Head to Tail: A Traditional Czech Zabijačka Experience

“Why would you go to a pig slaughter event?” This question, along with an expression of shock, was the first response of some my friends when I told them that I was going to a „zabijačka“ on the weekend. Other friends, especially if they were Czech, would express that they have not been to one, but would love the opportunity to go.

So then, I asked myself the same questions? Why do people gather for this event and why was I interested in the first place?

I did not have an answer as we pulled up early in the morning to a driveway in Miroslav, a Moravian town in Znojmo, Czech Republic. I admit, it was not quite the location I imagined for a „zabijačka“. Somehow, I had this image in my head that these events were held in an unmarked farm in the middle of nowhere. I was pleasantly surprised that it was someone’s own backyard close to the center of the town.

Our friend Marcela, who graciously invited us, introduced us to Daniel, the host of the event and the head butcher. He then introduced us to Milan, the owner of the pig, and another Milan who was helping them. More and more people came throughout the day, taking up different tasks and helping with whatever needs to be done.

We arrived at the right time, as the more sensitive parts of the task were already done and the hard work has begun.

I understand that this might be a touchy subject for some, so feel free to -skip the next section- and read the rest of the story.

First, the skin of the pig was covered with lime, powdered rosin, and scalding water to help loosen the hair roots. Then, the bristles of the pig were scraped off using conical knives. I tried to help in the scraping, but even with the rosin and scalding water, it was still backbreaking work. Other hairs which were not removed were burnt off by torch.

The carcass was then hoisted onto a special crane. While giving pointers to Milan, Daniel carefully removed the head and sliced the body open to expose the internal organs. Each one, starting with the brain, was carefully removed and placed in separate bowls and buckets. The body was then cut in half, then further into smaller pieces. Soon the meat was laid out into pieces I can already recognize from commercial meat shops.

From head to tail, nothing was wasted.

The first feast started with pig brains cooked with eggs. It was a delicious protein packed meal to energize everyone for the laborious day ahead. The table was also filled with snacks, coffee, and tea from everyone who came to help.

As newcomers to this tradition, we were then tasked to do the dirtiest work there was – cleaning the intestines. Every bit of disgusting stuff had to be squeezed out over the compost pile. Then, we learned a special trick to turn them inside out to clean them more thoroughly. The next step should have been to scrape off the slimy part of the lining. However, the intestine itself was too thin and was tearing very easily. It was deemed unusable. The good thing was, Daniel was prepared with a set of intestine casings from a different pig. We were assured that our efforts were appreciated, even if the product of our work won’t be used further. I agreed that nothing was wasted here except maybe time.

Inside the work kitchen, things were in full swing. A huge pot with bones and soup vegetables were simmering. We had to slice and separate big fat pieces from the meaty ones to prepare them for cooking later on. Some of the meat were roasted in the oven with some vegetables and spices. My hands smelled like bacon and this made my stomach grumble.

The timing worked out well because Daniel’s wife, announced that lunch was ready. Everyone took turns at the table and we had quick and satisfying break. We had sausages, bread, and a big bowl of potato soup. Indeed, it was very filling.

We went back to the kitchen to work on the fat pieces that had to be made into sádlo (lard). The only pointer was that the fat pieces had to be swimming in their own oil. More pieces were added until what was left were crunchy bits of škvarky (crackling pork rinds). This took a long time but I did not mind at all. This meant I stayed where all the action was.

While we were stirring the fats over the stove, Daniel was leading the team as they cut up boiled pieces of the internal organs. We were offered to take a small piece of each of the different offal parts. Coming from the Philippines, this was not my first time tasting such menu. What I can say is that I have never tasted them this fresh before.

Then the team seasoned the meats, prepared the casings, made tlačenka (head cheese), jitrnice (liver sausages), and jelito (blood sausages). Everyone had a say in the flavor that goes into each one. All the unused offal was added into the huge pot of prdelačka (blood soup). Lastly, the paštika (pâté) was made, placed into jars, then arranged inside the electric canner. An hour wait was all that was left.

The hard work has ended. The day ended around a table, filled with food and drinks, happy noises of children playing, and good conversation. I understand only a little Czech but the hubbub was so lively it barely needed translation. After a while, the canning was finished and the children were starting to fall asleep. We said goodbyes and expressed our gratitude to Daniel, Milan, and their families for inviting us and allowing us to participate in their cultural tradition.

The answer to my earlier question hit me then. I was diving “head-to-tail” into the Czech culture.

The whole experience reminded me of the Filipino tradition called “bayanihan”. For a day, I was part of a community that came together, sacrificed time and resources, and labored for the sake of others and of the community itself. Suddenly, Czech Republic became closer to home. My focus that day was to immerse myself in the experience, to be present and involved in the process, and to enjoy the company of people who appreciate the value of hard work. And because I participated, the cultural barriers were lowered for me.

I realized that while this tradition started as an economic activity in preparation for winter, it transformed into something much more than that. Its real value was the sense of community it provided then, and still provides now.

Driving away on the night before Advent 2017 began, I felt thankful for the communities I belong to. I am thankful for friends who welcomed me to the Czech Republic and allowed me to be part of their community. I am thankful that I am part of a global community that celebrates Advent as a reminder of Jesus, someone who gave more than his whole head-to-toe self and became the perfect sacrifice for the sake of the whole world.

Headed back to Prague, I was filled with gratitude while my luggage was filled with tlačenka, jitrnice, jelito, paštika, and sádlo. What a privilege!

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