Matanzas: Family, community and tradition

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Early in the morning, men gather to select a well-fed pig.

News-Bulletin file photo: The Travel Channel’s ‘Bizarre Foods’ host Andrew Zimmern, left, learns about matanza preparation from Steve Otero, right, during the filming of the popular television show in November 2011.

The jaras and discos are ready, boiling with water, traditionally over a wood fire. The bottles of wine, knives sharpened and tall tales are ready for the day-long preparation and eating of the pig. It is a shared experience. It is matanza.

According to Maggie McDonald, who has a doctorate in American Studies and who wrote her dissertation on Belen’s culture and history, the word “matanza” comes from the Spanish word “matar,” meaning to kill.

She noted that the practice developed in Spain in the seventh century and did not necessarily use pigs. Goats, lambs and other animals would be killed and cooked in a family or community setting.

It became a politically-charged event as the Moors took over Spain. Because there were religious differences involving the consumption of pork for both the Muslims and the Jews, matanzas using a pig became a way of identifying those of a faith differing from Spanish Catholicism.

“They could find out if you were a Jew or not by offering you pork,” McDonald said. “If you didn’t eat pork, then you were a Jew or a Muslim. It was a very distinguishing feature.”

Matanzas came from Spain along with the explorers and they can even be traced back to Christopher Columbus.

Pigs are not native to North America and the traditional ways of preparing the animal and the need for meat through the winter made the tradition of matanza a practical event for even Francisco Vásquez de Coronado and Juan de Oñate, the early explorers of the Rio Abajo in New Mexico.

“Oñate brought pigs with him when he came up from Mexico,” McDonald said. “You can just put pigs out in the wild and they will eat anything.

“From Spain, they were brought to the new world,” she said. “Columbus brought them with him on his ships.”

In the early settlements in the Rio Abajo, making it through the winter required a storage of meat.

“The only way to survive was with the help of your neighbors,” said McDonald.

After the animal is slaughtered and drained, the organs are cut from the rest of the meat.

The back fat is cut into long strips, called longas, and hung to cure while the rest of the animal is processed. These are later used to make chicharrones and render for lard to be used throughout the winter.

The heart, liver, kidneys and other organs are chopped up and grilled with onions. It is a reward, called the matanza breakfast, for those gathered to cook.

One of the distinguishing features of the matanza, as compared with other hog roasts, such as the Hawaiian Luau, is that every part of the animal is used.

Morcela is a blood pudding that is made with sweet onions and raisins.

“They don’t use blenders, it is all mixed by hand,” said McDonald.

The tail and ears are cut off and cooked directly in the fire.

“It is a delicacy,” McDonald said, noting that many people are hesitant to try the blood pudding.

McDonald said that it is because of our English tradition that it is a squeamish part for a lot of people new to matanza.

“We have an aversion to blood,” said the historian. “In the Victorian culture, it is taboo to drink blood. Many people don’t eat the organ meets because of those Victorian aversions.”

Several dishes are prepared from the main part of the pig. Carne asada and carnitos are usual staples at matanzas.

In the olden days, when the families needed to store meat for the winter, only a small portion was used and the rest was wrapped in lard and stored.

The longas are taken down and cut into cubes to be used in part for the lard and some for the chicharrones.

Steven Otero has gained a reputation as a matanza expert. He can trace his family matanza tradition back several generations in the Rio Abajo.

According to Otero, the chicharrones are everything when it comes to matanzas.

“If you have great chicharrones and everything else was terrible, then you had a great matanza,” said Otero. “The chicharrones is the gage of the success of the feast for that day.”

Otero was featured on the Travel Channel’s “Bizzare Foods” show earlier this year. The segment was actually filmed last November.

“What Andrew Zimmern of ‘Bizzare Foods’ told me that impressed him the most was that there was community of the people and each individual knew exactly what their part was,” said Otero.

It was what distinguished the matanza from the other approximately 40 ways to have a pig roast, according to what Zimmern told Otero during the filming of the show.

The rendered fat of the pig was an important part of making it through an old-time New Mexico winter. It had the ability to seal food and keep it fresh before the advent of refrigerators.

“This is what you primarily having the matanza for, is the lard,” said McDonald. “It is used primarily in New Mexican cooking.”

McDonald said that cooking oils and butter have replaced the need for lard, but her preference is for the old-fashioned way.

“I think that tamales that are made with shortening and not lard are not as good,” she said. “The same with biscochitos.”

Otero calls the lard “poor man’s butter.”

“It is the reason they would get the pig as fat as they could, is that it would be good for the lard,” said Otero.

He described an old tradition of storing the ham and bacon sealed in lard to make it last through the winter. A family could take out the meat, cut off a portion and the lard would seal and preserve it.

McDonald joked about the high-calorie diet.

“In the olden days, the people worked harder and they needed those calories,” she said. “Today, we don’t work as hard.”

“I tell people that in the Rio Abajo, chicharrones and lard do not have calories,” said McDonald.

The Valencia County Hispano Chamber of Commerce holds a matanza every year in order to preserve the tradition. Matanzas are usually held starting in November to keep the food from spoiling.

According to Valencia County Hispano Chamber of Commerce President Yvonne Sanchez, the community organization decided to have a matanza as a way to raise money for a scholarship fund the weekend between the NFL playoffs and the Super Bowl.

“We wanted to do something unique that would raise money and highlight our tradition. We all knew and loved matanzas,” she said. “We were not sure if the public would buy into it and would love it the way we did.”

Last year’s matanza, the 12th annual, broke records for attendance and money raised for the scholarship fund.

“This is also a celebration,” said Sanchez, explaining that the cost has been held steady for the event to encourage the community gathering.

“We do not want to nickle-and-dime the community. We want people to come and share. We have kept the prices at that.”

“It has to go back over 400 years in this valley,” Sanchez said of the tradition. “Still, to this day, it is the men who do the slaughtering and preparing and cooking. The men do most of the labor-intensive part.”

She did say that the use of the matanza has changed a little from the political protests in Spain in the seventh century to today’s political rallies and fundraisers for all types of causes.

But Sanchez loves the family gathering that reminds her of her childhood.

“We loved to go to matanzas because that is where you would see your cousins,” Sanchez said. “The meat that they saved is what they would use to make tamales for Christmas. It is so much ingrained in this valley.”

The gathering of friends and family is a celebration, a time for singing and sharing.

“I have been to matanzas where people know that they are dying and their wish is to have a matanza,” she said. “It is the open place where you can walk in and visit with your neighbor and release all of your stresses. You are just there celebrating a meal together and a glass of wine. It is a celebration.”


-- Email the author at mstearns@news-bulletin.com.