RENDERED 16: Morcilla (Blood sausage)
The Alchemy of Blood and Psyche
Morcilla, or blood sausage, is a Puerto Rican dish that traces back to European traditions--it is just one of many types of blood sausage. I discuss my experience with morcilla, the nature of inherited cultural legacy, and how it relates to an emotional landscape marked by blood, shame, and fragility.
This history of morcilla (blood sausage) includes personal anecdotes that touch on sensitive subjects, so I'm putting a trigger warning for both squeamish animal parts and mental health struggles.
by Gabriella Gutiérrez-Muhs
The Secret Color
Of Our Bloody Memories
Back in 2017, I wrote an essay entitled "Suitcase Nuyorican," in which I described memories of tasting quenepas (a tropical fruit) and morcilla, or blood sausage. (I didn't know the term at the time I wrote that piece, but I would call myself Diasporican now--props to Illyanna Maisonet and her upcoming book of the same title.)
These foods, brought back from the motherland, were precious (and delicious!) treasures I savored with gusto. The fact that it was made with blood didn't put me off in the least--even as a kid, I was eager to try any and all new foods.
It wasn't lost on me that this was a part of a culinary tradition that wasn't mine to access freely. The gateway to experience my culture was contingent on someone else deigning to include me. I clung hungrily to any bits and pieces that an elder would deign to dole out to me.
An excerpt from the essay reads:
In fact, all I knew about was the diaspora, that which had been handed to me out of someone else’s suitcase. Easily closed and stowed away, mobile, limited. I felt like a fraud [...] An illegitimate daughter, someone who didn’t deserve to inherit the crown of this legacy.
Consuming animal blood and making blood sausage have a vast history among many culinary traditions around the world, from Ireland to Australia to Nordic cultures to nomadic peoples in central Asia, the Americas, and beyond. I myself have tasted Puerto Rican and Spanish morcillas, Korean soondae, and French boudin noir. (My favorite is the Puerto Rican variety, far and away--it's the most flavorful kind I've tried.)
Like with many recipes and cooking techniques, it is difficult to say with certainty where blood sausage originated (of course, there's probably not just one origin story!). Some say it was in Aphtonitas who created it in ancient Greece. Another source says it was invented by Assyrians in Tyre (in present-day Lebanon).
The first time it's mentioned in writing is in Homer's Odyssey (around the 8th century BC)--it describes a stomach stuffed with fat and blood, roasted over a fire. The oldest written recipe for blood sausage is from ancient Rome, attributed to Marcus Gavius Apicius, and includes cooked chopped egg yolks, pine nuts, onions, and leeks.
Germanic peoples introduced blood sausages to Poland (using pork, goose, duck blood) before 1000AD. The 1066 Norman conquest of Britain brought a sausage-making tradition (including black pudding).
In many traditions (including Britain and Ireland), a pig slaughter traditionally took place around the late autumn, in time for Christmas. Every precious part of the animal was to be used--waste not, want not.
Blood is a good source of protein, iron, vitamin D, and sodium (which was crucial for those who historically did not have access to enough salt, due to their location, or access to money and trade). For it to solidify and produce a sliceable sausage, blood must be heated above 167°F / 75°C--it is at this temperature that the protein albumin coagulates.
A 15th century English recipe describes a blood pudding dish made with porpoise blood and fat, bound with oats, meant for the tables of nobles. Common folk had to make do with pigs. (In British culinary terminology, "pudding" refers to foods that are boiled or steamed within a receptacle, including but not limited to sausage casing.)
Once prepared, it must be cooked immediately, then dried or eaten right away. Blood sausage has a relatively short shelf life (just a few weeks), compared to other types of salted/cured meats. It is reheated by boiling, grilling, frying, or sliced and eaten cold. Logically, this would be the first sausage made and eaten from a freshly butchered animal.
In France, there are apparently 14 types of boudin noir listed in the French Code de la Charcuterie. One type is gogue, a blood sausage variety from the Anjou region (where I happen to live), which includes finely chopped herbs (spinach, chive, green onion). Elsewhere in Europe, there's morcilla in Spain, Canarian morcilla dulce (or, sweet blood sausage), Italian sanguinaccio, German Blutwurst, Hungarian kishka, and much more.
Pigs were probably first domesticated around the same time as goats and sheep, in the 8th millennium BC, as evidenced by archaeological findings in the Fertile Crescent (the crescent-shaped region from the Nile River Valley, along the eastern Mediterranean coast to the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers). Pigs are resilient creatures that can adjust to different climates, breed quickly, and feed on just about anything.
European colonizers took pigs (and rice) along with them on their worldwide expeditions. For the Spaniards, eating meat was a necessity: it was not only their habit, but a symbol of power and class that distinguished them diet from that of the Indigenous and, later, enslaved peoples and their descendants, the rural inhabitants.
The first pigs arrived in the Antilles in 1493, during Columbus's second voyage--they took quickly to the humid, forested interior region of the main island of Puerto Rico. While some domesticated pigs were raised on ranches, feral pigs (whose meat the Spaniards considered sub-par) roamed the wild inland country.
