Turkeys and Pigs and Deer, OH MY!

I have to apologize.

Between dealing with hurricane Sandy living here on the beach and also trying to recover from a horrible cold and sinus infection, I have been lax on posting anything to my blog these last few weeks. Fortunately, we were not hit to badly by the hurricane AND I have recovered from my recent illness and I am ready to prattle on aimlessly once again!

I cannot believe that it is almost the middle of November already! My wife is busy making plans for Thanksgiving and all of the sudden, I am staring at naked trees outside our windows. Fortunately, it’s so windy in our area most of the time, I am rarely faced with the daunting task of raking leaves.

As a child growing up in Duquesne, it was always a sure sign of the arrival of my favorite time of the year when I would look out of our dining room window and see a blanket of leaves covering our back yard. The sycamore in the yard had grown to such an immense size, that by the time I was in my teens, it towered over our two storied home. During the summer months, it provided a think umbrella of shade for the back yard and for the back half of the house. After turning a brilliant orange and yellow by October, an avalanche of leaves continued to bombard our yard until every last leaf had released its grip on even the smallest twig.

My dad was very diligent about keeping up with the leaves. Together, my brother, Dad and I would pack bag after bag of leaves. Of course, an obligatory swam dive or two into the largest piles of leaves would have to be landed by me and Steve before they were packed away into a bag. I can still remember that wonderful smell of the slightly damp and musty leaves that was part of the aroma of the season.

By the time that our seasonal raking chores were completed and the last leaf had been gathered, we were only days away from Thanksgiving. Heading into the first event in a season of holidays, Mom would be planning her part in the Volk Family’s Thanksgiving Day dinner at my grandparents. The menu was traditional American Thanksgiving Day cuisine and was rarely deviated from; turkey, bread stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, canned corn, green beans, dinner rolls, and of course, pumpkin pie. I believe that this was perhaps the only family gathering where any vestige of hunky food was absent! There wasn’t a cabbage roll, pot of soup or poppy seed roll around!

I never really never gave the absence of good ol’ hunky food a second thought until recently. I always presumed that Thanksgiving was purely an American tradition. The story of the Pilgrims sharing their bounty with the Native Americans never mentioned “hunky hand grenades” or haluski as part of the menu. However, on a lark, I decided to do a bit of research into Slovakian traditions and found that there was an event that somewhat paralleled our Thanksgiving feast, “Zabíjačka,” pronounced za-bil’-yach-ka.

Although the literal English translation is “shambles,” its implied meaning is “slaughter.” Sound appetizing already, doesn’t it. After reading a recap of the traditions that are part of the event, I’ve come to the conclusion that this particular tradition was one that my grandparents were happy to leave in the “old country!” If there was any heartwarming  custom that could have been associated with this event, I was at a bit of a loss to find any after reading the recap below. Let me know what you think and if anyone recalls their parents following or talking about this tradition:

Slaughter (Zabíjačka)

One of the annual (or semi-annual) traditions in Slovakia is something called zabíjačka or slaughter. It’s the closest thing we have to the American Thanksgiving. The difference is that instead of killing a turkey, we eat a pig.

The whole ritual starts in late March, when people living in a village buy a pig (prasa). The small 30lb piglet is then fattened all summer long, and finally slaughtered once it gets to a respectable 200lbs. Of course, nowadays many folks do not have the yard (nor the patience) to raise a pig. As such, it is quite common to purchase an already pre-fattened pig. And if the family is small, to purchase just a half or a quarter of the porker.

Cleaning the Pig

Unlike with the case of Thanksgiving, there is no set “slaughter” date. However, there are two main slaughter seasons: in November (about a month before Christmas) and then again before Easter. On the day of slaughter (or the delivery of the pig), the whole family, friends and neighbors get together. The dead pig is placed on a wooden board, and a heat lamp is used to burn off all the hair. Then hot water is poured all over the pig to wash it. Finally, the head is chopped off and the belly is cut open.

The internal organs are then removed, including the intestines (črevá). Typically one woman would wash the intestines while another went about preparing lunch. The intestines have to be washed thoroughly, since they are to be used later as casings for sausages and hurky. They are rinsed off some 20 times, and then left to soak in water containing dissolved lemon, chopped onions and black pepper. The internal organs are cooked up into a soup (polievka or vývar) that is served for lunch. Small kidney dumplings (pečeňové halušky, dumplings made out of kidney meat mixed with flour) are mixed into it. And for the main course, there is baked meat (pečené mäso).

