This article originally appeared in The Costa Rica Star (with a different title), please drop in and have a look around.
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This day has been in the works for months, the one my brother-in-law has been threatening me with. I’m back on the enormous rice farm in Guanacaste. I’ve had a day to settle in and fired off about 150 pictures wandering around the fields at sunset. I’ve tried previsualizing. It doesn’t help much nor does my 3rd cup of coffee. Even the howler monkeys know something’s up as they’ve been extra noisy this morning.
Alvaro a.k.a.“La Bala” (The Bullet) has probably been out late the night before, and is proving difficult to track down at 7:30 on a Saturday. We finally find him putting his crew to work before taking the day off to be the lead man for today’s “chicharroneada.” He hops in the pickup full of energy and already telling tall tales of the lady he met the night before (I’ve been warned he speaks at 180 lies per minute). We drive 10 minutes to the pig farm.
Walking through the facility makes the uneasiness worse. Baby pigs nursing, toddler pigs just hanging out being cute, and market ready pigs curiously sniffing at my camera don’t really make me hungry. Neither does the stink of pig that manure hangs thick in the air, settles deep in my nostrils, permeates my clothes and eventually spends days under my fingernails.
I’m spared having to choose which one to take. He’s being loaded onto the pick-up when I emerge from my self-guided tour. I try desperately to convince myself that’s he’s just food. I cartoonishly try to imagine him as a rack of ribs or some chops neatly glazed over coals.
The ride back to the house is quieter than the ride out. Just occasional chatter and a quick check to make sure he hasn’t slipped loose.
I’m asked if I’m going to be the one to do it. The look on my face is the only answer they need. A quick couple of smacks to the head with a hammer and they pin him down right there in the back of the pickup while I watch nearby. A large knife to the jugular and a bowl to collect the blood. The sound is terrible. From the first blow, the squealing is ear piercing and terrifying. He squirms, grunts and chokes. La Bala looks up frustrated, and asks “who feels sorry for him?” Local lore says they take longer to die when you pity them, and he’s taking too long. I get singled out as the guilty party, and La Bala orders me to put a hand on him and tell him to go. I do. And he does. La Bala whispers a prayer that God take him to a better place. It’s not a prayer for show done for some rookie’s sake. He means it and I suspect he says it every time.
I’m still somewhat shaken as we start removing the bristles, using hot water to soften them and then scrape them away with knives. I rub salt over the skin to clean it further. Much to my surprise I finally settle down when La Bala makes a first slice and I see meat. I end up helping during the rest of the butchering process. I remove the skin and cut chunks of loin. I help remove the head (it’s heavier than you imagine) and hold the guts. I’m handed assorted organs. I toss the jaw, eyes and snout in the river for the croc, who splashes into the water just before I arrive. It’s all very matter-of-fact until 1:30 when it’s time to start eating.
I nibble at some of the pork rinds, but dig deeper into the rice and the beet salad. My hands still stink and it mixes poorly with the pork. I distract myself by chatting with the neighbors and sipping my beer while I stay close to the pot where my instruction continues. The white bubbles on the skin means they’re just about ready, and then there’s the secret ingredient that sends the boiling pot of lard overflowing causing a terrible flaming mess for a few seconds.
I’m tired, but happy I stuck it out. I earned enough respect from the locals to get teased by the neighbors and defended by La Bala. Both are signs of acceptance in rural Costa Rica. It’s nealy 4:00 when we finally finish cooking and La Bala catches his ride into town, with a large bottle of rum as payment.
I once had dinner at a fancy French restaurant that boasted the largest cognac collection in country, on the sixty-some-odd floor of a hotel in Las Vegas. It was lovely meal with good friends, veal four ways, and 25 year-old-scotch. It was one of my most memorable meals. I think I’ll be adding chicharrón four ways, on a farm, with cheap beer and new friends to the list of most memorable meals.