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The Vegetarian’s Dilemma: Umbria and Pork

The toughest trial the newly-minted expat has to endure is that clunky, awkward, square-peg-in-round-hole exercise of superimposing one’s own largely culturally dictated belief system on that of one’s new host culture, and–with a little cutting and pasting, giving and taking, conceding and demanding– cobbling together a new one.

Okay, the second toughest trial.  The first is, of course, bagel withdrawal.

When it works (a fun story of when it works), the exercise is an alchemy of skimming the cream off the top of both cultures and creating something greater than the sum of its parts.  When it doesn’t work, it produces the Bitter Expat…the one who does nothing but harp on the host culture at dinner parties, boring fellow expats with tales of woe and offending locals with claims of how everything is bigger, better, and faster in one’s home country.

I moved to Umbria as a vegetarian.  Luckily, not a new vegetarian, so I had shed the holier-than-thou affect of the newly converted, but a vegetarian nonetheless. Umbria is a region of meat eaters.  Not only meat eaters, but meat raisers and meat butcherers.  This traditional, rural area still has vast swaths of farmland where the turn-around time between barnyard and dinner table is a few hours at most.  Though older Umbrians remember a diet based largely on grains and legumes (flavored with pork fat and charcuterie) with meat reserved for special occasions or, for the more prosperous, Sundays, the steadily climbing standard of living over the past two generations means that meat has become a mainstay of the local diet.

The sight of fresh homemade sausages hung to dry warms the cockles of any Umbrian's heart.

That said, the modern regional cuisine continues to reflect the poor hunting and farming culture that dominated Umbria for millenia with its heavy use of game (hare, fowl, and wild boar) and–the uncontested monarch–pork.  The pig was, and remains, the foundation upon which the lion’s share of Umbrian dishes rest for a number of reason.  Pigs once had a symbiotic relationship with the land (less so now as most are no longer kept outdoors), as each fall they were herded under oak trees bordering farm fields to consume the fallen acorns and—ahem—fertilize the fields along the way.  Pigs are a smaller, less dangerous animal than cattle and their care and feeding were often the responsibility of the family’s children.  And, most importantly, pigs can be consumed down to the last centimeter.  Nothing was wasted when a pig was butchered, and during a time when a family of twenty had to stretch out a single pig to cover a year (something often done), this could make a big difference.

They say that pigs are highly intelligent animals. After having them as next door neighbors for 18 years, I have my doubts.

Most country families in Umbria still butcher a pig each year (though now the meat is consumed by about four people, and much less of it is cured in favor of freezing), and many urban families reserve a pig in the spring at a local farm, which raises it for their clients until the following winter.  This tradition is so strong that a recent EU regulation banning home butchering was amended to allow a limited number of pigs to be home butchered (across Italy).  The ingrained frugality continues, and the pig is still consumed from snout to tail (head cheese helps clear up the scraps, as does blood pudding (a blood, sugar, raisin, pinenut baked concoction that my husband’s 105 year old grandmother still makes), heavy use of lard in cooking, and generosity with the dogs.).

Le dejeuner sur l'herbe

So, have I mentioned that I’m a vegetarian?  Yes, and I may as well fast forward over the first years of avoidance ( I would simply head out of town for the weekend) followed by reluctant acceptance (I would hunker down inside the house for the weekend) to my current whole-hearted embrace (I invite friends for a “salsicciata”, or sausage roast, for the weekend).  It has been a long road to reconcile my American urban vegetarian value system with the Umbrian rural farming value system, but I have done it.  Here’s how:

Respect the Pig

Ok, there’s no way around it.  The pigs end up dead.  Yep.  They are killed in the end.  So, if that’s a deal breaker for you, it’s going to be a problem.  I realized that it’s not so much a deal breaker for me if 1) the animals are treated well during their life and 2) the animals are treated well in death.  Which they are, on both counts.

There's no getting around this.

Umbrians (and, I suspect many cultures who maintain a much more immediate relationship with their food than most Americans do) tend to treat their animals well…they eat well, they have ample room and fresh air, they are not given hormones, antibiotics, or fillers, they are allowed to grow at a normal rate and are given adequate vet care.  This not because Umbrians are more soft-hearted about animals in general (their unsentimental view of dogs can be jarring), but because they care about what they eat and any animal who has been badly fed, stressed, and medicated is not going to make for good eating.

The actual killing of the pig is, I daresay, anticlimactic.  There is no throat-slitting, no trauma, no slasher-film graphic.  They take a compressed air pistol shot to the temple, and are already gone when they hit the ground.  That’s how it’s done.  It took me years—years—to work up the courage to stand by and watch, and then I felt silly for making such a big deal of it.  Some squealing occurs, not because of pain or terror but because pigs are stubborn, ornery SOBs who don’t like to be moved around, be it from one sty to another, from one pasture to another, or from one dimension to another.

Three generations of "norcini" or hog butchers.

Respect the Earth

There is no environmental impact in family farm stock raising.  We feed them the forage we raise in our fields, and use their waste to fertilize our fields.  This is not a feed lot. There is no manure lagoon. They roam freely in their pen. They are never medicated (unless, of course, they get sick).  All those misgivings I had about meat consumption in the 1980s in the US do not apply here.  In fact, much of the Umbrian landscape—the patchwork of tiny, oak-ringed fields, pastures, vineyards, and olive groves–would be very different were it not for the history of the small, family farm which dabbles a bit in stock, a bit in forage, and a bit in produce.

It's a tag-team job of hands and knives (and tongues).

Respect the People

To love Umbria is to love its culture, history, and people.  And it’s hard to separate that from the dinner table.  There are some practices that have roots in history that I consider indefensible (genital mutilation comes to mind, for example), but the annual hog kill is not one of them.

Once a year, the extended family gets together (with various neighbors, friends, and passers-by who catch a whiff of fresh sausages frying) for what amounts to more of a party than a chore.  In Umbria, the heavy work of sectioning the meat, grinding mixes for sausage and salame, and preparing haunches and shoulders for salting and curing is primarily the men’s job, though that’s not true in all of Italy, and the women spend the day bustling back and forth from the kitchen with pots of boiling water, spices, and lots of unsolicited advice.

Making the salame is serious business accompanied by lots of banter.

There is laughter, light-hearted ribbing, and hours and hours of story-telling.  Long dead family and friends are brought up as if they had just departed yesterday, and children (mine included) are handed knives and taught how to correctly cut ribs (usually by four different people with four conflicting methods), make head cheese (in a perplexing development for this vegetarian mom, my eldest son’s favorite task is also arguably the goriest one), and, in a subtle way, internalize the cycle of life-death-life.  The day culminates in a sausage roast come dinner time, when the numbers swell and often an organetto appears from nowhere to wheeze out traditional tunes.

My son's favorite task is, clearly, also the most dangerous and disgusting.

Have I begun eating meat? No (more out of habit that principle–honestly, many of the same moral and ethical arguments made against the meat industry can be made against the sugar and cocoa bean industry but that doesn’t slow my chocolate consumption one bit, baby) but I learned that though we began our journeys from two points of departure that seemed diametrically opposed, somehow the Umbrians and I have ended up in the exact same place.

Our charcuterie curing under a thick layer of salt, pepper, and garlic.

Intrigued by home curing meat? Follow Judy from Divina Cucina as she spends the next twelve months showing us her thighs, breasts, and belly during Charcutepalooza!

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