Warning: Pigs did die in the making of this blog and fairly graphic photographs follow. If this makes you squeamish, I’ll see you back here next week.
A young man in my conversational English class, Matej, looked up and smiled. The he yelled out, “This weekend? I went home to my grandmother’s. We killed a pig.” The pig killing he described happened in rural Slovakia during the time when we lived in Bratislava. Everyone in the class jumped in with their own pig killing stories. And at that instant, attending a pig killing became a goal. No, more like an obsession. I didn’t want to join a tourist pig killing (yes, such things exist), I wanted to be invited to a family event, like the one Matej talked about – and to earn my participation through friendship.
Fast forward two years to Budapest, Hungary. When Abraham asked if we would like to join his family for this year’s inaugural pig killing at his girlfriend, Brigi’s, home farm, I jumped at the chance. We fixed a date for the end of November. “Julie, once we set this date, we can’t change it.” “Abraham, don’t worry. Nothing will stop me from coming. We will be there.”
That’s how we ended up in a seedy hotel room over a two-bit bar in Komarom the weekend after Thanksgiving. Abraham and Brigi picked us up at the train station, took us to town for dinner, and deposited us at our hotel on the long, lonely road which connected the station to town. The next morning at 6:15, they returned with Abraham’s father, Zoltan (Zoli), and his six-year-old brother, Mozes. When Mozes found out this was my first pig killing, he giggled. “Really?” Abraham translated for his little brother, “This is my fourth!”
(Note: Only Brigi and Abraham spoke English. All the conversations below, every single one, were translated by one of them.)
As soon as we got to the farm, the day started as all events do in Hungary – with an obligatory shot of palinka. Zoli poured it from a Jim Beam bottle, nodded towards the label and clarified, “My friend made that brandy. It’s plum.” I have learned that tossing the palinka back in a single gulp alleviates both the burn and the retching. Yet it still went down like gasoline and my eyes began to water.
Pat and I explored the farm, out to the back fields, into the cow barns where the milking was underway, up to the front barn – the pig barn. An enormous sow lay pinned beneath iron rods. Abraham quickly explained, “We let her up once the piglets are fed. If we didn’t do this, she would crush them.” In other stalls were pigs of varying sizes. When we got to the section of the largest pigs, Abraham told me, “This is it. Two of these pigs will die today.”
Once the killing started, everything moved quickly. I jogged to the end of the farmyard and looked out over the fields. Behind me, I heard a frantic rustling in the barn, then an ungodly squeal, and finally, a thump, more tussling, then silence. Immediately, the sounds repeated. Within a few minutes, the killing was done.
The sun started to crest over the pink horizon, burning off the fog. The air was tinged with cow manure and a winter’s frost. Abraham, came over to see how I was doing. His eyes were wide and his breathing rapid, “I hate the killing. That is why we drink palinka before we start.” “Abraham,” I asked, “Why did your dad collect the blood in a bowl?” “That’s the best part.” he explained. “We’ll have scrambled blood for breakfast. It’s just like eggs – you’ll see.”
Glancing at my watch, it was not yet seven-thirty.
Brigi’s step-father, Dini, was in charge. He smiled – constantly and broadly. He was a stocky man, athletic, his hands big and square – strong enough to choke the pig to death should that need arise. He wore a white butcher’s apron which fell open, and he motioned me to tie it lifting his bloody hands over his head. As he posed with his hands aloft, he reminded me of the Elias Big Boy statue near my dorm at Michigan State; at once both boyish and brutish.
His wife, also Brigitta – “Big Brigi”, joined us outside, put down a pot of mulled wine and sandwiches, gulped a shot of palinka with the men, grabbed the blood bucket and returned to the kitchen to scramble up our breakfast.
With the milking completed, a helper in dark green coveralls lugged the jugs up to a combination work room and store front. Inside, Big Brigi’s mother, “grandma”, ladled the still warm milk into a mix of recycled soda bottles. Pat and I tried a glass, his eyes opened wide, “Oh my gosh. This is the best milk I have ever tasted.” I asked Brigi if it is pasteurized. “No. That milk just came out of the cow a few minutes ago.”
Men and women began to arrive on old-fashioned, fat tire bicycles. They entered the shop and left with a liter of milk in a Coke bottle and maybe a few eggs which they tossed into a basket strapped onto their front handlebars. No one as much as glanced at the two dead swine laying feet away from the store.
Dini came out with a blow torch ablaze and singed the dead swine as Zoli scraped the skin with a shovel. We all took turns scrubbing off the resulting soot. Sometimes the brush flecked water up onto my face. The muscles in my arms burned. Yet we scrubbed until the pig shined a soft yellow color as it is had been molded from a mound of butter.
The men hoisted the first pig onto the table. Dini stepped forward and raised his razor-sharp carving knife. He froze mid-air and spewed forth rapid fire Hungarian. Abraham leaned over and whispered to me, “Dini said he would not eat this pig. It is not clean enough.” “Oh no, Abraham, are we in trouble?”
Zoltan and I glanced at each other sheepishly and started to giggle. We shrugged our shoulders, grabbed the bucket and started to scrub again. When Dini returned, he smiled and began to carve up the carcass. He lobbed off the legs, opened the body and removed the organs , carefully pulled out the bladder and dribbled the contents onto the dirt. Cats scampered into the farm from all directions, and I wondered how they knew to come exactly now. Dini rewarded them with the intestines which they attacked like lions on an antelope in the savanna.
