The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Face-to-Snout with Our Meat

The latest foodie wisdom has it that there's something ennobling about killing what you eat, with coming face-to-snout with the pre-industrial wholesomeness of traditional ways of slaughtering our food animals. Just try explaining any of that to the rural poor of eastern Europe.

Published on April 3, 2012

About four years ago, Bill Buford wrote a piece for the New Yorker in which he reviewed three books by authors who all reveled in an earthy love of butchery and animal husbandry. The authors, two celebrity chefs and a journalist, were from Britain, France and Montreal. By the end of the piece, Buford, who wrote a book based on his experiences working in one of Mario Batali’s restaurants, decided that reading the material made him want to cook, so he bought pig parts, lamenting that he should have bought an entire pig. His only complaint was that the books’ diagrams on how to butcher were clunky and imprecise and that there is no one way to butcher a hog. Quoting British celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Buford concluded that “the only way you’ll learn is by hacking into it, and so you may as well brave the mess.”

The wisdom of the foodies and celebrity chefs has since made its way down to the masses. Local sourcing of ingredients has lead Americans to rediscover the richness and the bounty of our great land, and to turn our backs on our grandmothers’ cooking, which, if you’re the child of urban boomers, might have come from cans. This post-industrial about-face has also led us to explore lost folk traditions—cooking with lard in the South for example, or finding our way back to the land by foraging for mushrooms and berries. Turning from our grandparents’ obsession with industrial purity and convenience has put us face-to-snout with the animals that become our food, and inevitably, we must confront that a lot of what we like about modern eating is based on killing these creatures.

Most Westerners are not entirely comfortable with this fact. The good carnivore concludes that a good slaughter must be a respectful slaughter, and so he looks further back to how societies killed animals before it became an industrial process. Those who truly want to turn back the clock travel to corners of the globe where industrial scale slaughter has not yet peaked. Eastern Europe is a common destination, and those who go and report back assure readers that the annual autumnal pig slaughter remains a folk tradition and a ritual for village and family bonding. By bringing the barnyards of the East back to the West, these explorers help shore up the idea that if one wants to eat meat that one should indeed hack into it and brave the mess.

Yet it is very hard for those of us raised on industrial food to grasp what goes on at these events, even after spending years in the rustic landscapes in which they take place. From the years I spent volunteering in rural Macedonia, I can attest to genuine feelings of community and family spirit being present at a slaughter, but so are other, less-obvious sentiments. Those who come into a rural community for a slaughter are there for the consumption, but not the production. We are what we eat, and in a village, this holds true even before what we eat is food.

For those interested in the consumption end of things, there is a whole sub-genre of food-cum-travel writing, heavy on procedure and photography. Allan Stevo, for example, a Chicagoan long resident in Slovakia, takes his readers through the 68 steps of a pig slaughter. His view, common to this genre, is that the lack of care for the animal and for the roles of the whole family shows how eroded the connections of industrial society to the earth are.

Stevo contrasts the images and procedure he records in Slovakia with the ineptitude of a group of Americans who take a trip to a pigpen in the US to slaughter their own animal. They are unable to kill a pig humanely with a .22-caliber rifle at point-blank range; they waste entrails and blood and choose not to involve their womenfolk, and thus show how divorced from rural reality their excursion is. There is something to all this, but the perspective often fails to take stock that butchering an animal is a great deal of labor. In rural Macedonia, butchery is not unlike a messier and more involved version of cutting one’s own firewood, which everyone also does. Of course having a cheap stock of animal proteins for the winter is something to be celebrated, but necessity comes first.

Living in a village can change one’s perspective on consumption. My first night on the plains of the Tikves region, the family I stayed with served me a heaping plate of white beans and pork ribs as soon as I walked in the door. The meat was dark, almost black, and glistening with fat. I had no idea what it would taste like but I had already made up my mind to eat all of it to avoid offending my hosts. It wasn’t a great introduction to the cuisine. I choked it down, cleaning my plate, or I thought I did, but when I looked up I noticed that the others’ plates lacked the fat and gristle I’d left on my plate and on my ribs. Their bones were stripped clean. The same thing happened with a chicken pilaf a few nights later. Gradually I began to notice that everything that went on a plate was eaten. What little that was left after a meal—peels, rinds, seeds, bones, fat, gristle—was given to the piglet in the backyard, who would grow for another year.

For some reason—maybe it was all the different flora in my digestive system—even though I had been a healthy young man who maybe got a cold once a year before, over the next three months I got violently sick at least three times. One of the treatments for my combinations of nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, coughing and fevers was often a mound of greasy pork. Smelling it wracked me with nausea but nonetheless I was dragged out of my bedroom and forced to the couch where I could watch Serbian music videos in a haze of cigarette smoke. The family I was staying with meant well. They didn’t want me to feel lonely. Although I appreciated the sentiment, I swallowed American antibiotics.

