In the first days of September 1944, a village in northwestern Slovakia became reluctant host to some hungry guests. Invading German forces had been ordered to pacify a Slovak rebellion reportedly sweeping the country, yet after occupying Trenčianské Teplice they found not even so much as a rifle. They thus consoled themselves with gorging on one of the most plentiful foodstuffs: pig products. By the time they moved out, troops had forced their way into dozens of shops and homes and snatched hundreds of kilos of ribs, bacon, pork sausages, chops, and lard. The care with which these edibles had been processed and stored was erased in the course of a single day, carried off as greasy, salty spoils of war. The Slovaks must’ve acutely felt the loss of such a critical dietary staple; they would now have to brave the cold winter to come with bellies only half full.
Fast-forward 70 years, past three revolutions and a half dozen border fluctuations and small-scale animal husbandry is a slowly vanishing practice in Slovakia. Slovak cuisine still comes jammed with pork and most stores carry more pork than any other variety of meat. From the pile of chunky, crumbled bacon on the cheesey halušky (noodle dumplings regarded as the Slovak national dish) to the chlebičky (open-faced sandwiches) slathered with lard and topped with salami, there is little refuge here for vegetarians. Different today, however, are the means of procuring meat. After the Revolution of 1989, neo-liberal governments brought “western” market practices that reconfigured the patterns of mass consumption in (Czecho)-Slovakia. Local butchers now compete with hypermarkets while steady urbanization, along with Soviet-era industrialization, has peppered the landscape with factory-cities surrounded by atrophying hamlets. In a country where nearly every shop shuts down for most of the weekend, international chains like Tesco and Kaufland are almost always open for business. Instead of raising their own pigs, Slovaks are now more often taking the pre-processed approach to pork.
Enter the wayward American. Like hypermarkets, we were a scant presence in Slovakia 25 years ago; even speaking English on the streets of many Slovak villages today is bound to raise a few eyebrows. And while I’m far from abstinent when it comes to meat, my eating habits are slightly at odds with the Slovak status quo. I had not previously imagined, for example, that beer could be totally acceptable as a breakfast beverage. So, when my Slovak language tutor Michal invited me to a pig slaughter this winter (also known as a zabijáčka, or literally “butchering”), I knew I was venturing out of my depth. Yet within seconds of arrival in his home town, I was goaded into drinking a shockingly strong glass of something and my apprehensions dissipated. Well, okay, not totally. But there was no time for me to indulge my squeamishness anyway: the sun was barely shoulder-high and before us lay the mortal remains of a very recently living pig.
As the most experienced member of our team, Uncle Milosh’s job was to supervise and hand out the drinks (he proved particularly handy at this) while our crew of six began to work methodically in the morning chill. The mission was to process the whole pig into sausages, chops, ribs, bacon, and lard before sundown. That which could not be smoked or easily stored had to be eaten immediately—all down the collective hatch. Over the next eight hours, warmed by increasingly frequent doses of Uncle Milosh and family’s Special Sauce (Slivovica, a clear brandy distilled from plums, ubiquitous across much of East-Central and Southeastern Europe), we punctuated hard work with various snacks. Here are some highlights:
Phase 1: Brains of the Operation
Pigs are dirty. Our newly departed little friend had to be bathed, shorn, and then every inch of her singed with a blowtorch to ensure silky smoothness (no one likes hair in their pork chops). Next, the carcass was hoisted onto a kind of giant tripod and our savvy team leader, Milosh’s son Jakub, used a hammer, a chisel, tenacity, and a carving knife to halve the animal lengthwise. The only inedible parts, its lower intestines and bowels, were discarded and soon Jakub had worked his way up the spine and was hacking away at the skull. The desired fruit of this very tough, boney nut? Brains. As it turns out, pigs don’t have big ones. Just large enough to mix up a tasty batch of brains n’ scrambled eggs, seasoned with onions and served on fresh slice of brown bread. This dish was all about consistency in texture.
Phase 2: The Great Melange, or, “What’s your Favorite Internal Organ?”