Making Sausages 

The real fun started after lunch: making of sausages. Men cut up the meat, grind it up, mix it with the various spices and filled the intestines. Meat from the lunch soup is used to make jaternica (rice sausage) and tlačenka (meaning “pressed meat” but known as head cheese). Other pig parts (including the feet and the tail) are turned into studenina and huspenina, dishes I have no desire to learn the recipe for. Finished sausages are left hanging from a stick overnight and then put in the smokehouse the following morning. Of course, all this involved plenty of drinking and merry good time. Dinner typically consisted of the sauerkraut soup (kapustnica) and more baked meat.

Smoking Meat

The smokehouse (udiareň) was a little wooden shed with a metal roof. It contained several horizontal sticks from which the meat could be hung. Several cinder blocks or bricks were placed on the bottom, and fire was started between them. A metal sheet with multiple holes punctured in it was placed over the bricks. The purpose of this sheet was to evenly distribute the smoke coming from the fire. Various types of wood were used, but my grandma used the plum (slivka) tree. The fire was kept low to produce a lot of smoke. The sausages were left in the udiareň for about 4 days.

While the sausages were smoking, the other meat was covered with salt and left to marinate in a wooden tub (korýtko). The juices that the meat let out were periodically poured again over the meat. Bacon (slanina) was treated the same way. It was also often seasoned with caraway. Meats were then smoked for some 5 or 6 days, until the bacon got yellow and the meat got golden. Smoked meat (údené mäso) was stored in a dark pantry (komora) where it would keep all winter long.


There was one part of OUR Thanksgiving each year that took place without fail. Part of Thanksgiving Day at my grandparents included my father and his brothers and nephews planning their “soon-to-be” transition into the “Great White Hunters” of Western Pennsylvania! Thanksgiving always meant the beginning of deer hunting season. Thousands of testosterone driven hunkys would soon descend upon the forested
areas of Pennsylvania to satisfy their annual primordial quest for “MEAT!”

The majority of my male cousins, my brother and I were never inclined to participate in this particular event. Perhaps we had seen Bambi one too many times or had viewed one too many doe-eyed deer heads on some wall. Whatever the reason, as great as my dad’s hopes were of bagging a 12-pointer each year, my mother, my brother and I remained behind hoping for the opposite result. Having a deer carcass hanging on our back porch awaiting butchering, didn’t conjure up that same warm and toasty feeling one would get from seeing a freshly cut Christmas tree awaiting its move into our living room. But then again, anything beats washing pig intestines!!

Happy Thanksgiving in advance!!

This entry was posted in Autumntime, Food and Restaurants, Holidays - Non-Christmas and New Years, Hunky Celebrations, My Hunky Family, Parents. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Turkeys and Pigs and Deer, OH MY!

  1. Leonard Licina says:

    The Deer Hunter cemetery scene was filmed in Duquesne, with the preceding funeral motorcade on old 837 in front of the Duquesne mill…does anyone know what street the scene was shot on? I was there and can’t piece it together on Google Maps..Aloha. Leonard DHS c/o 76

  2. Frank Mullen says:

    Barry, Jack, Bob, and Larry, I’ve read every word of your replies here and enjoyed them as much as reading Jim’s original posting. All were completely absorbing. Though I never experienced or witnessed any of the butchering or hunting that you described, I am glad to learn of it all now because it makes having growing up in Duquesne all the more a treasured part of my life. And thanks especially, Bob, for informing us that those scenes that were immediately so familiar when I first saw “The Deer Hunter” were set in Clairton. That movie’s director certainly chose the venue well for it possessed an atmosphere so full of truth as to be familiar as all such sites around and in our hometown. (I’m assuming the deer hunting scenes were filmed in Ligoneer.) Once again, thanks to all of you for reminding me, once again, of how fortunate I am to be a Duquesne boy, something difficult to explain in words but immediately recognizable when read in words or seen in a movie. Those were very special times and very special places, indeed.

  3. Barry Long says:

    Jim, you always send a good food blog & I get to read it at the end of the day when I’m ready to go for dinner. Now that I’m salivating I’m going sit with the yellow pages to find where i can get some smoked meat. Or, There’s a guy that sells smoked fish from a road-side truck over the Pali, and he is about 2 miles from the Creekside Tavern..so it’s smoked mahi-mahi & beer tonight for dinner & they have a big TV to watch the news…hope the Northeast got power on by now. Good to hear you’re doing OK.

