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Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Fearful Feast

The pig’s squeal pierced our ears. My sister, my cousin and I sat up in bed. It wasn’t yet dawn but we were awake. We’d be waiting for what seemed an eternity to hear that sound. It signaled that my grandfather had plunged his knife into the pig’s throat and that soon we’d finally be allowed get up. The day, every year, when my family slaughtered a pig to prepare for the winter holidays, we, the children, weren’t allowed to go out in the courtyard until the pig was dead. By the time we were dressed and stood huddled outside in the first freeze of winter the pig’s blood was already collected in a green enameled basin and left to coagulate, the blood stains on the concrete of my grandparents’ yard were hosed off, and the pig itself was lying in a nest of straw, the hairs on half of its body already singed with a torch by my uncle.

There was work for all the adults and all the children – the neighbors came to help in exchange for plum brandy and meat and a good meal of fresh pork with sautéed sauerkraut, the traditional dish to make the evening of the slaughter – from morning until night fell. Muscle and fat and organs had to be separated from each other, the intestines cleaned for making sausage casings (my sister was an expert at this), the bacon layered in wooden barrels with pounds and pounds of rock salt. Pieces of fat with threads of meat in it had to be cubed and melted into a big black cauldron to make cracklings and lard. My grandmother attended to this cauldron wielding an enormous wooden spoon. You had to be careful when you stirred because the fat splattered easily and left blisters on your arms. We didn’t have breakfast or lunch. When we, the kids, whined that we were hungry, my grandfather cut the ears off the pig’s head, salted them and chased us, holding the ears up and saying, “If you don’t want to eat these you’re not really hungry.” The men took long swigs of plum brandy straight from a green bottle marked with greasy fingerprints.

There was grease everywhere. The concrete in my grandparents’ yard was whitish and slippery. We had white moons of fat under of fingernails. Our shoes glistened with melted lard. You had to be careful lifting pots and pans, bottles and glasses, because they could slip from your hands in the blink of an eye. I was in charge of grinding boiled lungs and liver for one of the three kinds of sausage my grandparents always made. My hand slid off the metal handle of the grinder at almost every turn. From time to time I tore off a bit of boiled liver and ate it. My mouth filled with a dark bittersweet taste.

The fresh pork cooked with sauerkraut that we ate at the end of the pig-slaughter day might be the best thing I’ve ever had in my life. Everybody ate around a small square table, their faces shiny with greasy dirt from the day’s work, their hands red from the cold and repeated washings. It was completely silent at the table for a long time; you could hear only the clatter of forks, the gritty sound of a knife slicing into a loaf of bread, the thud of the slice falling from the loaf on the table. I ate way past the point of feeling full. I couldn’t have enough of the sweet moist meat or of the intense, quiet fellowship with the other people at the table. I felt that nothing could go wrong in the world for the rest of that day.

When I was older my parents let me watch my grandfather kill the pig. I looked at him as he held up the knife and stared intently at the pig’s neck to locate the jugular. I watched the pig’s body quiver, its snout wide open with terror, deafening squeals pouring out of it. I remember a row of men’s hands on the pig’s trembling back and sides, holding it down so that my grandfather could do his work swiftly. I remember the violence with which the blood spurted from the pig’s neck into the green enameled basin, the lessening convulsions of its body as the basin filled. I should have looked up at my grandfather’s face after he stood up, having done his work. But I didn’t have the courage to.


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