Guest commentary: Flying bells and the hog

Easter in Belgium, during World War II, was always accompanied by a lot of yelling and a lot of blood.

On Easter Sunday, my father would come out early brandishing his shotgun and yelling: "This year, I'm gonna get me a bell, for sure."

Soon, I would blast out of the house in my nightshirt crying and sobbing: "Nooo! Nooo! You can't shoot the bells!"

While my father paced back and forth from the farmhouse to the road, pointing his gun to the sky, I would be screaming my head off to save the flying bells.

When the teasing stopped, the bells were safe for another year.

Denis Blaise

Denis Blaise

With my Easter basket in hand, I'd go hunting for the colored and chocolate eggs, which the flying bells had scattered over the garden.

"Flying bells?" you ask.

Of course. In a country where every city has a cathedral, every village has a church, and every hamlet has a chapel, bells ring for services and prayers from dawn to dusk; they ring the hours; they ring for fire alarms; they toll for funerals.

And all that ringing stops 40 days before Easter, making Lent a quiet as well as a lean season.

The absence of bell ringing is so noticeable that children often ask what's happened to them.

Telling little children that the bells went to Rome for the pope's blessing and will come back in full ringing force on Easter Sunday is easier than trying to explain fasting and atonement for sins.

On the way back from the Vatican, they drop all sorts of eggs and goodies to be discovered by happy little basket-holders. Unless, of course, some son-of-a-gun father is hell-bent on shooting them down — the source of the yearly family crisis.

Now, I heard that in some other countries, the Easter Bunny brings the eggs. Bunnies?

What a stupid idea! The only "bunnies" in Belgium at Easter are stewed with prunes and dark beer and eaten for Easter dinner. I would never touch a rabbit-delivered chocolate. No, siree.

How do they carry the stuff, anyway? In a knapsack? And anyway, they aren't strong enough to carry all the goodies they supposedly bring.

Now, bells. That's another story. They have the cargo-carrying capacity to do a proper job.

One time, mother and I stopped at the cathedral in Liege. There was a special tour that day to visit the towers. At the top, the guide invited the group to squat and squeeze under the edge of the great bell.

There was room inside for over 20 people, and we could not even touch the top of the gong. Now, that's what I call cargo-carrying capacity. Easter Bunny, indeed!

Denis Blaise as a child in Belgium.

Courtesy Denis Blaise

Denis Blaise as a child in Belgium.

Unfortunately, Easter also saw the demise of the hog I helped fatten over the winter.

My father slit its throat as it hung from its hind legs and collected the gushing crimson liquid in my tin washtub. Then, he ran a handful of burning straw around the hog's carcass, spreading the smell of burnt hair over the farm.

Little was discarded as offal.

The entrails went into a bucket and I got my chance to help. At the kitchen table, I used the back of a dull knife to squeeze and squeegee the fecal matter out of meters of intestines, being careful not to make any hole while pushing the smelly goo into another bucket. After thorough washing, the guts were used as casing for the salami and sausages.

The head was parboiled along with the feet. The ears, tongue, snout and jowls were cut up in small cubes and cooked again.

The fat was skimmed off, some spices were added, and the broth and meaty chunks were poured into ceramic terrines, which cooled overnight on the windowsill. The pig's knuckles went into jars filled with spiced vinegar. The legs were trimmed into hams, smoked and hung to cure. Most of the meat was thoroughly salted and stored in the brine trough in the cellar.

Finally, the odd pieces of meat were ground in a small grinder attached to the edge of the kitchen table. Spices were added and the ground meat was pushed into the large intestine for salami and the small gut for sausages.

The blood was also spiced and thickened with pieces of fat, to make a boudin noir a Cajun would die for. The mixture was then poured into more intestines, of which pigs are, fortunately, amply provided. The several meters of salami, sausages and blood pudding were cooked, coiled in a high tin tub of water, whose normal use was for boiling the clothes when mother did the wash.

Slaughter-The-Hog-Days were sad and messy for the kid I was. But the meat was a lasting and welcomed addition to the skimpy wartime rations.

Denis Blaise, of Goodland, is a former teacher and adjunct professor of foreign languages. He now is a charter boat captain, tour guide and world traveler.

© 2006 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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