Pig Becomes…

“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 Dédestapolcsánya 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.)

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.

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.

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