Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Pork Is a Greek Christmas Tradition

As a kid, I spent all my summer and winter holidays in my parents’ hometown of Methana, a small Greek peninsula with an active volcano, beautiful beaches, and a wild, windswept sort of nature. It’s just a couple hours from Athens, where I lived with my family the rest of the year, accessible either by car or by boat from the bustling Piraeus port. For years we didn’t own a car, so the only option was the sea. Every December, immediately after school closed for the holidays, we would take the early-morning ferry to Methana, where my grandparents on my mother’s side would be waiting for us. Those weeks around Christmas and the New Year were my favorite time of year, and for decades — while my grandparents were still alive, anyway — I never spent the holidays anywhere else.

My grandparents’ home was a humble three-room building that my grandfather built himself, with a tidy yard full of flowers and a vegetable garden, and walls covered with grape vines, which provided much-needed shade during the hot summer days. Not far from the house sat a small stone structure with no proper roof and low walls that had been empty for as long as I could remember. I’d always wondered about it, and finally, when I was old enough, I asked my parents. “This is where my parents, your grandparents, used to grow pigs before you were born, when I was a little girl,” my mother told me. In simpler times, she explained, my grandparents — like many residents of Methana — raised pigs, which were completely free to stroll around the village all day before returning by themselves to their special place at night to eat and rest.

I’d never really had a pet before. My family’s apartment in Athens didn’t allow dogs or cats, and while the small canary we kept in a cage sang beautifully, he wouldn’t let us hold him, which never quite felt the same. But, I thought, what if I had a pig?

So the summer I turned 10, I asked my grandfather (with whom I share a first name) for a pig.

“Would you please buy a pig for me to raise here, Grandpa?” I asked.

“I am too old for this,” he replied.

Pork has a prominent place on the traditional Greek Christmas menu. Long considered too luxurious an ingredient to be eaten outside special occasions, it remains a staple main course on Christmas Day, even while meats like turkey and beef have since found their way onto the Greek holiday table. Pig farming also has a rich history in the region. The Byzantines are said to have had a whole ritual around the slaughtering of a pig, which included special music and dancing. In more recent times, Greek authorities invested in pig farming as a method of boosting the country’s economy after the devastation of World War II, a civil war, and the junta dictatorship of the 1960s and ’70s. The industry reached its peak of self-sufficiency in the 1980s, when Greece was finally able to raise enough pigs to meet the entirety of its pork demand without imports.

And so after a lot of nagging and repeated promises that I would take care of the pig (on breaks between school, of course), my grandfather eventually gave in. That year, a few weeks into summer vacation, he brought home a plump, pink piglet. I had no idea he’d just bought our Christmas dinner.

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Whenever I was around, I was the one taking care of him, giving him food and water, and sneaking in occasional cuddles while he was still small. The blanket of light hair covering his body felt rough and scratchy to the touch, but the funny, snorty sounds he made when I rubbed his head were undeniably cute. It was impossible not to get attached. I’m sure I must have named him, but I’ve since forgotten — or blocked it out.

Weeks passed and then months; the pig grew bigger and bigger. Eventually summer ended and I returned to Athens, but my grandfather would give me regular pig updates by phone. I went back to the village on weekends as often as I could to check up on him.

As we got closer to Christmas, my grandfather’s tone began to change as he spoke about the pig. “He’s not exactly as you remember him,” he’d say. “Now that he has gotten bigger and older, he’s become grumpy and unfriendly.” Looking back, I’m sure he was trying to prepare me for what was to come. Still, when we finally returned to Methana for the holiday break that year, I hopped off the ferry, threw my backpack to the ground, and ran straight toward my little friend, who was not so little anymore. He was not as I had left him — he was huge. He was running all around the place, sniffing the moist ground and rubbing his belly on the dirt, having the time of his life. I was not allowed to go inside his home without an adult being around. But still, to me, he was my pet.

Two days before Christmas, the time finally came. For some reason, I awoke later than usual that morning, and after I ate my breakfast of milk and toast I walked toward the pig’s home. I passed my grandparents and my dad talking quietly together in the front yard, but I didn’t pay much attention. The weather was gloomy that day: Dark clouds sat over the sky, and I could feel the cool dampness of incoming rain. When I came to the roofless building, I found that the pig was gone. I rushed to my mother, who tried to explain what had happened that morning in as gentle a way as possible. Tears flooded my eyes. I had never had, nor lost, a pet before, though all at once I understood that companionship was never what this was about.

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Raising and slaughtering animals for food has long been the reality of a carnivorous existence, one that most of us have lost any real sense of connection with in modern times. But for families in rural places, where distances from the big cities are long and transportation is sparse, people need to be self-sufficient, and so they still raise the same animals that eventually end up on their table. According to Our World in Data, more than 3.8 million pigs are slaughtered every day for their meat. What my grandparents did has been a common practice for millennia, since long before we invented the butcher shop or the grocery-store meat aisle.

For my grandparents, things like this were business as usual, and while I ran crying and hid in my room, they set about the hard work of breaking down what had been my pet into its various edible parts. Historically, small families like mine would keep only a small bit of the meat for themselves and sell the rest to friends and fellow villagers to help make up for some of the costs inherent in raising and feeding a pig for several months.

What meat they did keep they would often preserve, as villages like my grandparents’ lacked electricity or refrigeration, by frying up small bits of meat and then packing them in large clay jars filled with olive oil from their own trees. It could keep like that for up to a year, and my grandparents would take small pieces out as needed and cook them up, usually with eggs. Similar techniques for storing pork, including some that use salt and vinegar as natural preservatives, can be found all over the country, from northern Greece to Peloponnese and Crete in the south.

Nothing went to waste. The head and the legs would go into a sort of headcheese, or meat jelly, along with spices and vegetables that were boiled together in a big pan and cooled until thickened. It’s typically stored in the refrigerator and served in fat slices with a bit of bread and a glass of homemade wine, the way my father likes it. I never developed much of a taste for it, myself. I wonder why.

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I stayed up in my room for the rest of that week until Christmas Day, when, very early in the morning, my grandmother lit the fire in an old wooden stove she kept in the front yard. My mom was in the kitchen preparing two big pans with the meat and potatoes, seasoned with oregano, salt, pepper, and fresh lemon juice from the trees in our backyard. The pans went into the oven, my grandmother closed the heavy iron door, and a couple hours later, the feast was ready.

When we all sat down for dinner, I refused to eat. I felt like I was betraying a friend. My family tried to comfort me by explaining (falsely) that this meat was not, in fact, from our pig, but a different one they had bought from a local butcher. The excuse worked — that, or I was just young and hungry enough to give in. Either way, I ate my fill that Christmas. And as much as I’d love to lie and say that I didn’t enjoy it, I can’t. The meat was rich, tender, and delicious. I had done a good job. And my mom, just like her mother, is a great cook.

That was the last Christmas pig the small stone pen ever saw. My grandfather passed away in 2015, my grandmother in 2020, and my mother ultimately inherited their Methana property. Whenever I return now, I pass by the abandoned structure, which over the years has become one with the nature around it, slunk into the ground with grass and moss growing where, a lifetime ago, my pet and our dinner lay sleeping.

Demetrios Ioannou is an independent reporter and documentary photographer, based between Athens, Greece and Istanbul, Turkey. His work has been featured in The New York Times, National Geographic, NPR, POLITICO Europe, The Daily Beast and BBC Travel, among others.
Tilda Rose is a Finnish American artist and illustrator working in editorial and children’s books.
Copy edited by CB Owens.

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