Ah, my vegetarian readers. You know I love you, don’t you? I do. I promise. Now, you might want to go away for this one. The same goes for anyone with religious or other proscriptions against eating pork. Because what I’m talking about today is a matanza, which is quite simply an orgy of pig-eating.
This wasn’t just any matanza, either. This was the Belen matanza, sponsored by the Valencia County Hispano Chamber of Commerce, billed as the largest matanza in the world. They say this year 19,000 people came to the dusty Sheriff’s Posse fairgrounds to eat 12,000 pounds of pork from 45 hogs. (Attendees also hoovered up more than 20,000 tortillas and 250 gallons of red chile, according to kasa.com.) Proceeds from the $10 entrance fee go to scholarship funds for college students.
Matanzas are a New Mexican tradition, usually family or community events. A whole pig is a lot of meat, and such a gathering provided enough people to process it all (and feast on as much as they could stomach) before it spoiled. A traditional matanza starts early in the morning and lasts all day. Different cuts are done at different times – for instance, the cherished chicharrones take a while to prep and cook, so patience is required to get a mouthful. (The photo at the top is of the chicharrones I did manage to get my hands on, balanced atop a singularly light and delicious sopaipilla, with sides of potatoes, beans, more pork, and red chile.)
Often the slaughtering at a matanza is done by a boy who is coming of age. I attended a private matanza two years ago, where the pig was killed by a 12-year-old boy. (This occurence happened far earlier than I got out of bed, and I’m just as happy not to have witnessed it.) For the Belen matanza, the pigs are slaughtered offsite, then the meat is brought to the fairgrounds across from Wal-Mart and cooked.
And cooked well. While not all of the offerings were excellent – the sauce at one stand was so salty the meat was inedible – most were fantastic. Particular props go to the teams from Fat Sat’s, Belen County Consolidated Schools, R.O.C., and Wal-Mart. The cooking tools ranged from hand-crafted grills to what looked like giant steel woks to huge cast-iron cauldrons (for the chicharrones) to pits full of smoldering wood. The look of everything was classic New Mexican – handmade from what was on hand, sometimes rickety, yet good enough to let a craftsperson do their job right.
As it happens, my stepfather Eric helped cobble together one of those homemade grills for the Wal-Mart team, which allowed us to skip the line and get behind the scenes. We watched the chicharrones bubbling away in their cauldron of fat, and were first to get our hands on the smokiest, tenderest, most delicious pork ribs I have ever had the privilege to sink my teeth into.
Each team handed out a whole plateful of food – tortilla, pork, potatoes or beans, chile, sometimes a sopaipilla or a biscochito or a bowl of rice pudding – so it was important to share if you wanted to be able to sample as much as possible. I’m glad I was there with my family!