It’s just past 6:00 am, and I am standing in a stranger’s kitchen, peeling potatoes. Outside, the roar of a gas-fired flame torch fills the air as four men begin roasting the largest pig I have ever seen. I send up a silent prayer: Lord, what have I gotten myself into?
Thus began my first disznotór, or pig-killing. Usually taking place during the colder winter months, Hungarian pig-killings are full-day, ritualized, family affairs, beginning in the early hours of the morning with the slaughter of a pig. I had been invited by a friend of a friend to join their family for the day’s events, and I didn’t know what to expect. I had never seen a slaughter before, and while I was worried it might be uncomfortable to witness, I wanted to make sure to get the full experience. When I arrived at their home, however, even earlier than I had been advised to come, I was surprised (and, admittedly, somewhat relieved) to find the pig had already been killed, and was now in the process of being roasted to remove the hairs. The darkness and the early hour made everything feel almost illicit, like we were doing something we weren’t supposed to be.
My host, an exuberant and incredibly friendly woman named Ági, quickly pulled me into the shed/kitchen where the meat would be prepared later in the day. A cup of strong, hot coffee helped wake me up enough to chat with her in my broken Hungarian, and she put me to work beside her, prepping for breakfast. It is tradition for the blood of the pig to be roasted with fresh potatoes and onions for breakfast, a flavorful dish called hagymás sült vér. We also set out thickly-buttered slices of bread and homemade apricot jam, which disappeared quickly as the men rotated in and out of the room to get respite from the cold. When the pig had been completely roasted, and the hair scraped away, I was called outside to pose with the men and their prize. It was only a picture, but that simple gesture of acceptance and inclusion warmed me more than the brandy they passed around afterwards (also a tradition).
The next hours flew by in a blur. More family members arrived, and the kitchen filled with chatter and movement as the pig was separated into thick slices of fat for bacon, meat to be ground into kolbász (sausage), and even the organs, which would be ground and made into a special sausage called hurka. (The zoologist in me felt right at home in the midst of the dissection.) Most of the morning was spent grinding the meat for the kolbász, which soon covered the large wooden table. After seasoning the meat with garlic, salt, pepper, and piles upon piles of sweet and spicy paprika, one of the men handed me a plastic poncho and gestured for me to help them mix it all together. Usually, the women do not help with this part of the process, so it was a special honor that I was invited to participate.
(Ági took a video of this moment, and when I watched it later, I was struck by how at ease I looked. Laughing, responding to the a question in Hungarian, stained up to my elbows with orange, I look so comfortable and relaxed. You wouldn’t think I had just met those people that morning – I fit right in.)
The finished meat was then squeezed into sheep intestines and either smoked or fried. I got to help with this process a bit too! At the end, we fried up a small portion of the kolbász right then and there. Knowing that I had helped, just a little, to make the traditional Hungarian food I was eating made it even more delicious.
When the day had begun, I had been apprehensive, and shy, and completely out of my element. By the time I left, late in the afternoon, I felt as though I was saying goodbye to old friends, all of whom had guided me through one of their most treasured cultural traditions with patience, smiles, and hospitality.
In the end, my most important experience from the pig-killing was not the slaughter, or the meat. It was the cultural exchange, and the fellowship, and the early morning cry of, “Michelle! You came!”