“It’s tomorrow morning,” came her voice through the speaker. I sat up and pressed the phone harder against my ear. “And Lili, listen: It’s exactly what you want.”
“Tomorrow? But I still need to get out there…”
“It’s worth it. Trust me, they hardly ever do it like this anymore!”
At 6 a.m. the next day I’m on a bus to Dédestapolcsány, a village in Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén county in the Bükk mountains of northeastern Hungary. I will get off there, wait an hour and a half at a bar in front of a bus stop, and then take another local bus to Mályinka, the next town over. In Mályinka I will manage to get off at the wrong bus stop (maybe 30 meters from the one at which I was supposed to get off), causing considerable confusion and panic on the part of my host, who will proceed to share with everyone the unlikely tale of the city girl getting off at the wrong side of town. I’m a guest here and we have never met before this day. Yet she complains as if I were her own granddaughter. Minutes after our encounter on the main street we’re sitting in her kitchen and she’s making me tea. “Have you eaten?” she asks me. “Just tea please,” I respond. She takes out some cheese, sliced ham, turkey, eggs and butter, placing them before me along with a basket of zsemle rolls. Next comes a plate of tomato, red onion, pepper, and cucumber with a small bowl of salt on the side. “Eat these too. Salt them first though,” she demands, and I do as I’m told because she’s right: I am hungry and there is a long day ahead of us.
As I assemble and eat my sandwich, she presents the play-by-play for the next 14 hours: 2 men, 2 boys, 2 women including herself. 3 pigs, big pigs. “They’re not too fat though,” she specifies, “so not too much bacon.” I nod my head in feigned understanding. The men are running late and I can tell she’s worried because she knows just how long it takes. To properly torch and butcher a pig, to separate it into steaks and hams, to tend to the organs and stuff the sausages is tedious and time-consuming work. To do the same with three is a daunting feat indeed. But then the men arrive with the freshly slaughtered carcasses in tow. A gentleman in his early 40’s will be leading the slaughter, as he has the most experience. His name is Joci. He’s accompanied by an older gentleman and two boys in their early 20’s. The day begins with breakfast prepared by my host and an older woman, maybe in her late 60’s, named Ilonka Néni. She seems to be the real boss behind it all and her advice is called upon several times throughout the day.
(CAUTION: Slideshow contains images of pigs being butchered into the body parts that we see at supermarkets every day. This might be upsetting to some. For those some, click with caution.)
In the basement floor kitchen of a country house in Malyinka, pots of water are set to boil in preparation for the pig slaughter.
The traditional breakfast at a pig slaughter is “hagymás sült vér,” which translates to “cooked blood with onions.” The women of the house cook fresh blood drained from the pig in salted water. This causes the blood to stiffen into solid lumps which are grated.
Minced onion and rice is sauteed with the grated blood and seasoned with black pepper and marjoram. The dish is served with bread or eaten as a pudding. It is thought to give the men energy for the slaughter.
Another popular breakfast item at pig slaughters is “velős rántotta,” scrambled eggs made with pig’s brains. It’s served with red cabbage cooked in vinegar with a dash of sugar.
The men and boys prep the three pigs for butchery. The pigs have each been killed with a quick stab to the throat. Their blood has been drained to use for making blood sausage.
The skin of the first of three pigs is singed. This process is called “perzselés.” The skin is burnt off with a torch.
As the skin turns black under the flame of the torch, it is scraped off to uncover the white flesh underneath.
“Perzselés” is carried out all over the body of the animal. In addition to burning the skin, it causes the flesh to stiffen, making it easier to chop into.
After the pig is torched, the white flesh tightens into a fixed shape. At this point the animal takes on the appearance of a marble statue.
A popular snack to munch on during the slaughter is the singed ear of the pig. This is eaten raw after sprinkling on some coarse salt. The skin is sucked off the cartilage and has a nice smoky flavor from the torch.
The tongue is removed by slicing the throat lengthwise and pulling it out whole.
As I watch Joci jokes “It’s called the Colombian necktie, like in the movies.”
Cutting out the tongue is tough work. There are many small pieces of bone and cartilage that must be sliced through. At one point Joci asks one of the boys for a sharper knife.
Eventually the head is severed. It is placed in a bin separately. Later it will be sawn in half and the brain will be taken out and stored apart from the rest of the organs. The face meat will be used in the blood sausage.
A headless pig is a gruesome sight but vibrant in color for sure.
Next, the tail is separated and the snow-white fat is torn as effortlessly as paper straight up through the stomach.
As the chest of the animal is sliced in half, the organs appear. They are neatly packaged into the two different cavities of the pig. As they are still warm, steam rises off them into the cold winter air.
Joci removes the heart from the chest cavity of the pig. His hands are covered in blood. I ask him what that feels like and he tells me it’s warm, sticky and clean.
Joci digs in behind the heart to remove the lungs, which are also attached.