  4. Jack Schalk says:

    I’ve been fortunate enough to have participated in all these Fall events.
    My paternal grandparents had a small grocery store in Pricedale, Pa. and their best friends had a farm just outside of town. There was a lot of food trading in that relationship but the exciting time came when it was declared slaughter time.. I was probably 5-6 YOA at the time but I knew what was coming although I didn’t relish all of it.
    A large vat of boiling water was in place in the yard. The fire was kept going continuously. The pig was then dispatched and hoisted on a block and tackle and immersed in the water after bleeding out.
    The rest of the process is almost word for word from the article you enclosed. It all took time but the end result was worth it. It’s how most of the country was fed back in those times. You did your part and shared in the benefits.
    The hunting scenario started when I was given my grandfathers shotgun and lasted for forty years. I had a tradition that I carried afield with that gun.
    Ben Umholtz of candy store fame would have understood.

    • Bob Chermonitz says:

      Jack you remember more than I do. The only this I recall in Duquesne that comes close is the old chicken truck that came to Duquesne Place selling live chickens. The old bubbas would be crowded around the truck to purchase that nights dinner. The huckster made a motion to cut the chickens neck or just wrap its feet with twine. We all, the boys anyway, were waiting to see him cut off the head on the tailgate of his truck. An escaped chicken, minus head, could still run pretty well!
      Deer hunting in Duquesne was a rite of passage for most. I can recall a bunch of us crowded into my dad’s “63 Chevy, Dad was too busy working to go, headed to the Ligonier area to hunt deer. Ages 16-18 guns cars and no orange clothing back then. Nothing, however, ever went wrong, thank God! I can still see deer, covered with snow, tied over a cars hood sitting outside a Duquesne bar while the successful hunters sat inside telling their stories of the hunt. You felt a bit of excitment even if you hadn’t been so
      lucky. Nobody had pickup trucks or four wheel drive back then but we got to the mountains anyway. Years later while teaching school in Ohio the movie “The Deer Hunter”, filmed in Clairton and the surrounds, came out. Since I was from the area everyone asked me if it portrayed real life in our steel mill towns. It did! And it was a pretty good life, too. When I do deer hunt now-a-days I go to a cabin in Luzern county. It is a mile back off any hard roads. The cabin is falling down. It looks worse that the one in Jim’s picture and it’s been there since the 20’s. No electric. No phones. Just an outhouse and a great wood stove. Some 10-20 of us, now with sons and grandkids, get to go back to a quieter time. It sucks! Two days and I’m out of there. 🙂

      • Jack Schalk says:

        My cousin Bob Vislays parents had a cottage near Rector, Pa. in a small area known as Pearls Harbor. Pearl owned the only bar in town. Nuff said.
        The family would gather there for reunions and the fare for the day was chicken. The birds were brought to the chopping block and beheaded and allowed to run at will in order to bleed them out. The young guns had a great time trying to catch one before it expired.

        My deer hunting took place in Emporium in Cameron county. My aunt and uncle lived there and I had an open invitation to the start of trout season in April till the deer season ended in Nov. My uncle was a hunter and fisherman and my poor aunt ended taking care of all of us vagabonds.
        She taught me to pan fry trout and venison and also how to pick the best blackberries for pie.

        As you mentioned, there were a lot of deer slung over hoods in those days. I think the hunter would have left them there for weeks if he could.

    • Bob Chermonitz says:

      Jack, I remember Rector, Pa. I’m certain you’ll recall the Duquesne Boy Scout Camp there. I spent many a great time there, last time in the summer of ’68 before my senior year at DHS.. We would walk to Rt 711 and then all the way to Ligonier, and back. Pretty sure I couldn’t do it today on a bet!
      You hit on a sweet note in that what our immediate family didn’t have, or couldn’t afford, someone in our extended family could . We shared alot back then. Not only physical things but, and maybe this was more important, different lifestyles and/or cultures. But we all appreciated and respected what others had. And there were those who thought we had it all. And maybe we did!
      Jim’s blog has made me more and more thankful for having grown up in Duquesne. That is one more think to be thankful next Thursday on Thanksgiving Day 2012.

  5. Larry McConnell says:

    Hi Jim
    Thanks for “Turkey, Pigs and Deer-young people today would think you were writing a fictional novel-how much they have missed-I enjoyed every one of your postings
    Larry McConnell
    Blythewood SC

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