By Karen J. Coates / Photo by Jerry Redfern
Originally published in The Faster Times
May 15, 2010
This is the second in a three-part series examining the lives and deaths of Asian pigs.
I wake to the stench of burning hair. It’s the start of a three-day “Support the Village” ceremony held each year by Tai Daeng and Khmu villagers around the spring equinox-the hottest, driest time of year when rice is running low and farmers have nothing yet to grow. Families feast on rich slabs of pork-then dance and sing and drink for three riotous days.
But first: the gods must be honored.
On that first afternoon, Jerry and I follow a path at the edge of the village school house, through a tangle of forest to an opening around a single towering tree. A small wooden spirit house stands at the base of that tree.
Some 30 men and boys, and just a few little girls, gather around a freshly slaughtered pig on a blanket of banana leaves. It’s shaved (thus the acrid burning hair), with its back to the ground. The head is hung to the right of the spirit house, the rump (with tail) to the left. One man slices the belly, then a flutter of hands digs inside. The liver is gently extracted, the intestines tossed into a pail. Blood spatters the earth, ruby against emerald. The men continue to dig, plucking guts and stringing meat and feet with bamboo twine. A big black wok burns fiercely, full of entrails mixed with salt and MSG.
The blood is placed in a basin on a small ledge at the front of the spirit house, near a frothy batch of lao hai with long bamboo straws protruding from the jar. The head drips bright red blood onto the parched forest floor.
Another fire is built for another wok with the liver, and more innards, mixed with a bag of dried red chiles, fresh garlic, MSG and salt. One man stirs with a strip of bamboo while another guy minces blubber on a cutting board.
On the other side of the spirit house, the ground is covered in fresh green leaves. Thick slabs of fat and skin are laid in tidy piles across the leaves-one pile per family. A record-keeper carefully consults his notebook with a list of who in the village paid how much money for how much pork. “All the villagers pooled their money to buy a pig for the ceremony,” says an elder named Daeng.
Meanwhile, a villager minces meat, skin, garlic, chiles, blood and herbs for a ceremonial bowl of laap. “We don’t eat this,” Daeng says. “This we give to the spirits, and we pray. The spirits eat.” The spirits get laap, the families get fat, the men gathered here get boiled offal. The head goes to the naiban (village chief) and the tail goes to a spiritual guru named Khampao.
Almost everything in sight comes from nature. I count the items that aren’t: two plastic buckets, the two plastic bags holding salt and MSG, a few plastic bowls for mixing chiles and blood, one Beerlao bottle holding the ceremonial rice wine, a few tiny cups in which to serve that wine. Everything else originated in the environment around us.
Now the men begin to string lumps of fat on thin strips of bamboo, and the crowd clots the area. Every man and boy wants his share of pig! The notetaker hollers names, the recipients rush to collect their fat. Blood speckles the arms and legs of everyone around. Cigarettes make the rounds, puffed in communion.
Within minutes, the pig is divided, the green leaves slick with juices. Villagers stake their fat on knives wedged into trees and on branches in the brush. A low, round Lao table is placed inside the spirit house with the laap, the feet, a few bowls of entrails and skin, two cups of alcohol, a basket of sticky rice and a packet of cigarettes.
It’s time to pray. Everyone crouches before the spirit house and the forest goes silent. Thin yellow candles are placed on two wooden structures at the front of the house, their flames flickering as Khampao begins a quiet series of sing-song tonal prayers. I assess the scene-men squatting in blood-stained greenery, meat hanging from huge knives jabbed in trees.
Khampao blesses the jar wine and the elders reach for the curved straws. Another man pours water (river water stored in the same bucket used for pig guts) into the lao hai as is customary. Every single man and child here takes his turn at the jar. (But not I. I adroitly avoid the offers, aiming instead for the lao laorice wine that hasn’t been doused in piggy water.)
Ooooooooh-weeee! I am forced to drink two shots of the bottled lao lao in two tiny tea cups. It’s sweet and flowery at the start but potent, scorching my throat on the way down, but lifting a light fragrance to my nostrils.
Out comes a table stacked with steaming innards. It’s a hustle now, with villagers plucking sticky rice baskets from hidden corners of the forest. Each small grouping gets a bowl, and each bowl is a tangle of fingers-picking on bones and bits, as mouths smack on the goods. Smack smack smack smack smack smack. It’s the only sound in the forest now. I capture it on my little digital recorder.
Everyone chows down-then runs. That’s it, party over. Happens all across Asia, just like that. Party on, party off, everyone gone.
The elders escort us out of the forest with strict instructions to stay away. Their sacred spot has been cleansed, and the gods must be left alone to eat their pig.