I remember a lot about the first slaughter I went to, possibly because I was too busy trying to process the newness of life in a village to remember to drink. Drinking, I learned later, is an important part of these rituals.  It happened almost accidentally: after a day or two to adjust, one morning I was woken up early and handed a sledgehammer to help the family I lived with build a stone wall to keep sewage off their property. Later that day I had to draw my minders a map so they could find me in case of an emergency. Mapping the village, I literally walked into a pig slaughter and was invited to participate. It was mid-November, prime slaughter time. This was how a lot of the villagers welcomed the five of us living in the 1,000-strong village. Our little group was fine with it. None of us were vegetarian.

The Tikves villagers did not classify or codify their annual slaughters; I don’t know what the 68 steps of a pig slaughter are and I doubt anyone in Macedonia does either. It’s fairly simple, and this is how it happens: you fatten a sow off table scraps for a year, and then on a weekend day in the fall you put a wire around its snout and lead it out of the pen and into the yard. The pig is smart and knows what is coming. It will squeal and resist, so the wire must be pulled tight by one man, and as soon as the animal is reasonably still, a big man with a sledgehammer will step forward and hit the pig on the head, hard. You don’t use an electric stunner, a bolt gun or any other kind of gun because electricity and ammunition are expensive.

The pig goes down on its side and then a man sticks it in the throat with a sharp knife and runs it from side to side to slit its throat. Then the pig bleeds to death. You stand back because it is a lot of blood. Most of the men wear coveralls and big Wellington-style rubber boots. The pig stiffens, and boiling water is poured over it to get rid of the hair. Then the butchery begins. The men do the hard work—cutting off the head, pulling out the entrails, pulling off the skin and working knives around the joints—and then the women and children help with cleaning and dividing up the rest. Most of the meat will be saved, but the parts that don’t keep well, like the liver and lungs can be grilled immediately, and if you are lucky, some of the loin will be, too.

You can stretch out the pig’s skin to dry and the cats and dogs that live in your household but that are never allowed indoors will come around to lick up the blood. Seeing these living animals that recognize and like you might seem wholesome. The women and children will fill up plastic bins with guts as you drink and smoke and talk and do your work of cutting up the meat.

If the water is working you can use it to wash with; if not, and if no one collected any in buckets beforehand then you’ll have to sanitize your hands with ever-present rakija, a rough grape brandy collected in large plastic gas jugs and decanted in Pepsi bottles. It will be around for drinking at the slaughter and it will kill enough bacteria to stave off illness. It will also kill off enough brain cells so that you have a good time. Once the work is done you might even dance, but the next day you will be impelled to drink cabbage juice and eat raw eggs to overcome the effects. You’ll feel so bad you’ll do it, even if it makes things worse.

What I learned in Macedonia about butchering a pig was not an anthropological experience designed for the enjoyment of folk culinary traditions. The village was poor. It avoided the worst of poverty with subsistence farming and basic husbandry. Local ownership of the regions’ grape fields was slowly being given over to oligarchic grape cartels; the only thing trickling-down was strong homemade wine and stronger rakija.  I learned the language via tortured conversations with neighbors about how to get cheap tractor parts from Germany and the United States, or by trying to explain the concept of a mortgage to families living in unfinished houses. We froze the rest of the pig we had killed and ate off of it for that whole long cold winter. The family I lived with, thanks to the few extra dollars they got monthly for taking on a boarder, was able to afford a second wood-burning stove in their five-person house. They were lucky. On more than one occasion that winter, trudging up to our ankles in mud to our language class, our group was held up by a horse-drawn cart followed by a small knot of black-clad pensioners, hands clasped, eyes earthward, muttering in prayer. “The winter is hard on our old people here,” our language teacher observed. The village church bell tolled and we proceeded on to our lesson. There were no grandparents in the house where I lived.

One of my group’s projects was to get the town a sewage system. Feces would burble up through the mud of the streets and get into the groundwater. To get the money we had to prove the people truly needed sewage, so we went door-to-door asking people if they thought that they truly needed sewage. A lot of them didn’t know what sewage was. When you’re that poor, the idea that you could just intimidate your neighbors into running away so you could take their house and color TV starts to seem pretty attractive. Thanks in large part to the diplomatic efforts of a man named Kiro Gligorov, who died this year, things never got to that point.

Later I was sent to a town in the Osogovo Mountains, where I spent most of my time. It wasn’t uncommon for me to follow a blood trail through the gutter to my landlady’s house. On the weekend, she and her menfolk might be draining a goat in the front yard.  Her children, my age and fluent in English, were at university in the capital, or at a café with their friends. This was her, not their, way of making Sunday supper.

In this town there were no grocery stores, only a weekly market run by farmers who would drive in from the plains and then sleep on their vegetables in their trucks to guard them the night before. Going to this market was the only chance to vary one’s diet beyond industrial cheese and meat, homemade (“‘organic” if you like) booze, and local cigarettes. Was it fresh? You tell me: one Saturday a butcher cleared a collection of bloody, skinned lamb skulls from her counter with an exasperated swipe of her forearm so she could count my money.