A bowl full of beautifully vibrant respiratory organs from a very healthy pig.
Before touching the rest of the digestive cavity, the “epe” or gallbladder is removed. Joci points out that this bladder is full of very bitter digestive fluid and if it breaks while butchering the animal, it can pollute the rest of the organs.
The intestines, kidneys, pancreas, spleen and stomach are removed into a wooden trough.
Joci picks out an organ to show me. “This is the vese.” It’s the kidney.
As I marvel at the beautiful array of colors of the organs, Joci points out the heat rising off the animal’s innards.
Once the organs have been removed, the carcass is sliced in half lengthwise at the vertebrae.
The first pig is halved and lain on the butchering table in the kitchen of the basement floor.
The men return to singe the skin of the second of three pigs.
Meanwhile, the women untangle the small intestines. They will be cleaning these to use as casings for sausages.
They wash off the exterior of the small intestines with cold water and continue soaking them in a wooden trough filled with ice cold water.
The women work in pairs, splitting the intestines and cleaning them free of the goop within.
It’s a labor intensive job that takes hours, requiring the women to stand in a freezing cold yard and immerse their hands in freezing cold water. They’re tough. I get cold every 10 minutes and have to go into the house for hot tea.
All this gunk must come out before the intestines can be stuffed.
Ilonka Néni also cleans out the stomach, which is stuffed with the animal’s face meat and sliced to make “disznósajt.” This translates to “pig cheese.” Needless to say, it’s not really “cheese.”
The organs are boiled in a large cast iron cauldron over a wood fire in the yeard. They will be ground and stuffed into the small intestines to make sausage.
A skull is sawn in half and after the brain is removed, the two halves are added to the boiling water.
Pig brains are set aside in a cooking pot. These will be used to make scrambled eggs or they will be toasted onto bread.
Sometimes brains are breaded and fried, and eaten with rice.
There’s a stunning precision involved in each movement. Efficiency is key. If you’re not serving a purpose then you’re in the way. Get out of the way. “What is your left hand doing in the chest cavity right now?” Joci asks one of the boys and when the boy takes a moment too long to answer, he yells, “Well then move it out of the ****ing way because it could get chopped off!” The other boy giggles and teases his friend, while the latter mumbles meaningless curses under his breath.
I was feeling pretty useless myself, snapping my camera and burying the bunch in questions that must’ve sounded pretty silly at first. And despite the patience and respect with which they treated me, it wasn’t toward the end of the night when I started swinging the blood sausage into links, that I felt like I was contributing to rather than interrupting their flow. When I withdrew my hands from my pockets to help, Ilonka Néni grabbed both and studied them for a while. “You have nice hands,” was all she said, but I felt she appreciated me more the rest of the day.
Some extra pork is set to boil for snacking during the afternoon.
Joci slices out a “pluma,” which is a very soft and flavorful piece of meat from behind the shoulder blade.
Joci’s work is cut out for him, literally. Aided by one other guy and two boys, he works for hours butchering the three pigs.
Joci separates loin from rump.
A leg is removed and stored separately. This will be sliced into hams to cure and cook.
Intestines go through a final clean in ice cold water.
As Joci slices the pig into its parts, we discuss the benefits of cooking with lard. We also discuss changes in Hungarian diet in the past 30 years and how it has affected health (poorly, according to Joci.)
Eventually there is no space left on the table. The third pig is placed in a vat on the floor.
Skin is still attached to the fat belly. The latter will be sliced into pieces and sold as “szalonna”, Hungary’s pancetta. This pig was unfortunately not very fat and the bacon is thus nut thick enough all the way through to sell all of. But some parts have just the right width.
This piece, for example, will make for beautiful szalonna.
A loin and a belly remain to be separated.
The cleaned intestines await stuffing.
The innards have been boiled. They breathe a bit before being ground to make filling for the sausage.
Ilonka Néni prepares the intestines for stuffing.
The boiled organ meats are a great snack to munch on while grinding, which takes a total of 2 hours. As I pick at a liver, I am instructed to add salt before taking a bite.
The innards of three pigs are ground by hand. It’s a labor intensive task that takes 2~3 hours to complete.
The head takes a bit longer to boil.
The pig head with its meat and a bit of skin hanging on like a mask is a shocking sight indeed.
The skin is ripped off and fed to the dogs. The meat and fat are removed and ground down with the offal. Pork cheek is probably one of my favorite pieces of meat on the animal. I eat an entire cheek, after salting it of course.
Mise en place continues as the grinder is attached to the table.
The innards will be mashed through the grinder, which is attached to the edge of the table.
Ilonka Néni notices how much I enjoy the tender cheek meat and shares with me that it is her favorite too. We take a moment to munch on a cheek each, after salting them generously, of course.
After all the meat is removed the skull is given to the dogs to gnaw on. A fantastic Christmas present for the canines.
