It was the year of the pig with no name.  When nonno brought home a baby pig from the livestock market in Campobasso in the early Spring, he cautioned me not to name it.  In previous years, including just a couple of months prior, I ended up squealing too when my Pudgy or Pinky was slaughtered at the end of the year.  My grandfather now reminded me to keep in mind that it wasn’t a pet; it was meat for the family. Next year, if all went right, it was going to be sausage and spr’sciat (salame) and pr’sutt (prosciutto) and ciquul’ (rinds).  So, that piglet didn’t become Snorty or Hammy or Choppy; just “the pig.”

It was again my job to feed it scraps from the table to fatten it up as much as possible before Christmas.  It was a very easy or a very hard job, depending on how you looked at it: easy because there weren’t many scraps to deliver. Hard for the same reason: how could I fatten him up with such few scraps?  Leftovers were out of the question, because there were none at the end of our meals. We had to finish everything on our plates: no choice, no argument. The only scraps came from preparing meals, not consuming them: stalks, peels, seeds, rotten fragments.  And there weren’t many of those either. Whatever could be made edible by pounding, spicing, and cooking for a long time went into the pot and into our bellies. Fortunately the pig didn’t make much of a fuss. He liked even those things that couldn’t be made edible enough to force on us.  So, in addition to his daily gruel, I chucked any available scraps into his pen and watched “the pig” grow fat month after month, fighting the temptation to give him a name.

When winter approached I reminded my grandfather that I was now seven years old and begged him to let me take part in the slaughter and the butchering with the other “men” of the family.  Nonno looked me up and down appraisingly, at first frowning and shaking his head slowly, but then he finally nodded: va buon’, very well.

On Christmas Day our whole extended family dined together and ate what was left of that year’s cured meat.  The next day, St. Stephen’s, we prepared the meat that would last us through the following year. It had to take place during the coldest part of the year, when the sausages and hams could be hung up to dry without spoiling.  It was a day of bustling, but festive activity from early in the morning to late into the dark of the evening. The men caught and killed the pig, quartered and cleaned it, and hung it up to bleed out. The women scalded the skin and shaved it, gathered, cooked, and preserved the blood (to turn into a syrupy sweetener—sang’doce, sweet blood—used as filling for pastries), cut up and seasoned the meat for various modes of preservation: hams, bacon, sausages of different kinds, lard, rinds.

This was my big moment, an important milestone toward manhood.  Nervous, but putting on a brave front, I accompanied the menfolk into the stall at the bottom of the house. The oldest uncle and the one in charge of the proceedings assigned roles, explained the sequence of events and what each person had to do.  He then turned to me and, with the other menfolk looking on and nodding in approval, informed me emphatically that mine was the most important job of all: to hold on to the pig’s tail with both hands and to keep it straight the whole time. If I let go, and the tail curled up, the meat would spoil and we would all go hungry.  No matter how much the pig squealed or lunged, or how much blood or anything else came out, I had to hold on to that tail!  Was I up to it? I faltered a bit, but muttered, scin’, yes.

It wasn’t the blood that made me nervous.  My cousins and I had helped memmell’, our grandmother, kill plenty of chickens over the years.  We were used to seeing blood spurting out of the neck—even though I still marvelled at how the body continued to flail around the courtyard even after the head had been chopped off.  We all knew where our meat came from and how it got to the table.

What didn’t occur to me was to question what that “anything else” might be that would be coming out of the pig.  I knew nothing of sphincter muscles. Neither did my relatives, for that matter, but they did know from experience what happened when the pig lost control of its organs and what that “anything else” was that would be emerging from it, and from where.

There was much more blood than I was used to from my experiences with the chickens, but at least it came out at the other end of the carcass from where I was stationed, and there were a couple of uncles interposed between me and the pig’s neck to obstruct my view—even though they couldn’t obstruct the amazingly human-like, high-pitched squealing that sounded so desperate and pathetic and made me shiver.  What I was not at all expecting was what came out the other end of the pig, the end to which the tail was attached, the tail around which my hands were wrapped and that I had to keep gripping no matter what.

But I had a job to do.  A crucial job! So I shut my eyes, clenched my teeth, tried to ignore the squealing, the squirming, and the stench, and tightened my grip on that tail, and held on fiercely until the squealing stopped and the twitching finally subsided.  The men looked at me, smiled, chuckled, and told me I could let go now. They all lavished jocular praise on my skill and tenacity. Had any of them ever seen better tail holding? No, no one could remember any tail held better! Because of my good work, there would be meat for us next year.

That evening, tired but still in a festive spirit, we celebrated St. Stephen’s feast by frying and eating the bits of pork left over from the day’s butchering and processing.  The menfolk recounted and embellished my pig-tail-holding heroics to all the family members around the tables set up in my grandparents’ spacious kitchen, warmed by the day’s cooking and glowing with the dancing light from the roaring flames in the hearth.  The listeners ooh-ed and ah-ed and heaped on the praise. As we ate and conversed merrily, all exclaimed how good the pork was: maybe the best they had ever tasted, and all thanks to me, because I had valiantly held on to that tail and kept it from curling up.  I blushed and smiled bashfully, trying to look modest, as my mother always insisted we be, but feeling proud and important: manly.

And that next year’s meat was good and did not spoil.

Sante Matteo was born and raised in a small agricultural town in southern Italy, emigrating to America with his family when he was almost ten. He is a retired Professor Emeritus of Italian Studies at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

Did you have a moment that distinctly marked your coming-of-age? Tell us in the comments.

Image credit: Flickr

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