As the centuries of Spanish occupation progressed, transforming the Puerto Rican topography in favor of agricultural exploitation (monoculture crops), there was less land for feral pigs to roam freely. By the end of the 18th century, the military population had increased, centralized in San Juan. The problem was, there wasn't enough meat to go around, but constant access to meat was one important sign of social standing. The priority was keeping the tables of Spanish officials in San Juan flush with meat, and providing food and rations to the military population.
Spanish officials started tightening hunting regulations, and imposed a reparto system, in which ranches all over the island had to meet livestock quotas that would get shipped to the capital. This meant that people had to be more protective of the animals for their livelihood, thereby reducing access to meat for common folk.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the population had increased further, and more land was utilized for cash crops like sugar and coffee to extract as much profit as possible. At the same time, the number of ranches decreased, as did cattle breeding stock, which led to more weak, sickly animals--thus, beef supply dwindled, and pigs became even more precious for the common citizen.
The city of Burgos in Spain (Castile region) is known for its morcilla (la morcilla burgalesa). The recipe includes rice, as does Puerto Rican morcilla. Rice was not readily accessible in Castile until the 18th century, which is likely when morcilla de Burgos was created. The word morcilla itself is of uncertain origin, but may have come from morcón, a word first documented in 1599, to refer to a sausage similar to morcilla.
Several years back, I visited Burgos, España with my husband. The city where my name comes from--I had been looking forward to seeing it for myself. I suppose part of me desired a transformative experience, some feeling of ancient connection. That didn't happen. I enjoyed strolling around, bought some nice morcilla, and had an overall pleasant stay. But there was no internal shift. Maybe it was silly to expect a place, a patch of dirt, to bring about any esoteric transformation. Or maybe I needed that moment to remember that spiritual metamorphosis must begin with internal alchemy, that it isn't contingent on the external.
It's conceivable that the tradition of making blood sausage, which had spread to Western Europe and the Canary Islands, traveled across the Atlantic in the centuries following the introduction of pigs to the "New World."
The recipe for Puerto Rican morcilla includes rice (which was also brought to the Antilles during the age of colonization). Adding rice to blood sausage may have occurred first in the region of Burgos, Spain, leaving the recipe to find to the Caribbean via European settlers to the Caribbean; or, the two traditions may have developed concurrently.
It's not clear when rice began being used in blood sausage in Puerto Rico, but there are documented community gatherings around pig slaughter, and subsequent butchering, especially around festivities like Christmas, and end-of-harvest celebrations. The only way to secure blood that is fit to eat, and tripe to use as sausage casings, is to collect them as soon as the animal is slaughtered.
In addition to rice and blood, Puerto Rican morcilla includes hot and sweet peppers, cilantro, salt and pepper, and minced fatty tissue. (If you would like to see the preparation of morcilla, see this video by Evita Cocina Salud y Bienestar on Youtube, also linked in my bibliography).
In this world of freely available information online, there tends to be an entitlement to peoples' hard work and (jealously-guarded) family recipes. It is not a necessity that people share their family recipes with the world, so when they do, they should be credited. It's important to me to list my various sources in my bibliography: sometimes academic, sometimes bloggers and Youtubers, sometimes interviewees who generously share their knowledge, recipes, and stories.
For some, the thought of eating blood is unpalateable, be it for religious, ethical, or digestive reasons.
As sustenance, blood is neither kosher nor halal (acceptable for consumption by those who are Jewish and Muslim, respectively). This taboo likely originated due to its short window of use: it goes bad very quickly, and is unsafe to consume unless prepared immediately after collecting it from a slaughtered animal.
There is a squeamish, "ick" factor to consuming blood, offal, or other "non-traditional" animal parts. Blood is visceral, messy, sometimes stomach-turning. Me, I want to talk about the ugly bits, the blood and guts, the distasteful and taboo. I want to go there. (Cue the Margaret Cho bit.)
Blood is a powerful metaphor, a literal representation of life force. Blood can be used in reference to lineage, family and kinship; violence; ritual and sacrifice; menstruation and fertility; and taboo.
These visceral matters that may inspire revulsion are akin to our tears. Speaking of them brings us into an intimate space that threatens to make us uneasy. But growth cannot occur if one avoids uneasiness.
I know what it's like to be self-effacing, to be an eternal observer. As I've written before, I was raised to know my place.
Respect was a one-way street, and my safety was precariously contingent on my ability to balance between eggshells and quicksand. I felt there was something cosmically unfair about being in a confusing, secretive, danger-laden world, full of questions I'm not supposed to ask, remembering what I'm not supposed to say, trying to figure out how I'm supposed to act, and observing how those rules changed depending on who I was with, whose home I was in, and whether we were in public or not. And in return, I didn't even get the decency of feeling like I belonged.
I had to keep secrets, know what to say and when, and understand what was acceptable, and what wasn't. The fact that this changed all the time led to the erosion of my sense of self.
