A couple of weeks ago our builder finally finished restoring our smokehouse. We’re delighted, because admittedly its been a bit of an eyesore. It’s the first building you see as you make your way up the drive from Sunny Side Road, and for many months the south side was half-clad in weatherboards while the other half was covered in DuPont Tyvek — not very pretty. But now its done (apart from painting the cornice, since it’s too cold for painting at the moment), and we’re thrilled.
This building has a strangely iconic, abstract quality, being just a cube 14 feet square with a single door on the east side. We have a special regard for it because a painting of it by our friend Bernard Dellario graced our very first red wine, our 2008 Annefield Red.
Smokehouse c. 2007.
When Bernie created that painting, the building was in a pretty sad state. Saner folks would probably have bulldozed it, but we were determined to save it. We saw it as essential for defining the space behind the house, since with the kitchen house it forms a well-defined courtyard that most likely in times past was a workspace, but we’ve made it an ornamental garden. The owners of a Jacob W. Holt-designed farm called Eureka in neighboring Mecklenburg County possess a drawing by Holt showing the plans for the plantation complex, with placement of the outbuildings shown with lines radiating from the rear door to illustrate the relationship of the buildings’ function in their support of the main house. This drawing can bee seen in Catherine W. Bishir’s seminal article on his work, Jacob W. Holt, An American Builder (published in Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Spring, 1981) (reprinted in Southern Built: American Architecture, Regional Practice (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006). Eureka is arguably Holt’s most exuberant Italianate design, and has many similarities to Annefield.
This structure was built contemporaneously with the main house and the kitchen house, around 1858. To learn more about the history of house and its architectural significance, have a look at this entry in Wikipedia for the short version, and our National Register of Historic Places Nomination for the long version. Of course, all this (and more) appears on our website.
Smokehouses have a long history, used primarily for the preservation of pork. The first mention of them in Virginia dates from 1716. Michael Olmert, a professor at the University of Maryland and writing for Colonial Williamsburg had this to say:
Summertime, in the eighteenth century, was no time for eating fresh pork. The oppressive heat that made quick work of humans in the Middle Atlantic colonies also turned the choicest cuts of meat into Petrie dishes of corruption. The day a pig was slaughtered, it was cooked and eaten, often as part of a family celebration or for the arrival of important visitors. Leftover meat was quickly shared with neighbors or slaves.
A frosty month, especially December, was the proper time for pig butchering, salting, and smoking. It’s a tradition documented to medieval times. The illuminated manuscripts known as books of hours, prestige prayer books, often depict pig slaughtering on their calendar page for December, in the same way that they show planting in March and harvesting in August. Killing the winter pigs was just another part of the annual agricultural round.
If you expected to have pork all year long, you needed a smokehouse. From earliest times, a smokehouse was a small enclosed shelter, a place in which a fire could be kept smoldering for a few weeks, which would only slowly release its smoke, and in which the smoked meat could hang safe from vermin and thieves.
While we preserved the fire pit, we aren’t planning to butcher and smoke pigs anytime soon. Ours will be used to store our grape harvest equipment which for the last year two years has littered the grounds behind it.