Dish upon dish is filled with ground innards, which is then dumped into a large bowl and set aside.
On the yard outside the cast iron cauldron is still full of the water in which the innards were boiled. Rice is placed into a canvas bag that is dipped into the water by the two boys. They stand on opposite sides.
Their hands are warmed by the burning steam rising off the surface of the water. I stand close and breathe it in deep. The heat feels nice on the freezing cold patio.
Having ground down the innards, it’s time to get started on the rest of the meat. Some of this will be sold as ground pork and some will be seasoned with paprika and black pepper and stuffed into sausages.
A wooden trough is lain over a couch in the makeshift kitchen on the ground floor of the house. It is filled with rice and the ground innards are added over the top.
The ladies also add smoked paprika powder, which is sprinkled over the top of the ground innards.
The ladies toil for close to 20 minutes over the trough, mixing the herbs, rice and innards into a homogenous filling.
Also added are black pepper and marjoram.
The filling is stuffed into a rocket ship shaped metal tube to which a narrower tube is attached.
As the boy cranks the lever attached to the metal tubing, filling is ejected into the small intestine, which is pulled over the tip of the tubing.
As she tugs at the casing to make sure it is filled evenly, she chastises the boy for cranking too quickly.
She even makes a few lewd and hilarious double entendre’s that the boy doesn’t seem to be old enough to understand.
When the sausage is done it is rolled up and twisted into links.
At some point I missed the one-per-day bus back to Budapest because I just didn’t feel like leaving that kitchen. I ended up staying to see the thing through and spent the night at the home of their family friend in Dédestapolcsány. Of course, I had not been there for the entire show. I had missed the slaughter, after all. I had not witnessed the desperation in the eyes of these animals as they realized that they would soon be parted from their lives. I had not heard the horrendous screams of betrayal, nor had I seen fountains of blood spritzing forth from arteries around swiftly severed windpipes. Life was long gone and I met only three dead bodies that showed no evidence of having suffered minutes before. They were no longer animals; they were already meat. Loose, dead weight ready to be cleaved into loins, ribs, chops, hams, steaks. It didn’t hurt to watch the men work on their bodies. Quite the opposite was true, in fact.
For one animal with its 200 kg to become so many types of food is truly incredible. The bounty of just one body, when carved correctly, is magnificent. And to watch that process from start to finish is to learn to appreciate the art of pig butchery and to begin to see it as something beautiful rather than gruesome. Pig becomes ham, cured for charcuterie and boiled for cold cuts. Pig becomes loin, filet and T-bone to grill with Worcestershire and a side of mashed. Pig becomes mince to slow-cook for chili. Pig becomes pork side to salt for collard greens. Pig becomes collar and rump to smoke for lentil stew. Pig becomes short ribs to barbecue with rub or sauce. Pig becomes shoulder to braise for pulled pork sliders. Pig becomes snout, ears, tail and feet to thicken broth into jiggly aspic. Pig becomes knuckles to bake until the slippery collagen can be sucked right off. Pig becomes pork fat to sauté things in. Pig becomes skin to fry into cracklins. Pig becomes pork belly best prepped by Asians. Pig becomes bacon…enough said there. The intestines and stomach become casings for sausage and everything else is ground to fill the latter. The bones are fed to the hungry dogs, chiseling the teeth of man’s best friend and protector.
Joci and the guys worked for hours. As he sliced through paper-thin fat and carved the carcass into its parts he explained each movement. He answered all my questions, pausing after each one to collect his thoughts and saturated his responses with information. We talked about changes over time in the Hungarian diet, the unfortunate reputation of lard as unhealthy and its replacement with unnatural fats more difficult to digest. We talked about Szent-Györgyi Albert and how the scientist had extracted Vitamin C from paprika powder and cured his own cancer with what would today be considered an overdose of the vitamin. We talked about the various ways pigs die in this world and he explained the difference between animals fed organic swill and those force-fed formula. He pointed to the color of the porcine flesh in his hand. It was relatively dark and healthy-looking pink. “You don’t get this from formula. You get this from bodies that enjoyed a happy life.”
As I write this article I understand that any posting of it will have to be prefaced with a warning for graphic content. And I understand that that’s true but I don’t understand why. If anything, people should be freaked out by the pale, rosy-white rectangles of wavy ground meat slapped on a styrofoam plate, draped in foil and sold for 4 bucks a pound at Walmart. No one knows exactly what that is, with what antibiotics it’s saturated, with what the grinder was cleaned over night, with what brand of latex gloves that uncaring factory farm worker scratched his ass because he doesn’t understand how gloves work. Not that I really care, or maybe I do on some level. But the photos above are not gruesome and they’re only “graphic” in that we do not see enough of them and are thus not used to them. To me the photos are comforting and they make me hungry for healthy, happy pork from an animal that was bred to be eaten and killed humanely.
It happens. We all know it happens. If only it happened like this every time.