April 12, 2005

Cochon de lait

Cochon de lait literally translates "pig in milk" or suckling pig.

My mother grew up outside of Saigon near a place called Tu Duc, Vietnam. She was accustomed to open air markets where every thing imaginable from produce to seafood to meat to silk was available every morning. Thus, fresh meat was always the order of the day for her.

When I was a child my mother was a stay-at-home mom until I entered the first grade. Because we lived in the country we were able to raise all manner of beast and fowl, as well as a vegetable and herb garden.

Unhappy with the selection and cuts of pork from the local meat market, my mother decided one year she would buy a young pig to raise to butcher and fill the freezer. If I recall correctly, she traded a farmer, his name was Mr. Eason, two or three of her prized Bantam (we pronounced them Banty) chickens for a cute little piglet. I named him George.

On an aside, for those uninitated in the way of the chicken, Bantam Chickens were wee chickens with feathered feet and the cutest little brown eggs you ever did see. I do not know whether it was the cute eggs or the feathered feet which my mother found so appealing. All I know is she loved those little chickens. Mind you, these were not meant for eating, we had other regular chickens for that, these were for looking at and gathering eggs; however, I don't recall ever eating those little eggs, but they sure made cute little painted Easter eggs. In this instance, the chickens were used to barter.

George was the finest and smartest little piglet. He was only five or six pounds when my parents brought him home. My sister and I were told repeatedly of George's ultimate fate and every time the subject came up, we nodded, hugged the piglet, and ran off to play with him.

This piglet was an extremely intelligent animal. He followed us around like a little puppy, came when called, but pretty much failed at fetching.

When not out running around with me, George lived in a pen just outside the barn. It was actually a tropical type garden. There was a small stream or creek (pronounced crick where I come from and more than once heard it referred to as a "branch") that ran from the big pond to another much smaller pond a quarter of a mile away. Its path crossed the front and side of the barn, as well. A large culvert was created over the creek in front of the barn to allow passage with a tractor and truck.

Just off the culvert, my mother planted a bunch of different types of bamboo in the soft mud on one side of the creek, the barn side. That stuff caught on like wild fire, grew quickly, and it was not long before they stood tall, dense, and proud.

Much later that entire area was closed off with a six foot wire fence. It was within that fifty by forty foot area that the chickens were given coops and the ducks with their ducklings were allowed to nest and hatch in the "bamboo forest." Only after nesting season and the maturation of the ducklings were they all released into the big pond.

My mother routinely harvested the bamboo in the fowl pen for stakes for her garden, fishin' poles, and other sundry uses. Harvesting required no more than a quick chop to the bottom of the bamboo with a machete. She always cut those things down at an angle and left rather barbaric looking bamboo "stumps" all over the pen. They were the devil if some unfortunate soul (namely me) happened to step on one or fall on another.

All one summer George and I followed much the same routine. The dog and I would get up early, walk out to the pen, release George, then the three of us would tend to the rest of the animals. Only after the horses and cows and chickens and ducks and fish were fed, George was fed and I could have breakfast myself.

George grew quickly and in the fall of that year he hit about 100 pounds and my father began asking my mother how much longer George had left. Every time the question was asked I gave my mother the best liquid doe-eyed look I could muster. Eventually, she caved and told my father that she and the kids loved the pig and she just couldn't butcher him. Apparently, once school started, George would squeal in loneliness until my mother let him out of the pen and he spent the rest of the day following her around as she tended to work outside.

The following spring, George was pretty much full grown and at close to 200 pounds weighed more than my mother, my sister, and me combined. He was a big fella and over the winter had become, well, a bit boorish. He still pretty much followed me around and usually came when called, but when he didn't it took great time and effort and get him back in the pen. Eventually, it got to the point where we were unable to take him out of the fowl pen at all.

Then, the unthinkable happened.

One Saturday morning the dog and I walked out to the pen and we discovered nothing other than a hog had gone wild. Gentle George had turned on his pen companions and ate all but one of the Bantam chickens and killed or eaten all of the ducklings. My mother was beyond distraught, she was pissed. George's number was up.

My mother was five feet one inche tall and dripping wet may have weighed a hundred pounds, but I doubt it. Her uniform was a cotton shirt, shorts of some sort, and those damn thin Asian flip-flop things. She was also armed with her trusted machete.

George could see her coming and knew all was not well.

I had never seen anyone try to kill a hog with a machete, much less a wee slip of a woman. Thankfully, she did not ask me to help, so my sister, the dog, and I sat at the base on an old oak tree to watch and see what would happen next.

As she entered the pen, she called in vain for George to come to her. As I said, this piggy was not stupid. He stood his ground until she got in swinging distance then the chase was on. Every time she stepped on one of those damned spiked bamboo stumps she let loose with some foul sounding Vietnamese and it was not long before she abandoned the flip flops somewhere in the mud altogether.

While my young mind grasped the life and death events unfolding before me, the images were beyond comedic. My sister and I howled with laughter every time the pig bested poor ol' mom.

My mother was one tough, tenacous, and gritty woman. She still is.

The more the pig evaded her, she slipped in fell on the mud or stepped on cut bamboo, the madder she got and the more relentless she became. After an hour or so, she ran that pig to the point of absolute collapse. That's exactly what she did. Exhausted, poor George just dropped to his knees and rolled over to one side.

Victorious, my mother climbed on his back, spent and exhausted herself. But, by that time, she was too damned tired to try to kill him. She just sat on him.

Once she caught her breath, she wearily tracked down her flip flops, pried them from the mud, and limped to the house. It was only after my father got home did she demand he shoot the pig. When he walked out to the pen with gun in hand, he found my sister and me administering aid to the fallen pig. Not even my father could shoot the brokenly tired George. He was just too pitiful.

A few days after that, Mr. Eason returned with a few Bantam chickens for my mother and George was herded into a trailer and taken off. We were later told George made a fine feast. A cochon de lait or cajun pig roast was held in his honor. He was our first and last pig.

Posted by Christina at April 12, 2005 11:05 PM

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