very clean environment when packing meat for good reason and recommends a very sharp carbon fiber blade to work with. 

When Ma "salted" the meat she was actually curing the meat. This must be done first to preserve the meat properly. Salt is the only essential curing element. Meat treated with just salt will store well but be tough and dry. Many times sugar or honey is added along with herbs but you have to be careful what herbs you add, some can have an overwhelming flavor. Pickling salt is the best salt to use and table salt is not recommended. 

There are two curing methods: Dry curing and brine curing. Dry curing is what Laura's ma did. When dry curing you pack the meat directly in salt and seasoning, making sure to pack extra seasoning in nooks and crannies and around bones. You cover the bottom of a curing box with your rub, layer meat on it, add another seasoning layer and then more meat, until the box is full. In three days you should remove the meat and re-coat with seasoning. Pack it back into the box and repeat this process every five days. 

Brine curing tends to produce a product that is moister than dry curing. The curing mixture is dissolved in water. Always boil questionable water before use. Then lay the meat on the bottom of a watertight container that is not-metal. You fill it with brine until your pieces of meat begin to shift. Then cover the meat with a plate or a weight so it doesn't float up to the top. Try to remove all air bubbles from your brine. After five days, remove the meat, spoon off scum, stir brine and repack. To check, Back to Basics, recommends cutting off a piece and tasting it. When the meat is cured, rinse in warm water, then cold, and scrub off any clumped salt. Then hang it in a warm place to dry.

Back to Basics explains that there are two types of smokehouses: A hot smoke house and a cold smoke house. The distance between the smoke chamber and the fire differentiates the two. When the fire is further away it is a cold smoke house and a cold smoke house tends to do better with long term preservation. Although the distance in Laura's story is not that far, it is still my belief that the tree trunk is a type of cold smoke house because the fire has to be smaller so the log does not burn. 

Any smoke house is going to need ventilation to keep the smoke fresh. For long term storage the temperature inside should be seventy degrees Fahrenheit to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Back to Basics displays the design for an easy to construct cold smoker. 

In this example a fire pit is dug a foot lower than the smoking chamber and 10 feet away from the smoking chamber. The fire pit should have a lid to trap the smoke and be located on the side from which the prevailing winds blow. A stovepipe or tile lined tunnel connect the fire pit to the smoking chamber. The smoking chamber can be as simple as a wooden box with a removable lid. The meat is hung inside the box. Do not use soft woods when smoking. It is best to use hickory, apple, or cherry. Damp chips should be added to a bed of coals to create the ideal smoke. 

Now I am on the hunt for a good piece of stovepipe. Then I can begin experimenting with this intriguing process. Just goes to show how sometimes fiction can be a fact teacher.

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