I remember one of my tíos (distant uncles) would call me "girl." "Hey, girl!" What better way to tell a kid, "You ain't shit" than not bothering to learn their name.
When you learn early on that no one can really see you, you start to believe that you don't matter, you really ain't shit, and you don't even belong there. These beliefs become concretized, and you seek a place where maybe, just maybe, it doesn't have to be true.
I was so good at keeping secrets, none of the adults in my life realized I had started hurting myself when I was 8 years old. My world was precarious and scary, and I was extraordinarily angry and afraid. I was (and still am) haunted at night with vivid, graphic nightmares. Physical self-harm eventually gave way to emotional self-harm: negative self-talk, anxiety, and suicidal ideation by the time I started menstruating. I hated myself, who I was, how I looked, and was endlessly ashamed of my existence.
Even as I write this, I am afraid that I'll get criticized for sharing this. I was well-fed, with a roof over my head and toys under the tree at Christmas. What right did I have to feel the way I did? Back in Puerto Rico and Cuba, in el campo (the country), my relatives had experienced real hardship. My elders' migration to the mainland United States was fraught with economic hardship, cultural and language barriers, and the ever-present racism. So what did I, a well-fed, English-speaking white girl, have to complain about?
There were far more important things going on, why couldn't I just snap out of it? Get myself together, make it so no one had to worry about me. There was plenty enough to worry about, I didn't need to add to everyone's stress with my "problems." Who did I think I was, to think I deserved anyone's attention?
I describe these memories not to cast guilt, but to demonstrate how the seeds for imposter syndrome were sown early on, by those whose blood I shared. Is it any wonder that this mindset has leered at me from the shadows of my subconscious throughout my life, narrating my every pursuit?
Being free means talking about the icky stuff. We should talk about how the morcilla gets made.
Transforming the "ugly" ingredients into something delicious in the kitchen is working magic. We have the power to do that in our internal world.
The transformation begins with unpacking the suitcase and taking a hard look at what's inside. We (women, Puerto Ricans, the young generation) are supposed to shoulder the burden, we're supposed to be okay, we're supposed to keep it together. But one girl can only take so much.
I experienced a nervous breakdown during my first year living in France.
I have had intense periods of anxiety throughout my life, but this was next-level. My brain just couldn't handle the stress of everyday life, of moving, of being selfish and abandoning my family, of feeling like an utter failure that I couldn't keep all my plates spinning. So I shut down.
Why did I feel like a failure? Why did I feel so ashamed to be in my own skin? I had to hit the reset button, unpack everything, and re-evaluate the questions of home, of blood, of identity, in order to regain control of my life.
I started with identity, devouring Michael Twitty's book The Cooking Gene to start. I pored through archives to reconstruct my family tree back to the turn of the 19th century, had my DNA analyzed. I felt I had to find proof that I was, in fact, a legitimate daughter of the diaspora. I learned I come from a long line of domestic workers and manual laborers (mostly sugarcane workers): country people who undoubtedly struggled for every little thing they had. Their blood is my blood.
I hadn't just inherited the stories from the motherland, the taste for morcilla and quenepas from my relatives' suitcases. I had inherited the mixed bag of generations' worth of pain and struggle, of emotional scars, of shame, addiction and mental illness... but on the flip side, there was also persistent hope. The undying, primordial belief that things will get better.
I'm not just a "girl"--I'm Larissa Burgos. (This is yet another reason I didn't change my name when I got married.)
Rejecting self-isolation means letting people love on me. I get to choose who's in my family, blood or not. I don't believe that blood is thicker than water. In fact, water can be cleansing, purifying, rejuvenating.
I reject shame by seeking connection and nurturing my native interests: food, art, language.
I reject our legacy of silence by being transparent about seeking professional help, and striving to be a safe person for those in my life who are vulnerable.
I reject the shame of imposter syndrome by recognizing what I bring to the table: I'm an observer. I listen and notice connections. The story doesn't start or end with me.
Why do I feel entitled to talk about things that I don't have a lived experience with? What gives me the right to insert myself where I don't belong? I don't ask or expect you, dear readers, to rely on my word alone. I'm just one person, learning from people all the time. I want to contribute to a conversation, and pay deference to those from whom I learn.
My grandmother's blood makes up part of mine. When she departed, so did the dream of visiting Puerto Rico with her. I am sad that we never got to walk side-by-side in her hometown. One day, when I am ready, I will go. Her blood will return, in new form, with new eyes full of the resilient spirit of hope.
Learning how the morcilla is made means that I can develop my own relationship to my blood, culture, history--the transformation is internal, and I can decide for myself how I want to fit into that picture. If I am fit to inherit the internal strife, I am fit to alchemize it into something that brings me hope.
Eating Puerto Rico by is an indispensable book that I revisit frequently for my research. The author, historian Dr. Cruz Miguel Ortíz Cuadra, has an unparallelled knowledge of Puerto Rican foodways. He is currently undergoing cancer treatment, and there is a GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign to help defray the medical costs. Check it out here if you are so inclined.
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