by Mario Machado—
I awoke at the earliest of dawn, the hours of the morning that are still indistinguishable from the night except for the flickering of sunlight over a very distant horizon. I left my house and mounted my bike, clipping along the dirt road with my stiff, unwashed hair folding and flipping in the surprisingly cool morning air. As I reached the home of Don Ramón, the town butcher or carnicero, he appeared at the front his wooden hovel. [Editor’s note: “Don” is a title of respect used with a man’s first name; the equivalent for women is “Doña.”] His feet bare on the dirt floor, he smiled and remarked how happy he was that I decided to come.
The act of butchering a cow is a process not to be taken lightly or quickly. We began the morning by sipping maté and observing our quarry tied to a tree off in the shadows. He told me about this particular cow and why he decided to purchase it for slaughter. It was a smaller milk cow, about 3 years old, that had not shown any signs of producing milk or young. It had had a nice life wandering the Paraguayan campo, grazing on the thick and abundant vegetation. Now, that which had been fed will feed, and the Don placed his empty cup of maté on the table and disappeared into the house.
Two other men arrived to help us with the process. We approached our prey, Don Ramón standing in the background silently sharpening his knife. One man lassoed a leg, while the other grabbed for the tail. He jerked the tail and spun around the cow’s side, catching the animal off balance and pulling it to the ground. With the cow now on its side, the other man continued to tie up all four legs to the effect that the animal was quickly unable to move. We held the ropes to steady the struggling cow as Don Ramón moved in quickly with a bucket in hand to catch the blood. He was going to cut its throat.
Using a small machete and infinite poise, he leveled the blade to the cow’s neck, located the jugular vein, and plunged through the skin. The cow gave an initial cry of pain and surprise and began to breathe heavily, blowing dust from the front of its nose. It was a lost cause, however, as the blood from the wound flowed freely with a color that I cannot forget in its brilliance of red.
The animal gave one, maybe two other strong efforts of escape before surrendering to the inevitability. Its breathing became more steady as the loss of blood, I am sure, inhibited any more mental function. Its head moved around a bit on the dirt ground, almost as if finding a more comfortable spot upon which to lie. The animal, which moments before was living and breathing, was dead within 3 minutes. The Don made one final cut to the spinal column to rid the animal of any more pain and to ensure its death. The butchering could then begin.
The rest of this process took only an hour or so. As the neighbors began to arrive, the meat was sold as it was cut from the bone. The entire animal was almost gone by 9 a.m. Each and every part of the animal was used (except for the contents of its stomach). The meat was most expensive and sold in small quantities. The intestines and blood were saved for making blood sausage, while the stomach (being the cheapest part of the animal) was used to make mondongo. The head was bought by a family in order to make akágue yvygu’û, a popular Paraguayan dish prepared by wrapping the head in foil and cooking it on coals under a thin layer of dirt. On this day, the entire community, the dogs included (which rarely get a decent meal), got a much-needed dose of protein.
Mario Machado is a Peace Corps volunteer serving as an agricultural educator in the rural Paraguayan community of Guido Almada. The Allentown, Pennsylvania, native and 2011 Penn State graduate spent the summer of 2011 volunteering at the Rodale Institute and the Organic Gardening test garden.