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Chicharrones galore!

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From left, Milton Rodriguez and Steve Gallegos cut strips of pork for chicharrones at the “World’s Largest Matanza” in Belen on Saturday. (Anthony Jackson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

BELEN – Tradition brought cooks like Jeff Flores to the “World’s Largest Matanza” on Saturday.

The Albuquerque resident has participated in Valencia County’s communal cookout for 17 years, and this year was no different, with Flores helping prepare a pig with friends and family members, including his three grandchildren.

“It’s a whole family thing – we got here at 5:30,” Flores said of arriving very early at Eagle Park, where the 20th annual event was hosted by the Hispano Chamber of Valencia County.

The matanza attracted thousands of eaters, who, after paying a $15 entry fee, enjoyed some of the most traditional and savory foods New Mexico has to offer – and for a good cause. Event proceeds fund the Community Incentive Scholarship for seniors graduating from Valencia County high schools or University of New Mexico Valencia Campus students.

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One of the many tasty pork dishes served up at the matanza. (Anthony Jackson/Albuquerque Journal)

Rita Garcia, an officer on the chamber board, estimated 10,000 people attended this year, including international visitors. She said they were “shooting for 100 scholarships” this year.

“It’s a huge thing for these kids,” said Laynette Lucero, a mother of one of the scholarship recipients. Thanks in part to the scholarship, Lucero said her daughter is attending New Mexico State University to become a dental hygienist.

Lucero said she was at the matanza this year to pay it forward.

As for Flores, 19 folks were part of his group, all of whom were needed to prepare the meat.

After cleaning the carcass of its organs, the pig was shaved and cut into strips where it could then be prepared into chicharrones, pork chops or carne adovada.

Part of the tradition for their group is to compete in the matanza’s cook-off, entering crispy chicharrones, spicy carne adovada, chopped liver and a specialty pork dish in the contest.

But meat-based dishes weren’t the only menu items being judged. So were red chile, tortillas, bizcochitos, salsa, pastelitos and natilla.

Jesse Flores, Jeff’s nephew, said they’ve taken first place in the chicharrones category once before.

On the grill side of things was Steve Gallegos, who prepared a special, pork-based dish marinated in red chile and handed out samples to people waiting in line outside their booth.

Gallegos said matanzas have been a tradition since childhood. “The drinking and eating” are his favorite parts of it, he said with a laugh.

“We used to have them in Los Lunas by the river when we were little,” Gallegos said. “Everyone would drink a bunch of beers, there were boxing matches – everything. I remember those days.”

Gallegos said he was about 12 years old then and he has kept up the tradition ever since.

Within a few hours, the crew went through half of the pig. After a short break munching on chicharrones, drinking beer and talking with friends and family, they were back at it.

All it took was a nod from one of their groupmates before all hands were on deck. They carried the last half of the pig to the butchering table. Knives were sharpened as one of the groupmates laid out the gameplan: “Breakdown the chicharrones, flip it, then put it on its belly.”

Strips of flesh were sliced as though it were butter. The group then got to work separating the fat and the lean meat with quick precision.

The smell of burning firewood mingled with the aroma of carne adovada as guests looked for places to eat. Among them were Ernest Barela and Anna Chavez, both from Albuquerque, partaking of pork and red chile with golden sopaipillas.

“All of these are local people – vendors – and they make all their food from scratch,” Chavez said. “You just don’t get food like this anywhere.”

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Rita Garcia, an officer with the Hispano Chamber of Valencia County, estimated 10,000 people showed up to Saturday’s matanza. (Anthony Jackson/Albuquerque Journal)

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