On a Friday in late autumn, I walked into my ninth grade bilingual classroom to find an interesting query scrawled across the blackboard. “What is disznóvágás in English?” My command of basic Hungarian pronunciation was still rough around the edges, and as I read the sentence aloud, I mangled the word. I waited for the students to have a good laugh at my expense before I could get a chance to ask, “What exactly is a disznóvágás?” As they explained it to me the first time, I gathered that it was a pig slaughter, but little more.
“First you catch the pig,” one student explained as my imagination pictured him running through the forest in hot pursuit of a wild pig, catching it, and pinning it like a champion wrestler. “Then, kill it and use this thing,” he pointed at the Hungarian word written across the board, “to burn the hair away.”
“So that thing is called a disznóvágás?” I asked. “That thing is called a blowtorch.” I explained to raucous laughter.
The disznóvágás morphed into a sort of meme for that class from that day forward. Students would write pigs into their dialogs and other classroom activities and brainstorm flash mobs relating to pig slaughter rituals. And with each mention, my curiosity grew.
I quickly learned that there was much more to this tradition than simply killing the pig. The slaughter itself is only the beginning, and takes about 90 minutes out of a full day of communal preparation, cooking, and eating. I was determined to attend one. After leaving a string of subtle hints to my students, I abandoned that method, and got more direct. Then I waited. And waited. Just when I was starting to lose heart, a less than conventional invitation found its meandering way to me.
The disznóvágás started early in the morning. We arrived at the family’s home around 6:00, and were greeted by a dog named Scotty—a name that apparently proved difficult for István Veiger, the family patriarch who had turned 81 years old only one day earlier, to pronounce—and István’s wife, Erzsébet, or Erzsi for short. Neither Scotty nor Erzsi could speak English, but between Danielle and I our combined Hungarian has improved enough that we were able to answer basic questions about where we were from, how long we had been in Hungary, and most importantly whether we wanted any leftover birthday cake. Obviously, we did.
As we munched on our cake and sipped our coffee we chatted with Erzsi and Pista about our jobs, how we like teaching, and whether the children could behave for us, until Eszter woke up. Eszter Dovigyel was our translator, and the only one who confidently spoke English with us most of the day, a responsibility I suspect her grandmother had sternly assigned. She comes from a long line of teachers: her mother, her aunt, and her grandmother were all teachers, and she is certified for it as well. It was through someone in her family who is friends with one of my students, that we were connected with her and invited to her grandmother’s house on Kölcsey street this day.
Another disznóvágás essential, I was told, is pálinka, Hungarian brandy. “Everybody drinks [a] lot of pálinka,” the same student told me, with the rest of the class nodding in concurrence, “but not me, of course, only the adults,” he grinned. “It’s very good.”
The other family members, a friend of Pista and Erzsi’s, and the butcher, Csaba all trickled in during the half an hour Danielle and I sat eating cake and drinking coffee. Eszter introduced everyone in time, and suddenly István walked into the kitchen with a glass jug full of clear liquid and said something about pálinka, “would you like a shot of pálinka,” Eszter offered, and just like that I was offered alcohol at the earliest moment of my life: 6:37am. “Egészségedre,” we clinked our glasses and before I knew it we were on our way to the killing.
We rolled out, a convoy of cars headed to another house about two minutes away. This is where we would kill the pig.
The first thing we saw was a brown box with 220V printed on its side. It was a transformer plugged into an outlet on the outside of the house leading to what looked like a large pair of lopers made from a garden hose. Attached at the ends were two sponges, and the whole device was wired into the transformer. Before the pig was brought out, the butcher dipped the green shocker into a bucket of water, clipped the ends together to test it. Zap zap, this device, Eszter said would bring the pig to its knees.
The pig was still asleep. The other men had been sent inside the sty to retrieve the proper animal for the day’s ritual. When the pig arose it was not happy. It fought for liberation throughout the short journey from its home to the main yard where we were gathered outside, and the green shocker awaited. Once he was in position, Csaba clamped the shocker around its head, just behind the ears. Within seconds it was paralyzed. Silence.
The men carefully laid the pig on its side, one holding the head, the others on its legs. István, still a pro at 81 years old and a day, was crouched down beside its neck with a bowl while the butcher worked a large knife into the pig’s neck, slowly bleeding it out. The blood would be saved for blood sausage and “black pudding.”
The pig died in about fifteen minutes. It struggled for a while and at one point mustered enough energy to give a kick that toppled István and spilled blood everywhere, but mostly its calm and laborious breathing slowed until it stopped. The men picked it up and moved it to a scale to register its official weight: 245kg, about a quarter ton. Once massed, it was taken near a wood burning stove where a large pot of water boiled, and two large tanks of fuel sat. Csaba grabbed a long horn-like device and with just a spark, the torch roared to life.
The blowtorch seared the hair off the pig’s skin, an act that was at once smelly, disgusting, and fascinating. While the butcher braised the skin, the others followed in close after to scrape away what was burned, leaving skin that was clean and ready to process, or simply to eat as István later did.
The pig was then hung from meat hooks attached to an A-frame structure that would give Csaba some leverage to hoist the pig up, and allow access to the insides. The head was long gone by this point, stored away in one of the cars.
It soon became clear to us that the only parts of the pig unfit for consumption were the eyes and inner ear, which were thrown at Danielle upon their extraction. Once Csaba cut into the torso, everything was saved. István definitely had the worst job at this point. After cutting out the stomach, it was his job to void the intestines of whatever remained prior to the pigs sudden, quiet death. Getting within a meter of István was all it took to add another scent to the list of things I hoped to never smell again. The other organs were separated and contained. The enormous liver and kidneys, the heart and lungs. The last part, after the body cavity was organ-free was to cut out the fat.
