I peered into the dark, foul-smelling room. Down on all fours, pacing back and forth in anxiety, the victim awaited his death sentence. About 15 paces away, standing in front of a dirty wooden shed, holding a sharpened knife and dressed in a bloody apron was the stoic old executioner flanked by his young wild-eyed henchmen. An expectant silence amongst all those in attendance only accentuated the bitter sense of fear hanging thick in the air.
A shrill yell in Czech incited one of the henchmen waiting by the door to seize the victim, tie a noose around his neck and bring him to the shed. A fierce struggle ensued, as the prisoner kicked, jumped, rolled over and tried anything to escape the group of murderous characters coming ever closer.
Soon the other henchmen and the executioner were upon the victim. They pinned it down with all of their weight and the leader coolly pulled out his rudimentary killing tool. As the bloody end drew near, the most nightmarish high-pitched squeal emerged, and repeated, again and again, like a siren. The weapon was placed over his temple and for just one moment before his death he and I met eyes. A second later blood was spurting from his neck into a yellow bucket held by one of the laughing young boys at the side of the corpse.
As the whole traumatic, unforgettable event had come to a climax, only one solitary thought arose in my mind: “I don’t think I’ll ever look at a pork chop quite the same way again.”
The Real Deal
I didn’t realise what I was getting myself into months earlier when I accepted my friend’s invitation to a “very special family event in the countryside.” Her devilish grin should have tipped me off, but instead it intrigued me.
I had an idea of what a traditional pig-killing feast, or zabíjačka, was as I had attended something like it in Bratislava the year before. But that was a very different affair; the pig was already dead when we arrived, so we simply cut the meat up and did fun stuff like make sausage, drink homemade slivovica (plum alcohol) and eat delicious food hot off the grill overseen by my friend, a famous chef at a fancy restaurant in town. I guess that was the “city-fied” version of what a real zabíjačka should be.
The event I attended in Czech Republic was certainly more traditional. I should have known what to expect when Katka told me the night before to bring a pair of shoes that I wouldn’t mind throwing out after our work was done. Unpleasant images raced through my mind at the sound of those instructions.
On the day of the killing, I had more than a little anxiety. It didn’t help that Katka asked me whether I might faint due to the excessive bleeding. We drove about 90 minutes outside of Prague through what can only be described as seriously rural Czech Republic. Forests dominated the landscape, only to be interrupted by the occasional tiny farming village. Katka explained that this was one of the poorest regions in all of Czech Republic and that I could expect her relatives’ home to be less than glamorous. She said that they lived humbly, in a manner not so different from the way generations past had lived, and that they made a living from the manufacture of balkánský sýr (feta cheese) and honey.
I knew from past experience that people from villages such as these were typically the most welcoming, gracious, kind-hearted people you could hope to encounter, especially when meeting them as a guest in their home. And so it was. As we walked through the doors, we were met by the family, all smiles, seated around a table and ready with a bottle of Fernet herbal alcohol and a bottle of beer for each of us.
One sign on the table read “American guest” with an empty glass on top of it; another sign was written in Czech for all of us – “None shall pass without first paying the toll of one drink.” We all laughed together and paid our toll.
The property was decidedly humble, as Katka had described it. The dirt courtyard was strewn with rusted appliances and towering stacks of firewood; a flock of chickens ran around aimlessly.
Beyond the farm life and the state of the courtyard, what immediately caught my attention was a large, dangling pig sliced perfectly in half from head to belly, with its insides displayed like an anatomy exhibit. This had been the first slaughter of the day. Pools of blood mixed with dirt in certain areas to create dark reddish mud. Two of the younger men there were working in a large wooden shed, their arms and shirt speckled with blood. I took a large drink of my beer and tried to relax.
Not for the Faint-Hearted
The ‘event’ happened and it was undeniably traumatic. The squeal of the pig was so loud and horrible that it was nearly unbearable for more than a few seconds. In fact, for Katka and her five-year-old cousin, it was too much to take and they had to run inside to get away from it. But putting the animal to death itself was almost effortless. A pop to the head with an air-powered nail gun kills nearly instantaneously. After that, the men make a hole in the throat and drain the blood.
The killing was so simple for these guys that my paranoia got the better of me for a minute. The setting really was perfect for a horror movie: An impressionable American tourist gets invited to a feast deep in the Czech countryside only to realise that he is about to be the main course, hanging up next to the pigs. How well did I know Katka, anyway? Fortunately the sweet little grandmother walked up to me at this moment and offered me a huge piece of the most delicious rum cake I’ve ever had. That shifted my mind to a happier place.
Getting My Hands Dirty
At Katka’s urging, the men agreed to include me in on the carving process. The dead pig was lying on a handcart and being doused in boiling water. A tool was placed in my hand and I was instructed to start shaving the hair off of the pig. It came off in big chunks with simple strokes. I had lots of pictures taken of me doing my duty as part of this brutal event. How cool I’d look to all of my friends on Facebook. Only later, when telling my story, did my Slovak friend tell me that this is usually a job reserved for women. So much for my newly inflated sense of pride.
I won’t go into the details of slicing the pig open and separating the organs, but let’s just say that I never realised that bloody guts could be such a wonderful prop for comedy. The young guys there tossed the guts around and made funny faces while posing for pictures with vile strands of offal.
The event was an entirely unforgettable experience. If anyone has the opportunity to attend a zabíjačka they’ll leave with some nice memories and a decidedly greater appreciation for the meat they buy at the supermarket. At the cost of a pair of old shoes and a bit of nausea, I’d say it’s definitely worth it.