This month I had the rare privilege of being fully submerged into one of the true Czech traditions. One that you certainly have to leave the bubble of Prague to participate in.
My second family here in the Czech Republic invited me several months ago to a celebration of their patriarch’s 80th birthday celebration. At the time, I didn’t know what that would involve, but of course I accepted and made sure to save the date all fall. The man we would toast to that day had become a hero of mine two years prior, when he guided me through my first real mushroom hunting adventure. (See September 2014 blog here.) So no matter what was included, I felt honored to be invited and looked forward to the day’s activities. Little did I know what I was about to encounter.
Though I was told before the big day finally arrived the basics of what we would be doing that day, I didn’t allow myself to really engage with the idea of it until we arrived there and saw the evidence of it right in front of me. After a very early morning metro ride across the city, waiting in the rain to get picked up by car, and then a 30 minute ride out of the city into the countryside, we arrived at a small restaurant in a tiny village. After greeting about a dozen extended relatives and family friends that didn’t speak much English and had no idea who I was, the man of the hour arrived. Though he knew we’d be celebrating that day, the true nature of the event itself was a surprise and the birthday boy had convinced himself that his loving family (including his wife of more than 58 years) had arranged a stripper for him.
After jubilant greetings all around and some mulled wine to warm us up, it was time for the festivities to begin. But the real guest of honor still hadn’t made an appearance…
…this is where I pause to tell my vegetarian and vegan friends and family that you may not want to read any further, as you may not like the details ahead…
A pig slaughter (or “killing” as they call it here) is more or less what it sounds like. At 8:30 am there was a live pig in a crate. By 9:30 am there was a dead pig hanging from a specially designed apparatus and being washed and prepared for butchering. These are my understanding of the steps in between:
- Take shots of Slivovice (plum brandy) to get started
- Tie up pig’s rear leg
- Isolate pig in crate to keep it from moving too much
- Use special device to put the animal down quickly (I had imagined the bolt pistol used in No Country for Old Men, but it was different, more subtle)
- Pull pig out of the crate by the rope tied to its rear leg as quickly as possible
- Create an opening in the side of the neck to release blood
- Immediately put a pan under the wound to collect as much blood as possible
- Someone sits on top of the pig to “pump” the arm and release the blood more effectively
- Take more shots of Slivovice to stay warm and be of good cheer
- A courageous volunteer uses their bare hand to stir the blood in a bucket so it doesn’t start to coagulate (in this case, a 22 year-old female friend who I will always and forever be a little afraid of now, stepped up to the plate)
This is where things get a little fuzzy because I had to step away for a while and gather myself. Maybe it was good that I hadn’t eaten breakfast in my rush to get out the door.
The next thing I knew, the poor beast was being lovingly washed in a bath of steaming hot water. And we continue…
- Scrub surface of pig and use an interesting method of running two heavy chains across, under, and around the hide to remove the hair
- Remove the hooves
- Hoist the carcass up, rear legs in the air, on a special tripod, hook, and chain device
- Use a scorching tool to remove any remaining hair or blemishes on the skin
- Take lots of pictures to commemorate the pig and his/her (in our case, his name was Andrej, after a controversial Czech politician) sacrifice for the good of all
- Take another shot of Slivovice and dance a jig to the music of a live traditional folk band
- Place your bets on how long it will take from first cut to having the entire carcass butchered and transported to the nearby kitchen (My guess was 30 minutes)
- Gird your loins in preparation for the removal of…well…the loins
However, I overestimated a bit and the whole process took just over 20 minutes. The team of expert butchers showed their skill by efficiently removing and sorting the different parts to be used in a variety of ways throughout the day’s activities. I just stood back with my mouth hanging slightly open, failing to prevent my clear dismay at the gore of it all from displaying clearly on my face.
Once the dirty work was done, (Klara spent nearly half an hour with her hand swirling around in that bucket of blood and veins) we went inside to warm ourselves with another round of mulled wine and some traditional cakes. I had even brought my own pumpkin spice bars to add to the mix, which went over quite well, despite their non-Czechness. The band set up inside, a pre-roasted portion of pork (from a previous victim) was set out with bread and mustard, and the party went into full swing. The delicious micro-brewed beer flowed just as one would expect at a Czech event of this nature, and conversations flowed just as easily. Though only a portion of the people there felt confident speaking English with me (it’s unfortunate how intimidating being a native speaker can be), I was not in want of a cheerful word from several friendly relatives, besides my close friends and their parents who of course speak to me quite naturally. Though I didn’t understand every word, many of the stories could be understood using clues from my small vocabulary, specific gestures and friendly broken English. And after all…cultures may be different, but family is family, and the stories they tell are often the same.
After the roast came smoked sausage, followed by the traditional pork goulash, which I had always known could include “mystery” parts, but that day’s revelations brought a whole new meaning to that idea.
Around 5 pm came a call to participate in a traditional sausage stuffing contest, and after a brief internal debate, I decided to join in. Originally, I was put on “Team Red,” but after I saw what made the sausage “red,” I changed to “Team White.” Not surprisingly, Klara didn’t mind being on that team. What’s a diluted version of the stuff when you had your hand swimming directly in it all morning? Anyway, after some brief instructions, the teams got underway tying the ends of the boiled intestine tubes. I’d like to say I took to the task like a pro, but it wasn’t really my thing and I had to keep resisting the urge to wipe an itchy spot on my face and smear it with…uh, stuff. Only my competitive nature kept me going and we prevailed in a virtual tie with Team Red.
As the designated driver, the next three hours were filled with drinking coffee, looking at old family photos, chatting some more, enjoying live music, and continuing the strange diet of rotating meat products and cake. Around 8 pm it was time to take on my only real contribution to the day – driving home a carload of not-so-sober Czechs. After paying my respects to my hero (who at various points throughout the day had commissioned his grandsons to translate stories from his life to me), I departed with my bag full of various ultra fresh pork products and leftover cakes. I would spend the next week figuring out what all these particular ingredients were and how to use them.
In the end, I decided that, though I was raised in a farming family, somewhere along the way, especially after living in Prague for five years, I have become a true city girl. Mushroom hunting in the forest is one thing, but seeing your food while it still has a face and then eating it within hours…well, that’s a whole other ball game. I’ll stick to plastic-wrapped pork chops and bacon from the supermarket for the foreseeable future. And sausage might just take me a little longer. However, despite my discomfort with this intimate encounter with livestock, I am grateful for being included in such an important cultural and family tradition.