If you didn’t like the market, you could buy frozen meat at the one dry goods stores that had a freezer. There you might run into Ciko (“Chico”) the hard-drinking history teacher. Once he convinced me to go in on a three-liter plastic jug of wine that we kept hidden under the counter so that he wouldn’t have to go to the bar next door where he had a long tab.  Like most everyone, he kept pigs, too, and during one slaughter season he also convinced me to buy a bloody plastic bag full of meat. The meat that wasn’t gristle was good and fresh, moist and sleek with blood. But Ciko himself wasn’t in such great shape. He often drank at work. Once I came into the men’s room and he turned around to face me, piss flying everywhere. “It’s like a river!” he bellowed in vacant amusement. He died a few months after I left.

Economics is based on scarcity. During the time of “the transition” in the former Yugoslavia, the culture, despite being southern European, was not one of eating well and living well. It was perhaps closer to eat or be eaten. Slaughter or be fodder. Life or death, or better rendered in the local argot—trt, mrt, zivot ili smrt.

Travelers who write about pig slaughters typically go places where it is an option for their hosts. It may be cheaper; it may be more fun, but it is an option: There is good, safe meat for sale at the local supermarket or butcher. This doesn’t have to take any meaning away from the ritual. Italy is a place where wealth and post-industrial nostalgia for folk traditions have brought together families and made for some of the best eating on the planet.

Yet the difference between choice and necessity means a lot. Not very long ago, there was but a handful of supermarkets in the whole country of Macedonia, all in the rather grim capital Skopje, home of the country’s few ATMs as well. For most, modernity wasn’t an option. There is a lot of nuance in saying that that “the meat eater who will not kill the pig with his own hands is a hypocrite, unwilling to deal with the reality of the life and death that was needed to put that meat in front of him,” as Stevo puts it, and none of it enters into the mind of the people who kill pigs as a matter of course.  Like burning used toilet paper, chopping wood, or welcoming a guest, it’s just what one does. I loved my time in the Tikves and in the Osogovo Mountains, but these places were desperately poor. In their own way, they were stunning, but life was hard and raw and definitely real in a way that I haven’t lived through before or since. Maybe this has to do with why I, somewhat guiltily, have not been back.

Eating is consumption at its most obvious. How we eat and how we get our food, as recent films that lay bear the whole industrial, immigrant-exploiting apparatus of modern food remind us, tell us a lot about ourselves. But how we see others getting their food tells us something about ourselves too. For people not used to the hardness of country life, there is something jarring about killing an animal that lives in your back yard and then putting your hands in its blood and guts and shit and putting it over a fire so you can eat it. Those unfamiliar with the process might be revolted or fascinated. Such strong feelings fade over time; there is a reason that the people who invited me to slaughters thought it was odd that I might want to take photographs.

There’s no reason to be squeamish about seeing a feather on your poultry, a scale on your fish or blood in your steak. But the current trend in ultra-real, hyper-local eating is a backlash to decades of mass-produced, mass-farmed protein blobs in large chunks of the industrial world; a reaction to learning, as the title of a column in a fanzine from my youth succinctly put it, that “chicken is round – fish is square.” I won’t deny that some of the best meat, especially pork, I’ve ever had in my life was in the Balkans, but what I took away from my participation in butchering animals was that rural life was hard and enduring, season after season. Relief was simple and fleeting—a shot of strong brandy, a circle-dance around a fire, a stomach laden with meat.

In a postmodern age where everything is transferrable across borders, the West plucks what it wants from the East while at the same time setting the agenda: capitalism has been exported, as if in a giant box.

How it has gone goes beyond the remit of this article, but these days, one can open a newspaper and read about young Athenians going back to their villages to pursue a rural existence as Greece struggles with youth unemployment and austerity. There’s a whiff of romance to the idea of Greeks returning to their land that dovetails conveniently with the idea of crafting one’s soul in the machine shop. For young Americans who find fulfillment in seeing something tangible at the end of their workday, the divorce from production, repetitive nature and insecurity in the knowledge economy is a sign of its inadequacy. There is a utility and authenticity in working with one’s hands. But the newspapers are also full of stories of Chinese girls escaping rural prostitution by getting jobs at the high-tech factories that turn out the West’s electronics. Then one turns the page to read that the Chinese have invested heavily in Greece’s Port of Piraeus.

If a great mass of southern Europeans are forced in coming years to leave their cities and go back to the land, then the West’s project, now spread far beyond the West and out of its control, has failed. I’m less sure that this is about to happen, though. Slavenka Drakulic writes that Eastern Europeans have one foot stuck in the mud of the village. When I think about the friends I made in the Balkans and how they’re leaving their villages for foreign countries and European capitals with little sentimentality, it seems to me that they are raising up that other foot and planting its blood-stained print in the places with paved streets and supermarkets.

Henry Baker is a freelance writer living in Milan, Italy.