Friday, December 19, 2008

How a Pig Killing Sheds Some Light

I saw the pig pictured here killed, butchered, and turned into food. It was earlier this month on a Sunday, when Dora and I attended our second traditional 'pig killing.' The more accurate translation would be 'pig slaughter,' but that just doesn't sound right to me.

Many Central European families slaughter a pig just before Christmas. The slaughter is a reason to have family and friends over, as it requires many hands. Over the years, the event has become a floating holiday for those who have the space and means to raise and kill a pig. While there are some places that hold pig killings for tourists, the best way to experience this event is as a guest of a family that is killing a pig for their own use. The killing of an animal is not improved by a tourist-friendly atmosphere.

Dora and I are lucky, because we have now attended two pig killings at the same farm. Being recognized faces made us feel more like part of the event.

Tomas, a good friend of ours, is from southern Slovakia. His family owns some farm land which they rent out. The cost of renting this land is, get ready... One Pig per year.

The pig is not delivered to Tomas's family home wrapped in cellophane. No. Tomas and his family attend the slaughter, arriving at dawn and helping to kill the pig and turn it into a lot of food. It is a major annual event with wine, palinka, cakes, sweets, and... oh yes, pork, bacon, sausage, lard, and other pig products.

I can't even begin to paint a full picture of the day in a blog entry. I will say this, however, I plan to use this experience as material in my next writing project. Still, I wanted to share some highlights.

This is Robi (Robbie). He was our butcher. He brought with him a bag of knives that could have been crafted in the middle ages (see the lower-right-hand corner of the first picture). Robi didn't talk much, but he kept up with the guys as we all drank shot after shot of palinka. And while I struggled to keep from slurring my speech, Robi wielded his knives with an enviable precision.

His job was not a pretty one. He cornered the pig, stunned it with a handheld shocking device, and then he cut the pig's throat. After that he (with help) burned the hair off the pig, scrubbed the skin clean, and prepped the animal for the knife. Then Robi went at the legs, the head, and the spine with his instraments. He pulled the skin off the pig. He cut fat and meat from the bone. He carefully removed the innards. Finally, after two and a half hours of hard dirty work, Robi had turned a pig into food.

Naturally, Dora developed a bit of the crush on the man. I understand. I am not offended. Maybe that's simply because I am not the jealous type, but I think there's something more to my appreciation for Dora's crush. I think my appreciation stems from an admiration of skilled labor. Dora saw in Robi something that has slipped away, slipped almost into mythology for many in the middle class and above: The ability to apply a practical trade.

Watching Robi work left me asking myself, "Hogan, what can you do? I mean really do? What can you do with the skill of an expert?"

My answer is not an empty one. I teach. A task I take very seriously. And I think I'm good at it, maybe not good enough to perform effectively after five shots of palinka, but good nevertheless. However, teaching doesn't turn a pig into delicious sausage. Teaching doesn't make a tree into a sturdy dinning room table. Teaching doesn't bring hot water into my bathroom. What Robi has in his ability to butcher an animal is a skill that our society requires in order to maintain its existence. It is essential.

In my job I aim to improve society. That's what teachers do. But I could not have such lofty goals if Robi didn't turn pigs into food. I like seeing that. I like being there when the essential work gets done. But seeing it leads me to the inevitable question: Why is such essential work valued less than my work, or the work of a marketing exec, or an investment banker? I'm not trying to get all Marxist, or anything. I don't want to suggest a new way of distributing wages. I just find it interesting that our society puts a smaller monetary value on the services we need compared to the services we want.