While cousin Dominik kept the wood-fired boilers churning with hot water, all the blood not devoted to flavoring the soon-to-be-sampled cabbage soup was poured into a half-dozen plastic sleeves alongside cross sections of the heart and liver. Meanwhile, the kidneys, bits of the heart, and the lungs were steamed in a pot along with—yes, you guessed it—onions. As we prepared to snack on a giant platter of these morsels, Milosh tied the crimson sleeves off with twine and dropped them into a boiler. At this juncture, my hosts seemed to want to test my mettle, grinning and eyeing me a bit as if expecting hesitation. In this suspicion they were mostly justified. Lingering over the homemade pickles that were on offer beside the plate of innards, I swallowed, smeared a slab of bread with mustard, and chewed my way through a slice of boiled kidney and a tepid, squishy hunk of lung. Perhaps brains were more my speed?
Phase 3: Sausage Party
Now that the animal was in workable pieces, we moved into the “summer kitchen,” something like an uninsulated but excellently equipped garden shed, complete with two woodstoves, a meat grinder, and a large horizontal piston designed for filling sausages. As Dominik sallied back and forth offering up freshly sautéed pork medallions, cousins Ondrej and Jakub were doing the real work of butchery, isolating the best cuts--knees, chops, ribs, butt, and belly—while the rest of us separated the fat from sheets of leathery pig skin. A giant mound of fat cubes soon accumulated and was ported outside and reduced to lard in one of the large boilers. The pace picked up and the kitchen filled with a thick musk of toiling human bodies, raw meat, and frying pork. More slivovica was poured. Uncle Milosh shuffled in with the above-mentioned sleeves of blood, heart, and liver. Now hardened by the boil, they resembled wands of thick, bloody paste. Fed through the hand-crank meat grinder, these bits were added to a giant plastic tub of rice and barley. Slivovica again, and then, crowding in around the tub, all six of us shoved our hands into the mix, turning the hearty muck between our fingers. Milosh and Jakub flung in huge handfuls of black pepper and salt from above. Much discussion ensued. More black pepper? Should there be more black pepper? Perhaps one might consider adding more black pepper. Indeed more black pepper was added, and Jakub expertly slipped a long coil of freshly washed intestine onto the nozzle of the sausage-piston. Within minutes, the rest of the team was passing sausages along to the smokehouse like a bucket brigade, while Jakub, cheering us on, cranked out link after link of húrky, this special variety of spiced blood sausage.
The easier the work became, the more we were exhorted to drink, the more slivovica we put back, the work easier still. The tone of the event slowly, almost imperceptibly shifted from team project to holiday revel—and it’s perhaps a notion of “celebration in work” that best characterizes the ritual of the zabijáčka. Like a holiday, there’s the quiet but shared recognition that the gathering comes around only once a year, so you raise your glass, toast your family, your friends, and sometimes, even a total stranger. And at the same time, the focus is trained on the task itself, strengthened by a sense of communal accomplishment. This is not an experience available for purchase at Tesco.
Somehow I hadn’t even noticed that the sun had vanished, but the now stocked cold-storage room and smoke house showed abundant evidence of a full day’s work. I was also now completely covered in blood and grease and drifting dangerously toward that lingual Rubicon, just beyond which foreign language abilities cease to benefit from further alcohol consumption. Uncle Milosh came to the rescue—he was eager to spin yarns about the partisan warfare that had consumed the surrounding valley during the Nazi occupation of 1944. Doing my best to listen carefully, I scanned the mountain ridges, fading into the dark, and struggled to envision this quiet pastoral so violently disturbed. And then, all at once, I felt really hungry.
Luke Ryder is a PhD candidate in history at McGill University, currently living and researching in central Slovakia. His thesis project addresses social and political transformations in Czechoslovak society from 1939-48, particularly in connection with Slovak resistance to fascism and its postwar legacies. As an occasional resident of Montreal, Luke spends a good deal of his time commuting between Canada and pseudo-Canada (his home state of Vermont) while listening to public radio programming. He looks forward to heading home this summer, and upon return plans to get a dog, eat a lot of tacos, and god willing, write the thesis.