Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Field Tamales

What began as a conversation about how to move corn from the field through a drying, into a simple chemical process to access valuable nutrients became a lovely experience for the mouth.

Fresh ground hominy from slaked corn and sweet new lard. whipped nixtamal, filled with beef tongue or pumpkin and dried grapes. Steamed.


Pig Kill

I am in the Unitarian villages of Transylvania. It has taken another ten years to work a kill back into my life.

The pig arrives in a metal crate; front loaded onto the village forklift and delivered to the cultural center on the fair morning of the kill. She comes from a barn in the village. At ease but hungry she pushes her snout through the bars of her confinement, nibbling the October grasses that edge her boundary. Her assertive rooting unlatches the cage and she is free in the enclosed yard. She is hungry and rambles about, nibbling on living greens and fallen apple. She wanders while the men arrange and pace themselves, their tools and rituals before the kill.

First, shots of palinka are passed about. Locked eyes and shared drink weave the threads of many kills. Denes-bacsi stands with palinka in one hand and the orange plastic “pig-rope” used to bind the pig’s feet dangles from his left hand. This killing, like any other, follows the same communal passages from before into now. Little has changed. There is joy and celebration in the familiarity of the work. There is no disquiet here.

A placid flow of life runs smoothly over the soft rounded morning. The pig’s stress lies dormant until the edges of the men’s intent throws boulders in her way. The energy in the enclosure shifts quickly as the men tighten their circle round her. She darts, annoyed at the interruption. For the men, a merry chance ensues throughout the yard. Her tail is caught tight in a grip. She is guided onto her right side by the smells and voices of men she has known her whole life. Voices that have greeted her, talked to her, fed her. Hands, knees and shins hold her to the grass. The pig-rope whips around three feet immobilizing them and leaving the left foreleg free. The hands upon her are gentle and firm, guiding her from an easy life in the barn to a quick end. She screams and struggles briefly against the men before a quick stick in her neck. The incision, enlarged by the pressure of her heavy flowing blood has tipped Denes-bacsi’s right fingers red. Using her heart, her leg, and her deep exhales; Denes-bacsi empties her life into the red enameled bowl, all the while, soothing her and coaxing her life away with gentle assurances. Denes-becsi has refilled her emptiness with silent gratitude. She has moved quickly from alive to meat.

Another round of palinka. Poised like a sphinx in the grass the carcass is covered with hay, doused in gasoline and set a fire. The hair is singed and the skin seared. The pig is scraped, washed and scrubbed until the pink pliant and animated creature is now a 30-minute memory. The skin, with its yellow crackle, is clean. The body, still life warm inside, is lifted onto the multipurpose wooden table and the butchering begins.

Another round of palinka and the hooves are knocked off, the trotters removed and the hocks jointed. The teats and tail and ears are taken and dropped in a red bucket. Another round of palinka and the first bites of crisp skin and warm raw flesh are eaten. Attracted by the warmth and protein of the carcass and sugars of the sweet palinka, the slow angry yellow jackets arrive. The pig is forty-five minutes from alive. An incision, behind the ears, down through the jaw joint and across the palate leaves the lower mandible intact. The head goes into a red bucket. A long cut is made down the back and the spine is splayed bare. The fat on the back is three fingers deep and the men nod and smile happily and congratulate each other as they think of the szalona, a cured and smoked fat, they will eat this winter. A parallel cut is made, a cleaver severs the rib cage from the spine, and the entire length of the backbone is peeled away from the body revealing the full abdominal membrane holding every organ. Carefully, the membrane is opened, and the heart, liver, lungs, kidneys and spleen, revealed and removed, are sent to the women in the kitchen. A separate basin holds stomach, large and small intestines.

Next to the heart, a small muscle is gently pulled away, wrapped in plastic and hurried off to the village veterinarian who will test it for parasites. The butchering continues. Two hours from alive in the yard and hams, fat, skin, scraps and roasts are sorted. Bones are scraped and boiled for stock. The women make a meatball and sour-cabbage soup with carrots and parsnips for lunch and cleaning intestines for stuffing. After lunch they’ll be make blood sausage, kielbasa and liver sausage for the large dinner that night.

It is difficult the whole day to find my place. I am at ease with the men, drinking palinka and eating the crisp skin and raw meat. I am a woman and belong inside. I want to lay my hands on the warm meat and work along with them. I never idle well. And I hope, in my life, that I will stick a pig, catch its blood, break it down and feed my friends and family. What higher compliment can I pay them, knowing what I am.