“Abraham,” I said, “Don’t we save those, clean them out, and
use them as sausage casings?” He laughed, “Julie, you got here 20 years too late. We buy our sausage casings now.” He rolled his eyes as if to say, “What do you think we are? Backwards?”
One family arrived to collect the first pig. Dini weighed it and shouted out the price to grandma. They paid, loaded the tubs of meat into the back of their car and took off. A large metal barrel was filled with boiling water into which we tossed the liver, heart, kidneys, brains, and head from the second pig. Then, we lugged everything down into the basement kitchen to make sausage.
Dini ferreted through a pile of unidentifiable meat chunks and tossed us pieces, shouting directions. The only parts he threw away were two eyes and the curly tail. “Chop this into tiny pieces for the head cheese bowl. Cut this into strips for the sausage grinder.” I cut up ears and brains and kidneys. Then, Dini pulled off a piece of skin, doused it with salt and popped it into his mouth, “Try some,” he offered me. “It was cooked by the flames when we burned off the hair.” I laughed and held up my bloody hands, relieved to have an excuse, “Later, Dini, once I clean up.”
Before this weekend, when we mentioned our pig killing plans to Budapest neighbors, they all promised us, “That is extremely old school, Hungarians no longer kill pigs.” The Slovaks offered the same assurances when we lived in Bratislava. “You won’t find anyone here killing a pig anymore.”
In one of life’s ironies, Central Europeans struggle to prove they buy packaged meat just like the rest of the western world. At the same time, Americans scramble to hop on the farm to table band wagon. But it just doesn’t matter to us. We came here to experience exactly this, a life as far away from my plastic, shrink wrapped world as I can get.
We spent the afternoon making vat after vat of three types of sausage; blood, liver and kolbász (or, more commonly for me, kielbasa). Pat was placed in charge of disentangling a wad of pig intestines tied together and floating in a pail. He fumbled as though sifting through a mound of Mardi Gras necklaces which were hopelessly intertwined. I whispered, “Pat, do not tear them. We have not wasted a thing today. We can’t start now.” He redoubled his efforts, placing one meter lengths of intestine into individual piles.
Meanwhile, I ran the sausage press. Dini grabbed a casing, slide it over the nozzle and nodded. I slowly cranked the press which pushed meat into the casing creating length after length of sausage.
Periodically, Dini shouted instructions to Abraham to pass onto me – “Faster. Slower. Stop with 10 centimeters of intestine remaining.” Families swung down to ensure they could purchase some of the first sausage of the season. “Everyone is so excited.” Brigi smiled. “I’m happy. We will have no trouble selling all of this.”
When family came down, everyone stopped working. They talked and laughed and invariably pulled out the palinka. Zoltan raised his shot glass, shouted a toast, “To the Americans! They are good palinka drinkers!” and drained his in a blink. “How many is that?” I whispered to Pat. “I lost count,” he mumbled as he rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. “Five. No six. No. I have no idea.”
By 4PM, we were finished. Everyone gathered around the kitchen table, and Brigitta served the last of a series of dishes extracted from the kill. Over the course of the day, we had eaten sliced liver, scrambled blood (bland, not bad, except my brain kept screaming “Do. Not. Swallow.”), pork
soup, sausages, and boiled cabbage with kielbasa. We celebrated the first kill. And we participated in a simple act of everyday life. We slaughtered a pig for one simple reason; so that this family and neighboring families will have meat.
The farmers sat at one end of the table laughing and talking. Dini grabbed a handful of noodles and dropped them into his soup, Zoltan tore off a hunk of bread, and they each popped open a green can of Soproni beer. Abraham told me, “They are talking about the seasonings. If you get that wrong, 50 kg of sausage could be ruined.” But they smiled and laughed as everything was perfect. “Where’s grandma?” I asked. “She’s outside. She has 200 liters of fresh milk to bottle from the evening milking.”
Everyone appeared not to notice – or to care – that she was missing. On a family farm, I realized, everyone has a job to do, and everyone does their job. Later, grandma told me, “Today was easy. Some days we work until nine or ten at night. You just tell yourself when you get out of bed that you must work today. Then, you do what you have to do.”
Shortly after we finished eating, Pat and I returned to our hotel. Dini and big Brigi headed out to a party. Back in our room, I stood under the hottest shower I could tolerate and washed every last spatter of blood and whiff of smoke down the drain. Five minutes after climbing into bed, I passed out, exhausted.
The next morning, Sunday. we returned to the farm so Abraham could collect sausage for Zoli. “Pick the ugly ones,” Brigi suggested, “Those will be harder to sell.” He also grabbed a sheet of fat an inch thick, rolled it up like a yoga mat and stuffed it into a plastic bag. “My father will use this to make cookies.” Abraham explained.
Outside, we waved goodbye to everyone. Last night, we hugged and kissed and talked about returning for another killing – maybe a goat or a cow next time. As we backed down the driveway, I looked out the window and waved again. Dini was carving a freshly killed pig. Grandma worked in the store filling soda bottles with milk. Just then a neighbor rode up on his bicycle, grabbed a bottle of milk, and tossed it into his basket. I reached over, grabbed Pat’s hand and squeezed it, leaned back against the seat and smiled.
Correction: Abraham read my post and said, “Julie, one mistake. We did not throw away the tail. It is used to thicken a certain type of soup.” (Dear Lord, Abraham, tell me I did not eat that type of soup…. )
Categories: Central/Eastern Europe