Friday, January 18, 2008

Death to Piggy

*Warning, there are lots of graphic photos below of a chicken being decapitated and a pig being killed and gutted. Just warning you.

During a recent conversation with my host mother she complained that killing chickens is a man’s job and her husband is often away at work so she has to do it herself. I wasn’t trying to maintain traditional gender roles, but I offered to be our chickens’ future executioner. A hollow promise indeed, but one I had to keep a few days later.

I’d just finished reading a book called “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” in which the author paints a fairly detailed picture of our current food culture and crazy diet fads, the inhumane and unsustainable practices of industrial agriculture, the less-than-reassuring realities of organic farming, and the morality of killing things we eat (I find myself reading anything food related that I can get my hands on). Like me, the author has no problem with eating meat, but thought he should test his resolve by actually killing his food. The timing of this book was kind of odd, because like him, I was soon privy to the secrets of the slaughterhouse.

So my host mother held a large hen down on the chopping block and I raised a small axe. I’d watched my host mother kill one firsthand before and had wondered what would go through my head if I held the axe. I expected I would be ambivalent about the act, reluctant, and when it was over, slightly guilty. However, I didn’t have a lot of time to collect my thoughts on it. In less than a minute I was outside with the axe, I’d handed Paige the camera to record it, and received my instructions. And so I brought the axe down on the neck of this hen.

I’ve killed plenty of fish, bringing them up on the end of a line, extracting the hook, and then crushed their skull with a blunt wooden stick. I was always mildly reluctant about those exchanges, but felt not regret, just the knowledge that I’d ended a life to feed myself. So the chicken should have been little different, except instead of bringing it up from the mysterious depths of the sea, I was instead killing something that I’d seen wandering the yard for a year. It was a creature I’d fed breadcrumbs to and, unlike a salmon, wasn’t that excited about eating (boiled probably).

Yet the axe came down on its neck. Paige snapped the picture while looking away so I’m very impressed with her timing. I cut through the necessary parts with my first chop, but a little neck skin remained so I brought the axe down again. Blood spread across the chopping block and dripped from the neck. My host mother held the frantic body as I grabbed a large pot to put over it so it didn’t run off. It twitched and scuffled under the pot for a minute before finally becoming still and that was it. Its eyes didn’t look at me in a strange way when I killed it. I felt practically nothing. It was as natural as picking an apple. I’ve probably felt more conflicted pulling a carrot out of the ground. I found this sort of strange. (Note to Peace Corps—which forbids handling birds for fear of bird flu—I never actually touched the bird).

This is the first non-fish I’ve ever killed and it was a breeze. It didn’t trouble me in the slightest... although when I came downstairs the next morning there were a dozen chickens at the landing and for once instant I thought, “My God! They’ve come for revenge! They know what I did!” So maybe I have some pangs of subconscious guilt, but whatever.

Yet round 2 was just around the corner. Only a few days after this I was invited to my host-sister’s house where they were to kill a pig. The night before I was taken to three different supras. The drinking was heavy and in the morning I wasn’t feeling 100%. If you’re planning to attend the slaughter of a pig in the future I would recommend going without any sort of queasiness. It’s not a pleasant thing to watch.

In the villages there are many ways to kill a pig. Probably the best ways are to shoot it in the head or to bring a huge axe down at the base of their skull to sever the spine from the brain... but not everyone has such tools. I suggested a pig guillotine to my host mother and we agreed this would be very handy and humane.

A more common way is to get a group of men and hold the pig down, and then you either use a large knife to slit its throat or stab it in the heart. I’ve talked to one former Peace Corps volunteer who served in Africa who’s host family called on him to stab their pig in the heart with a pen knife. It’s a hard organ to hit with a knife so small.

I’ve heard that slitting the throat or stabbing the heart are both extremely bloody and take over a minute for the pig to die. In the meantime it makes horrible squeals and cries that are truly awful. I was told this is how we would do it. Enter feelings of foreboding and reluctance.

