J P RICHARD
The air was shattered by the agonizing squeal of the pig as I drove an arm’s-length thick iron bar, squaring the metal on the pig’s snout right between the eyes. Just one thrust and the 250 pounds beast slumped dead at my feet.
In case you’re wondering what the hell, that’s animal cruelty; well welcome to Papua New Guinea, we look after pigs for eating, not for pets.
I let the shuddering pig squirmed for a moment allowing the flowing blood to drain out, then my brothers grabbed his legs and heaved him onto the wire frame set over the blazing fire. We threw some tsi-tsu (dried coconut leaves) over the poor pig to burn its bristled fur to ensure a smooth carcass.
The boys flipped the blackened beast over to burn the underside fur. After ten minutes or so, the pig was removed and the boys used bush-knives to scrape off the burned fur clear off the carcass leaving it bald and smooth to be operated upon and that would be my fourth experience to slaughter and butcher a pig for a feast. That was during the 2013 Christmas day in Markham; we had a family feast then.
I remember my first butchery experience in Goroka during my graduation kaikai back in 2006, I was nervous, I was excited.
Today, you could say seven years on and four experiences would make my butchery CV colourful, but I’m telling you, it gets trickier every time you pick up the blade to butcher a pig because, when you’re at it, you’re doing a number of things at the same time: you’re mentally calculating the number of people out there ready to stuff their hungry bellies with the meat, you’re butchering the carcass according to the technique used by that particular ethnicity you’re in, your hands tell a story to the curious youngsters as well as the vigilant elders and of course you put on your best show with a stupid smile on your face, in case that beautiful young lady from the other tribe is still watching.
By the way, that method I use to slaughter the pig with was adapted from my Goroka side where pigs are leashed and tamed and easy to slaughter when their dying days popped up-a little pat on the back and an iron bar to put the beast to sleep.
In Markham people usually slaughter the poor piggies on the chase with hunting spears from a lightning thrust by an expert hunter backed-up with his hunting dogs because pigs in Markham are left to wander around in the wild and when dusk approaches pigs are ushered into their fenced farm yards.
Being of mixed parentages, I was exposed to two different cultures, Atzera ethnicity in the Markham district, Morobe Province where my mama hailed from and Gahuku ethnicity in Goroka, Eastern Highlands Province where my old man originated. The way the Gahuku slaughter and butcher pigs are different from the way the Atzera does it so it was important that I learned to slaughter and butcher in both techniques.
Slaughtering and butchering a pig is not something that you read from a text book in a classroom, it’s a traditional skill embedded in the Gahuku and Atzera heritages, as well as every other indigenous ethnicity in PNG.
You watch, you get curious, you pay attention, you fiddle around with the carcass when your fathers and uncles are butchering the pig and then one day you pick up the blade that your old man used to handle, you put that blade to that poor beast and you let your memories guide your shaky hands while your old man stands by your side and mumbles his agreement when the blade runs smooth or grumbled his disagreement when the blade so much as misses a centimetre off its supposed route.
You have to be mentally strong too because, if you’re someone who passes out at the sight of blood or someone who have a soft-spot for animals, you should be with the ladies peeling banana or grating coconut, seriously.
Anyway so where was I? Yes, I laid the bald carcass on his back with four of his legs pointing up to heaven or wherever pigs go to when they die then I started by slashing the fore-hooves and the hind – hooves vertically down the legs length, splitting the limbs into halves.
With the slashed limbs giving me a clear-cut section of how the carcass would be divided, I then put the glinting blade on the bump just below the neck, applied a fair amount of pressure just enough to open up the belly layer without rupturing the internal organs and slowly dragged the sharp blade down.
The smooth thick skin opened up nicely, revealing white fatty layers. The straight cutting line occasionally crossed to the side to avoid the male-part then regained its course all the way down to the rear opening. I returned to my starting point and sliced around the neck.
Then I dug my hands into the pig’s internal organs, grabbed the wind-pipe, slipped my blade under and slashed off the trachea. With both hands I tugged and rolled the whole internal organs down and out, they should easily come loose from the spine and the tugging bit gets much easier with experience.
All cleaned out, I picked up the blade and sliced the carcass into rectangular pieces, size of an A4 paper then into smaller pieces half that size technically pausing at the hard parts, the bones.
I grabbed the axe and chopped at the bones of the spine, the ribs, the pelvis, the limbs and even the skull was pried along the jaws splitting the head into two (don’t worry the brain should still be in tact protected by the upper jaws). The meats were then sliced into further sizable pieces.
As I’ve mentioned above you always think of the number of people to share the meat with as you slit the meat neat. Phew, finally my job was done.
The internal organs would go into a big dish or two and some ladies would scuttle with them to the river to clean out and cook them.
“O pikinini yu top man tru, em ya kam sindaun pastem na kaikai buai.” The elderly men would readily offer betel nut and be very eager to chew and chat with especially the young butcher boys so you have to comply out of respect.
It’s not that I’m a fan of old boys going on about life and all that; it’s just that I was trying to be nice and get the chit-chat over with. Come on, give me a break, that beautiful lady is waiting remember? LOL.
So there, this method I’ve just described is done in Markham. The meat had to be butchered into sizable pieces to be cooked because here they do not make mumu in the earth like what people do up in the highlands; rather the meat is cooked in gigantic gurr (clay pots) flavored with spices and traditional salt.
The women would prepare long beds of furious fire almost three meters lengthwise and then you would see the clay pots lined up from end to end like black soldiers engulfed in raging flame-there’s even a traditional song about it: ‘Ten hungry gurr all lined up in a row, all lined up in a row, upon the blazing fire of our mothers...’
Another such fire would cater for zampu and marafri (varieties of bananas-long orange and short yellow respectively) and delicious yams and sweet cassava drowned in thick coconut cream.
On the other hand, up in Goroka, the pig’s hooves and legs are not slashed, the head is not butchered off rather the spine and the skull remained as is instead of being chopped into pieces-only the ribs are pried off one by one with the butcher’s blade sliding along and skinning the flesh cleaned off the bones. The head and the four legs are never split because these important parts of the meat go to very important guests amongst the festival delegates.
The prepared pig carcass would be laid flat open on the kumu and ferns, kaukau, taro, bananas and tapioca in the mumu pit. After the mumu is ready, the pig meat is sliced into pieces and shared with, of course, the head and the four legs going to the VIPs.
However, in Markham, with the skull divided, it is the teeth that are collected for necklaces and the skull fragments are in-built onto the handles of our elders’ rods, axes, or spears as well as the face of their shields and battle masks.
So it’s really two sets of different traditional techniques that I had to master being of two different heritages as well as being drawn more towards the western civilization.
I’ve decided to drop a lot of the traditional norms like sanguma and masalai beliefs, polygamy, a woman’s rightful place in the society (eye’s rolling), marriage rituals, puripuri rituals, and so on.
I only listen to these fascinating stories from my grandparents in Markham, they’re still around, hitting their 80’s, planting water melon and chewing buai with not even the slightest worry about the internet and crazy media, politics and corruption, tax deduction and economic crisis, nuclear weapons and capitalism; sigh, God bless their hearts.