As we near the quintessential American holiday of Thanksgiving and my facebook news feed brims with statuses of thankfulness and “how the hell am I going to cook this turkey” fears, I find myself wondering if this will be my last Thanksgiving celebration in this country for a while. Since I’ll be moving to Korea soon for at least a year and my life plans are, well, indefinite after that, it may be my last opportunity to enjoy the traditional turkey feast.
I’m not particularly bummed about it, seeing as I actually stopped eating meat a year ago (not including that time I had one too many beers and may or may not have devoured a pulled pork sandwich) but I will miss the excuse to take a day off of work and enjoy time with family in utter gluttony.
But while people are brining their turkeys and slaving away in the kitchen preparing for the big meal, I am reminded of the preparation for a similar style feast of epic proportions in the Philippines last year. It took the “circle of life” to a whole new level… (WARNING: A couple slightly graphic photos below.
After an exhausting 24 hours of travel, we had finally arrived at the house in Baybay, Leyte in the Philippines. We were visiting and staying with my best friend Odelyn’s family, and already her family and neighbors were at work preparing the feast for our Welcome Party the following day. Despite the jetlag and delirium setting in, I was determined to help and so they put me to work rolling lumpia, the Philippino version of egg rolls. The old ladies I joined didn’t waste a minute in teasing me for my attempts to roll the perfect lumpia and they chattered to each other in Tagalog and laughed generously at my expense. Odeyn giggled and I sat there bewildered; I thought my lumpia looked good?!
It was all in good fun, though, and they told me that we were having a pig roast, called a lechon, the following day. I guess I didn’t realize exactly what that entailed and was quite surprised the next morning when a few of the men ushered a pig–a LIVE pig– into the back yard. Only then did it dawn on me that this little piggy (whom I had surreptitiously named Wilbur) would be on my dinner plate sooner than later.
I stood gape-mouthed as three men worked together to literally hog-tie the creature, lay him on his side, and withdraw a large knife.
I thought I could watch it, I really did. Up til now, I had stood with my camera ready to document everything. But at this point the pig knew what was coming and began to squeal. No, not squeal: SHRIEK.
I am not easily grossed out, and consider myself pretty tough. But the death screams of that pig were ear piercing and rattled me to the bone. At the last minute, I retreated into the house where I wouldn’t have to witness the slaughter, though the pig’s last cries for help still sliced through the air. I sat at the computer, sick to my stomach, and did what any other normal person would do under the circumstances: updated my facebook status.
The death was quick, though, and quite humane; an experienced hand slit the pig’s throat and it was over. Then came the steps of preparing the pig for dinner. My curiosity got the best of me and I returned to watching the process.
First they used hot water to remove the fur; then came the removal of the intestines (I think I stepped away again for that part). They stuffed the inside with seasonings and sewed the opening shut. Finally came the somewhat disturbing process of impaling the pig from one end to the other with a pole so it could be roasted over the fire.
People traded off slowly rotating the pig over the flame, and several hours later, we feasted! Friends, family, and neighbors flooded into the kitchen to eat, drink, sing karaoke, and give us a hearty welcome to their little corner of the Philippines.
It was an experience I’ll never forget; though I have since stopped eating meat for the most part, witnessing the pig roast in its entirety was, surprisingly, not a contributing factor. In fact, if faced with an opportunity like this again, I would most certainly eat some of the pork. I appreciated seeing exactly where my meal came from and the incredible process undertaken by a team of people to create a meaningful feast.
Taking part in something like this was not only an important cultural experience but it instilled in me a deeper appreciation for my food. In modern times, when we tend to live off take-out and premade food, it’s easy to forget the origins of our meal and the time and effort that go into creating the sustenance.
That’s one thing I particularly appreciate about Thanksgiving– hours of dedicated preparation and family recipes lovingly cooked and presented to friends and loved ones. It’s a time of year when more people take the time to think about their meal and value the time spent cooking and eating it together. So this year, no matter where you are, who you’re with, or what you’re eating, take a moment to truly appreciate every aspect of your meal and every moment and every resource that went into its creation. It will make it taste that much richer.
Best wishes for a safe, happy, and fulfilling Thanksgiving!