Luckily for me I was not asked to take an active role in the killing, although I’m sure in the pig’s final judgment he would at least find me complicit in the act, and probably didn’t care for me snapping pictures of his demise, although maybe my camera flashes distracted him from the knife in his neck. In my final judgment of the pig I found him very brave... and eventually quite tasty.

So here’s how it went: Three men dragged the squealing pig from the pen and pinned it to the ground. It seemed to have no illusions about the grim reality that lay in store. It was a big hairy hog, not at all resembling the sweet pig from Charlotte’s Web, although one couldn’t but help feel sympathy for it. One of the men took a long knife and stuck it into its neck, and then using long, quick slices he rapidly cut through the jugular, windpipe and a good portion of the neck. I was mildly shocked by the violence of it, recalling various war movies I’ve seen. The strange addition to the scene were the smiling village kids, looking at me and my camera and discomfort with what appeared to be glee. I wanted to yell to them, “I’m not recoiling in horror you judgmental little punks. I’m just aware of the loss of life and gravity of the moment.” But they and their sly grins and laughter simply didn’t see it my why.

So as the children laughed and I fixated on the pigs suffering, the butchers continued to hold the pig down as it thrashed and grunted. Blood spewed from the wound, making horrible burping and gurgling sounds. This thrashing went on for a minute and then the pig shaking body finally relaxed. So the men let go of it and stepped away. And then it grunted. The pig, empty of blood, actually grunted. And then it started kicking again. I thought maybe it was going to rise up and attack us, but it just kicked and twitched. One of the men let out a sigh, grabbed an axe and drove it deep into the gash to sever the spine. That seemed to do it. The body twitched and shook for a bit, but soon it was over.

After that, the men set the pig on a metal table and poured hot water on it to clean it and loosen the hair. They then shaved it with a knife, burned off the rest with a blowtorch, and hung it up by the ankles to clean it.

Unfortunately, the wire holding the pig up broke and it fell to the ground in a heap. I politely refrained from photographing this moment as the men sheepishly hoisted the pig back up and re-hung it. I did, however, slink off to the house to tell the family who got a big laugh out of it.

The butchers rinsed off the pig again, blow torched its skin, and burned of tips of its hooves. Soon they’d cut off the feet, the head, and gutted it. The organs spilling out of the chest cavity really brought about the reality of what had happened. Sort of reminded me of the time I followed a college Human Anatomy professor into what I thought was his office to ask about adding his close, only it was a lab room with a human cadaver cut open revealing all its insides. I’ve included a picture of that so you too can truly appreciate the similarities between our organ structures.

Once gutted, the rest of the pig was soon taken down and hacked apart with an axe. I searched in vain for where one would get the pork loin or pork chops from. USDA butchering guidelines don’t apply here. Meat is meat.

Some of it salted and placed in a pot, other pieces wrapped in plastic bags for refrigeration, others set aside as payment for the butchers, but one very enterprising butcher soon skewered some of the meat onto some thin apple branches, salted it, and began grilling the meat. They placed a branch of bay leaves on top of it for flavor and when we tasted it at the small supra that followed it was absolutely delicious.

The only down side (besides the pig’s death and the river of blood staining the yard) was that the hind legs of the pig are to be ground up (with the head) and later fried like hamburgers (cutleti). I eat this at half my meals.

“What about smoking them and making some prosciutto?” I thought. I could travel the land building smokehouses, teaching the locals of this marvelous cuisine... although since I don’t know how to do that I should try to find some Italian intern. Perhaps that’s the secondary project I’ve been searching for. That would be a good thing to be remembered for.

But, more likely, I will be recalled as the weird American guy who kept taking pictures while they killed and butchered the pig and cringed (slightly). Or perhaps I might be better remembered as the guy who made his host mother hold the chicken down when he chopped off its head. What a sissy American.


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