An omnivore faces her demons at a pork and rice liquor feast in Bali.
We rolled up to Paul's friend Romi's house just past noon; the sun beat down, and the air was thick with rain waiting to happen. Just as our motorbikes stopped sputtering, a pig started squealing from inside the yard.
This was a surprise, though it really shouldn't have been. Paul, our Dutch friend who spends every winter in Bali, loves nothing more than making slightly shady arrangements. A couple of weeks before our visit, he had sent an email to my husband, Peter: "Hoi, vriend—you want me to buy a pig?" Of course we said yes; it's just that we'd assumed the pig would be dead and roasted, in the form of Bali's famous babi guling, by the time we got it.
The other complicating factor was that the day before, I'd been lolling by the hotel pool, reading Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals. This disquisition on the evils of meat consumption isn't your average beach read, but as it turned out, it rivaled more typical serial–killer pulp for violence and gore. My brain was seared with images of pigs flayed alive, among other gruesome facts of the American meat industry.
Safran Foer had managed to get inside my head in a way other vegetarian screeds had not, crystallizing my ambivalence toward meat that had been growing for the past year. Just two months before, Peter and I had hosted a pig roast of our own. We were inexperienced, and the results were not mouth–watering. I felt we hadn't done right by that animal. At least here in Bali, we'd learn the right way to roast a pig—and I hoped I'd still have the stomach to eat a bit of it.
If a chicken is killed and not cooked correctly, then that chicken has died in vain. —Lin Yutang
We stowed our helmets and walked down into the broad dirt courtyard between two stone houses. The pig, a gray–skinned youngster of about 30 pounds, had been trussed to a sapling to keep it from wiggling away, and it now rested uneasily on a table, panting. Romi, our host, a lanky young guy in a basketball jersey, gave us a cursory introduction to his pig crew, and they got down to business.
One man stuck a knife in the pig's neck while the others held it down. There was a lot of squealing. I watched. The blood rushed into an enamel bowl and foam formed on top. It seemed wrong to look away. The guy holding the back of the pig was also in charge of holding its tail out straight—I saw why when the pig quivered, and gray–yellow shit oozed out.
The soundtrack to all this: Guns N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle."
Yes, Team Babi Guling—Romi's roustabout crew of eight or so scruffy, tattooed friends and relatives—had taken the time to set up an enormous stereo before they got down to the killing, and G N' R was rocking the slaughter. (Axl Rose: obviously a carnivore.)
Once the pig was dispatched, Romi got down to his hosting duties and put a drink in my hand: local rice whiskey and Coke, with a squeeze of lime. In a matter of minutes, I was humming along with Axl and posing for photos with the brawny pig–sticker himself.
Meanwhile, the pig was rapidly being transformed from animal to food. As one man poured boiling water over the skin, two others scraped madly with their knives. Off with the wiry black hairs, off with the gray outer skin, to reveal a gleaming white piece of meat ("Like Dutch skin!" Romi heckled Paul)—which just happened to be pig–shaped. Three men toted the carcass down to the river to give it a good rinse.
Where Culture and Cuisine Marry
Down by the water, with the slaughter behind me and a bit of a buzz on, I had a chance to marvel at where in the world I'd ended up. On the other bank, the gray stones of a Hindu temple showed above a tangle of greenery, and a droning chant drifted across the water. Just upriver, a woman pounded clothes on the rocks, and beyond her, another woman was bathing. She waved cheerily at us, her mouth foamed with toothpaste.
In the water by my feet, I saw the bleached–white jawbone of a goat and a knot of chicken entrails. As our pig was gutted and rinsed, two girls looked on, both fascinated and squeamish—probably the same look I had on my face. The friendly bathing woman had exited on the other bank, and turned away from us to don her bra.
Back in the courtyard, the pig was shoved onto an overlarge spit—a violent business that required running the spit (and pig) into a tree trunk as though it were a battering ram. Perhaps the lack of finesse had to do with the milky–white palm wine that was now in circulation, dispensed from a plastic teapot.
The Balinese culinary details were applied in just a few minutes, as the oldest man—the only one wearing a traditional sarong, and clearly the reigning expert on all things babi—smeared the inside of the pig with a fragrant paste of galanga, shallots, garlic and turmeric, among other things, then stuffed the cavity with cassava greens and trussed the feet, so that the animal seemed to be leaping merrily through the air. Finally, he smeared the skin with coconut oil and soundly thumped the pig all over with his fist—not so different from the massage I'd gotten the day before.
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