I didn't expect Ukrainian food to become part of SALT IN THE AIR. The film was originally about a salt mine that serves as a successful asthma clinic, as well as the environmental catastrophe ensued by corrupt mining practices, a ravaging of the Earth. But the longer I stayed in Ukraine, the more I became aware of the central role that salo plays in Ukrainian cuisine, not to mention cultural life and heritage. I don't think I go too far to say that salo is one of the primary elements of Ukrainian identity.
Plus, salo is deeply connected to salt. The word salo is related etymologically to salt. Here is a rough definition given to me by a Ukrainian friend: са́ло (salo): pig fat; eaten raw, smoked or cooked; from the words солоний (solonyi) 'salty' and сіль (sil) 'salt'. (As a side note, many Ukrainian words have been given short shrift because of Ukraine's relationship to Russia. From what I understand, there is no authoritative Ukrainian dictionary or etymological text. What does exist has been filtered through a Russian academic system. Perhaps "Russification" is the right word for it.)
In any case, this close connection between salt and salo is what brought me to the scene of a pig being slaughtered in my film. Dr. Ivan Myhailovych Hrys, a pulmonologist and wholistic healer, told me during an interview about asthma that "we must eat foods that are close to nature," by which he meant many types of unprocessed foods, but he also and pointedly meant salo. He told me that pigs and humans are very similar physiologically, which I had read elsewhere, too. We have similar livers and hearts. In fact, porcine heart valves can replace human heart valves when ours fail. In Hrys's mind, we owe a lot to pigs for our good health.
So what is salo? Roughly speaking, it's pig fat. The closest comparative food would be Italian lardo, but where lardo is seen generally as an enhancer or a delicacy, salo is on the table for its own sake and often eaten every day as part of a healthy diet. A Ukrainian's attention to salo approaches reverential and maybe even spiritual levels. It's much more than lardo. When lardo is eaten on its own, on a cracker, for example, it's cured in some way with herbs or spices. Salo can be cured or smoked, but it is also eaten completely raw, and even during the slaughtering of the pig, eaten right off the recently killed animal. You might dip the warm fat in a small bowl of salt just moments after cutting it from the pig, as some of the farmers do in my film. And then take a shot of samagon or vodka. So what part of the pig is it, specifically? The best part is fatback, but I suspect other fatty parts of the pig can be used, too.
Dr. Hrys spoke at length about the benefits of salo that he witnessed over many years of treating patients for a variety of ailments, including jaundice. He said that the sooner he gave patients salo, the better their recovery. "Salo isn't a secondary medicine," he told me. "It is essential." It positively affected his patients biliary flow, blood and metabolism.
Of the many and varied uses for salt that I looked into for SALT IN THE AIR -- from salt mining to salt inhalation methods for treating asthmatics -- salo may have been the most complex from a filmmaking point of view. This may sound strange until you consider that salo as a cultural icon. Everyone has something to say about it. How the pigs are raised. What kind of food they eat. How much exercise they get. When and where they exercise, and under what weather conditions. Not to mention all the ways it can be cured and served. Dr. Hrys distinguished Ukrainian pig farming from methods in the U.S., saying that the particular way the pig is fed, exercised and raised has a profound affect on the amount of fat created and its quality. I ate quite a lot of salo in Ukraine, but I'm not sure I would eat raw fat from, say, store-bought bacon here in the U.S., although I have had lardo from reputable, organic and humane U.S. purveyors.
SALT IN THE AIR portrays an entire slaughter, although shortened considerably. The process, from the selection to the complete breakdown of the pig, took over an hour. The farmers believe that God made pigs for our benefit, so we would have something to eat. This traditional view was stated as a matter of fact, without complicated questions about killing animals. That said, the first stab in the pig's throat is rough. If there is anything I would change, it would be that. It is clear to me that the animal suffers with the stabbing and the blood letting. Death is not instantaneous. In 2011, social conservatives and animal rights groups in the Netherlands moved to block kosher and halal butchering for goats and lambs for what I took to be both xenophobic and animal rights reasons. The activist groups felt the animals should be stunned first so that they are unconscious. The movement did not succeed, but it did put forward this interesting idea: That if an animal (chicken, goat, lamb, beef) lost consciousness within 40 seconds, the practice would be considered humane. I'm not sure where they got the 40 second rule, but it's interesting. In our case, I would say the pig lost consciousness in about 30-40 seconds, based very amateurishly on my observation of its movements and noises. Still, it moved a lot afterwards on the killing platform. The farmers said it was body spasms, but I'm not entirely convinced by that explanation.
For me, eating pork is inextricably linked to salt. Or, really, eating any meat, but pork seems to have a particular relationship to salt, as demonstrated by the word salo and by the nearness of the word "salt" to "pork" in English. I don't know if Dr. Hrys is right about the health benefits of salo, though he was quite convincing. I'm also ambivalent about many methods of slaughtering. On the one hand, this small farm in Ukraine was very clean and wonderful and the pigs were treated very well. But the stabbing was cruel.
More broadly -- and in a grim, poetic way -- the killing of the pig reminded me of the death of the salt mine; that is, the splaying of the Earth for our benefit. The same exploitative beliefs are present. That huge gaping hole in the ground in Solotvyno looks surprisingly like a wound, as poet Oleh Lysheha told me for SALT IN THE AIR, and also like the split belly of the pig. Clearly this connection between our violence, the pig and the Earth doesn't hold up under deductive reasoning, but these facts feel broadly connected in a way that appears to me both moral and profound.