The Czech Republic is where the really cool people are hanging out these days and so it makes sense that the coolest person around, Gotham Travel Writing teacher David Farley, would co-edit (with Jessie Sholl) Travelers’ Tales: Prague and the Czech Republic, a collection of travel essays about that part of the world. The book includes works by such noted authors as Myla Goldberg, Jan Morris, Francine Prose, Patricia Hampl, Gotham Memoir teacher Stephanie Elizondo Griest, and ... fresh from the Gotham office staff, Betsey Odell.
Farley also includes a piece of his own in the book, “Natural Born Pig-Killers,” a heartwarming account of a pig slaughter. Here is the opening:
I take my first bite of the toast, which is sprinkled with scrambled eggs and unidentified pale-looking meat—the first sampling from this morning's bizarre pig-killing incident. The meat's texture is rough on one side and smooth on the other. The taste is bitter, and familiar only in an “I-shouldn't-be-eating-this-part”-sort of way. A group of dumpy track-suit wearing Czech men huddle around the rickety wooden table in my friend Libor's backyard, devouring the toast like starving lions on a fresh kill.
“What is this?” I ask about the chewy meat my teeth seem to be at war with. Honza, the next door neighbor and local butcher, replies in Czech, “mozek,” as he rips a piece of toast from his mouth. The smirk on his grizzly face is a familiar one; one that suggests regret or nausea could be in my not-so-distant future. Earlier that day, just after the pig had been slaughtered, Libor's older brother and his friends wore the same smirks when they were forcing me to drink a clear, robust-smelling liquid in an unmarked bottle. “Just drink it,” they repeated, pushing the bottle into my chest.
I've never seen “mozek” on the menu of a Czech pub before, despite the presence of horse sausage and beef tongue. This alarms me. Thumbing through my pocket-sized Czech/English dictionary, I nervously run my finger down the “mo” words. At first my eyes mistakenly fix on the word “mozol,” which means “horny skin.” When my finger finally locates the right word, it's even more disturbing: I'm eating brains.
Since I arrived in the Czech Republic to teach English, many of my students had told me about the infamous pig killing, or zabijacka, as Czechs call it. Libor, a tall soft-spoken 28-year-old who usually enjoyed spending our lessons talking about girls, was one of them. “It's normal,” he said, referring to his constant chick chatter, as well as the rural Czech tradition of slaughtering a swine in November. Later, he invited me to his hometown to witness his family's annual zabijacka.
My own relationship with condemned pigs was not so different. Growing up in Dubuque, Iowa, my parents used to take my brother, two sisters and me to the local slaughterhouse. From the parked car window, licking on a Dairy Queen dip cone, we were encouraged to taunt the pigs as they marched through the fenced off walk ways to their death. “Here sewey, sewey, sewey, sewey!” Despite this early irreverence for farm animals, as an adult I didn't have much interest in watching a large mammal die.
But then again, I was in a country that was rapidly changing. The barrage of foreign investment was starting to make some parts of Prague indistinguishable from Paris or Portland. I'd come here to see a culture different from my own. I yearned for something unique, something Czech. The zabijacka, I thought, was about a million miles from fast-food-pitching Chihuahuas and white-bearded colonels. A week later, I strapped on my winter boots and trudged through Prague's slushy streets to meet Libor for the drive.
Copyright © David Farley. Reprinted by permission of Travelers' Tales Guides, Inc. All rights reserved.
You can catch Farley at a free Travel Writing Class, 7-8pm on Wednesday, March 15, at Barnes & Noble near Lincoln Center in NYC or on a stop in his whirlwind book tour. For full details about the book tour, visit traveler. For full details about Gotham free events, visit events.