Some of the animal’s fat was attached to a muscle, like the ribs, kidney, neck, etc., but the bulky stuff, the stuff of which lard is made is in the cavity, padding and insulating the organs. This too was saved.
The final step in butchering is to split the body at the spine. My students told me later that this must be done with a hatchet. It was the quickest part of the whole affair. With a few whacks of the blade it was over, and we headed home.
Most of my students thought the idea of a foreigner attending a pig killing was bizarre enough, but enjoying it was right out risible; the first thing my students did when I said I attended this killing, without fail, was laugh out loud. Some were stumped as to why someone would willingly subject themselves to watching an animal be killed and have its organs harvested. It is, however, something every carnivore should be subjected to at some point. There is a lot of talk these days about not eating this that or the other thing because its made from this that or the other part of an animal. Hot dogs, for example, are made from pig anus, but when it really comes down to eating an animal, what does it matter what part you are eating as long as it is safely and healthily prepared? The best sausage I’ve had was stuffed in this pig’s intestine. Most sausage probably is stuffed in intestine; does that make it gross or sustainable. Is eating intestine really that much more revolting than muscle? It’s a bit disingenuous to savor a tenderloin and at the same time refuse to eat an organ.
To be sure there is certainly something to be said for knowing what is in your food and where it came from, and how healthy it may not be, but outright anatomy discrimination is none of those things. Antibiotics and chemicals that make the animal nearly invulnerable, or preserve whatever you are eating, or add extra flavor or color to the food, these are all legitimate reasons not to eat something, just as knowing what goes on in a feed lot or processing facility is. This is the paramount element of a disznóvágás: there is no question about how your pork went from oink to plate. You know where it ate, slept, what it ate, and what if any antibiotics it was fed. You also get to participate, first hand, in turning it into food, watching and sometimes helping every step of the way.
The rest of the day was spent rendering the pig for consumption. The bulkier chunks of fat were hung to dry, which gave them a strange soapy feeling. Ribs and other bones were split into reasonably sized pieces of meat, fat was cut from the muscles and sent to the kitchen where it would be cubed and turned into lard. Bones were sawed, and food was made. While the butcher and Eszter’s cousin focused on separating the meat, István was preparing the sausage components that included the lungs, heart, and kidneys, and the women cooked lunch.
Lunch included a stew that was made from brain and liver (it’s also good on toast, we were told), and the best rib meat I’ve ever tasted. And of course, more pálinka and wine, which were also homemade, by István. On the wall behind the dining table were numerous awards and distinctions his wine and pálinka had acquired over the years. One wine we had was a semi-dry white with a peculiar sour taste, almost like a green apple. He appreciated my appetite for his házi italok, and I his generosity.
After lunch a pan that was probably 8 inches deep and wide enough to cover all 4 of the stove’s burners was filled with near equally sized cubes of fat, and set on to boil. Meanwhile, the guys made sausage. Exactly which organs went into the sausage wasn’t clear, but most of the remaining ones went first into a grinder and then into a large tub, the kind you might use to move your life across the country. Several heads of garlic, and cup upon cup of paprika powder and other spices were mixed by hand before being dropped like giant meatballs into the sausage suffer. The butcher worked the intestine cum sausage wrap while Eszter’s cousin pressed the mixture through. Minutes later several kilos of sausage hung from a rack under some stairs. This would be enough to last this family for most of the year after it is smoked for a few weeks. The best part of this, for them, is that they’ll not have to go to the butcher’s this year, at least not for a while.
Inside the house, the fat set out to boil was beginning to fill the room with the aroma of cooking bacon. It was as if someone had been making BLTs all morning. The fat was nearly finished boiling when it looked like dried fruit, shriveled and soaking in the grease it excreted as it heated up. The grease was then poured into a large cone where it would cool into lard. After all was done, the cubes were served as an afternoon snack with bread. Tepertő, it was called.
We left shortly after snack time, but not without four links of freshly stuffed hurka, blood sausage. Apart from the photos sounds and memories, this sausage was our sole souviner for our day; a deep grey colored edible we roasted over potatoes and consumed in a manner of days. It was possibly the tastiest sausage I’ve consumed.
Eating food this fresh makes it easy to understand people who disrespect seafood in inland places: the Alaskans who say salmon “doesn’t taste good,” in Minnesota, or sushi enthusiasts who fear it if they are too far from a coast. But while I better understand these sentiments, and doubt I will ever again use the word delicious to describe a frozen pork chop from Cub Foods, I’m not such a purist that I’ll now only eat freshly butchered pork and bemoan every occasion I am forced to choke down anything else. Going forward however, I will never be able to consume pork without thinking about the disznóvágás and the practical, ritualized way in which an animal was turned into a year’s worth of food in just under half a day, and the knowledge that this method is a vastly different process than any employed by the behemoth food companies in the states. Back home, and throughout the more developed parts of the world—even increasingly here in Hungary—we like to keep a sturdy barrier between our plates and the farm. Consequently, we as consumers often know very little about how an animal becomes food. This should change. We deserve to experience these kinds of things—to be able to buy a bushel of corn from the farmer who grew it, or a slab or ribs from the farm that raised the pig. Sadly that barrier is solid and institutionalized, engrained into our legal code for various, misguided reasons. For now, I still have the disznóvágás.