This article originally appeared on VICE Romania
Photos by Mircea Topoleanu
Growing up in rural Romania, I was always surrounded by pigs – as most of us in Romania were. For generations, pigs have been the most popular animal to keep in the countryside.
I remember watching my grandparents carrying out the tradition of killing a pig every year before Christmas. They'd prepare for the killing by neatly placing a burner, a couple of knives and some wire next to the pig, in a shed that I remember as a sort of rural torture chamber. They would put some straw under the pig to catch the blood, and I would hold the pig by its tied-up legs while either my grandmother or my grandfather gave the animal a so-called "neck pocket" with a knife, which translates to: slitting its throat.
I can't say I particularly enjoyed seeing a creature die in front of me, but whenever I was there to help my grandparents kill the pig they'd praise me profusely for taking my first steps into manhood. That filled me with enough pride to take part in the ritual. And I know it's not pretty, but my moral apprehensions about it mostly disappeared the first moment I tasted pork crackling.
My grandparents are very old now, and the tradition of ritually slaughtering your own pig is slowly dying out with them. That's painfully clear from the state of the annual Brănești pig fair near Bucharest, just before Christmas. It's one of the oldest pig and livestock markets in the country, and it used to be an enormous affair. Everybody in the area would come there to buy the pig they would slaughter for Christmas. But these days, the market only hosts a dozen or so merchants, selling two or three pigs from the back of their pick-up trucks.
Last December I strolled around the fair and spoke to some of the pig sellers about the state of their trade. It was a very cold day and the few buyers there were trying to keep warm by briskly walking back and forth over the market, trying to find their perfect pig. The pigs at the market were generally acting pretty hysterically – they probably had a hunch of what was to come.
One merchant called out to me, promising to give me a great price if I chose his pig. "Her name is Maria, but no one will remember that once she's been eaten," he said. He went on to complain about the "damn vegetarians" who are supposedly ruining his business. "This is what our ancestors ate, and they were much healthier than we are. There weren't so many diseases in those days."
The guy next to him had the same choice words for people who choose not to eat meat. But that wasn't the only thing that worried him – as droves of people have left rural villages and moved to the city, buying, feeding and slaughtering your own pig has become pretty uncommon. "It's easier to just go to the supermarket and fill your cart with meat, but that's unnatural. Not just the food and the conditions the pig was raised in, but the way it was killed, too," he told me.
That said, according to another seller, even at this very rural market you'll find pigs that were "raised in a factory". He nodded to one of his competitors a few stalls down. "A good pig that was born and raised in the countryside doesn't look like that man's pigs over there. They're too white and clean. Honest, rural pigs don't look like they've been rubbed down with Vanish."
At the end of the day I met a family that had made an outing to buy their own Christmas pig. They had a strategy for getting the best price – they walked around the fair and waited until the dead end of it, when the sellers desperately wanted to avoid bringing their unsold pigs back home and were willing to drop their prices considerably.
In the family's village you can count the amount of people who keep their own cow, pig or goat on one hand. That's a world of difference compared to even five or six years ago, when everybody had their own animals.
Given the lack of customers and trade, none of the sellers at the Brăneşti pig market can escape the reality that people in Romania have stopped buying and killing their own pigs. The market might go on for a couple of years, but it's likely it'll be gone for good soon enough.