It just would not be Christmas in the Cayman Islands without the beef.
“This is what Christmas is all about,” said Jay Ebanks, 34, as he prepared to assist in dressing a bull for the holidays. “Every year we come here and butcher a cow and have fresh beef for Christmas.”
Ebanks was standing near a well-beaten roadside stand next to the Over the Edge restaurant on the North Side’s Old Man Bay last Friday. Down a short slope the animal’s skinned carcass was hanging from a high crossbeam set on two posts above a concrete slab. Several men with knives and a ladder were busily at work.
As gruesome as it may sound, this is a popular tradition for many Caymanians. Beginning in early December, cattle and pigs are slaughtered for their meat, which is often served at large holiday gatherings.
The event brings families and friends together. About 20 people were on hand to witness or help with the process. It also creates extra work for health inspectors.
Mark Robson, an inspector with the Department of Environmental Health, was at the site. He said he and his colleagues put in long hours around the holidays, doing hundreds of inspections. Although the department was unable to provide specific figures for the volume of meat processed in December, “Christmas is the busiest time,” Mr. Robson said.
He expects to be working right through Christmas Eve.
“We’ll be all over the island,” he said, noting that slaughtering activity takes place from early morning into the evening hours and through the weekends.
Field work takes a lot of his time, but many people process their animals at the department’s abattoir, or slaughterhouse, which he said is “extremely busy” this time of year.
Mr. Robson said it is important for people to look for the DEH stamp on the meat that they buy, to make sure that it is safe for consumption. Inspectors, he said, look for signs of infection and abnormalities. Typically, if there is a problem, it might be something like an infected wound or an abscess. But sometimes there is a bigger problem.
“Occasionally, we have to condemn a carcass,” he said.
The bull he was inspecting Friday morning got a clean certificate and a stamp, which meant Allen McLean, 55, the owner of the bull, could proceed with his team. Mr. McLean said he raises cows, pigs and chickens, mainly for enjoyment.
“I love to go to work, come home and feed my animals and look at them,” Mr. McLean said.
Each December, a couple of animals get turned into holiday meals. He raised the 5-year-old bull being slaughtered Friday from a calf.
“Next week, I’m going to do a pig,” he said.
He sells most of the meat. His wife, Carol, had a notebook with a page and a half of names and order information and he estimated he would make $5,000 to $6,000 from the bull.
But some of it he keeps and some gets cooked almost as soon as it is cut.
Dowrel McLean, 75, was waiting patiently nearby, next to a wooden table where the bull’s hooves had been stacked along with some organs. Dowrel said he has been the chef for these events for at least 20 years. This year, he said, will be his last. It is getting too hard for him to stand on his feet for the 2½ to three hours it takes to boil the beef and prepare the things that go with it.
“Somebody young should take over,” Dowrel said. “I’m trying to train one of my grandsons.”
He cooks the beef “old Cayman style,” he said, on a slow fire with onions and peppers – both sweet and hot – thrown in. Cassava, rice and beans, yams, breadfruit and even turtle might be served as traditional side dishes. But the focus is on the meat and lots of it.
Mr. Ebanks said the 50 pounds of beef he planned to buy from Mr. McLean would go quickly.
“Probably two cooks,” he said, referring to gatherings like the one on Friday, “maybe one, depending on how many people come.”
The community, the celebration and the fresh meat is what it is all about, he said.
“This is the original Cayman Christmas.”