I always knew where my pork sandwiches came from. I’d been staring at the lifeless eyes of a roasted whole pig on an annual basis since I was five years old. Eyes that didn’t mean anything but, “I’m feeding your entire family tonight, and your mom will creatively insert me in various meals for at least a week.”
Lechón, a roasted suckling pig, is usually the centerpiece of every Nochebuena celebration. It’s the night before Christmas: a raucous evening Latinos share with extended family, salsa music, old people playing domino games, children hopped up on seasonally high expectations, and traditional Cuban food.
Over a million Cuban-American families in Florida, like my own, celebrate Nochebuena, as do families in Cuba, Spain, Latin America and the Philippines. While every culture has their own, very similar version of the same night, there’s a few things you can count on all of them having: roasted animal meats, a secret eggnog recipe (ours has condensed milk spiked with white rum) and at least two drunken grandmothers. Take a drive down a South Florida neighborhood around eight o’clock at night on Christmas Eve with your windows down and you’ll more than likely catch a waft of smoked pig meat and the boisterous yells of family members greeting each other at the front doors of brightly lit houses with blow-up robotic Santa Clauses.
When I ask several family members of varying ages at this year’s Nochebuena party to explain why we eat lechón every Christmas Eve in such an ostentatious fashion, I was surprised to hear, “I don’t know… tradition?”
Even my husband’s eighty-six-year-old grandpa, having been the man solely responsible for sneaking his entire family (and fifty of his closest friends) out of Cuba on a hijacked barge, simply shrugged his shoulders and said, “That’s just what we do.” I sat there staring at him, bent forward in anticipation for a great history lesson, or a tale of his evident bad-assery, and all I got was a shrug.
The Internet gave me an equally disappointing answer. The tradition is quite boring. The reason why we eat lechón on Nochebuena is simply because it’s an appropriately plentiful hunk of meat to feed a large group of people. It’s a practical decision that just happens to suit the tastes of my culture. In fact, the same practicality is what brought pigs to the island of Cuba in the first place. Their prevalence is no mistake: European sailors in the late 1400s strategically dropped droves of pigs off on various uninhabited islands to make sure they had a large, healthy harvest of meat when they returned.
As I experience the communal joy of eating a big pig roast with the family, I wonder why I ever assumed there was any sort of historical significance to this tradition in the first place. It’s a simple narrative: pigs are now native to Cuba, and my people love to eat them. So, instead, I revisit my childhood for more interesting answers.
Every Christmas Eve, I was handed the same pre-made plate full of lechón, rice and beans by a random relative. I was surrounded by incomprehensible clues and very little context: a pile of cinder blocks in the backyard, sheet metal, and palm fronds. What does it all mean? How did this work? This year, I decided to find out exactly how the lechón gets to our table and onto my plate.
Acquiring the Pig
Hitching a ride with my husband’s cousins (the part of the family responsible for hosting Nochebuena this year) I sat in the car wondering where we’d get the pig. Will we drive to the most southwestern corner of Miami, visit a farm and pick a pig out for slaughter? Will this be the last year I can innocently look into the lifeless eyes of a hog? Is this the end of my carnivorous pleasures? I prepared to face my own emotions about eating animals, something I’ve purposely ignored in defiant gluttony.
Lamenting the lack of journalistic adventure but somewhat relieved to postpone a confrontation with my own conscience, we skip the farm and arrive at Winn-Dixie with Gio and his four-year-old daughter, Aly. Thankfully, in this family, pigs come from the supermarket.
“It’s so expensive this year. Nearly double in price,” he says. Swine virus is to blame.
As we approach the cashier, the cardboard coffin containing the refrigerated pig starts leaking blood all over the supermarket floor. Aly points at the leak curiously, looking up at her father for answers. As the words “OH GOD. BLOOD. YEP, THAT’S BLOOD” start to slip out of my mouth, Gio promptly responds with “that’s just food, baby.”
The various ways people separate the meat they eat from the animal it formerly was comes from a place of comfort. I never pondered the source of my animal meat not because I wasn’t curious, but because it largely makes me uncomfortable. I don’t want to “meet” my “meat” – I prefer living with a glory hole of food consumption.
Back home, I ask grandpa how they typically procured pigs in Cuba for Nochebuena, where the convenience of Winn-Dixie was nonexistent.
“One time we got the pig sloppy drunk,” explained Tio Jose, an uncle who was eavesdropping on our conversation. “We felt really bad about killing it. We didn’t want it to feel pain and that was the only way we knew how.”
In the United States, pig farms are able to take specific measures to avoid excessive suffering. This does not include getting them completely plastered, although other, more debatably humane, methods are used – usually a straight shot between the eyes with a gun and a knife to the main artery shortly thereafter. This is arguably the quickest and most considerate way of doing the deed if you consider having a nervous uncle getting a pig drunk for hours while trying to prove his masculinity to be on the lower spectrum of ethical.
“We also ate turkeys,” said Jose. “We tried strangling them by twisting their necks over. They’d just unravel themselves and keep going. They wouldn’t die. We didn’t know how to go about it. It was horrifying.”
We’re back in Gio’s backyard and he’s expertly cutting the pig open on a fold-up table. Aly helps wash the insides out with a hose, pausing to grab organs, her curiosity distracting her from the job. “That’s the tongue,” her dad says, as she sticks her own out in understanding. I’m trying to avoid doing the same thing; I silently share her inquisitiveness, photographing her findings instead while we both get a pretty comprehensive anatomy lesson.
The last step for the day is to marinate the pig. Inside the house, Gio whips out a large jug of mojo sauce – a tart combination of olive oil, salt, sour orange juice, cumin, and an unthinkable amount of garlic (we estimated about 48 cloves.) Mojo is considered one of the most precious and essential marinades in Cuban cooking. It effectively elevates the flavor of Cuban sandwiches, seafood, meat, and fried plantains.
Gio spreads the mojo sauce all over the carcass, sticking entire cloves of garlic inside small slits he’d made with his knife. We will go to sleep, and when we arise, the pig will radiate with delicious, garlicky mojo magic.
If the pig is the star of the show, the caja china is its’ shrine. The caja china (or, Chinese box) is a wooden makeshift-roasting box that can effectively roast a whole pig in an agreeable amount of time, acting more like an oven than a barbecue. It’s not likely that the box has any ties to China and has more to do with the fact that Cubans tend to say that anything clever or innovative is undoubtedly “Chinese.”
The pig is sandwiched between two racks at the bottom of the aluminum-lined caja china; a layer of hot coals is set up on a rack above it. The entire thing is enclosed to allow heat to circulate, slow-cooking the pig from above in just a couple of hours. It’s a method that’s gained popularity in the United States, with the likes of Bobby Flay and Martha Stewart tending to their all-American summer barbecue with an inherently Cuban invention.
Our family prefers roasting their annual Nochebuena lechón in a gnarly, homemade pig pit instead. Made out of leftover construction material, the pit is built in the backyard by digging a shallow hole in the ground, surrounding it with two layers of cinder blocks, five pounds of charcoal, a metal grate, and aluminum siding.
Whatever contraption you go with, one thing holds true: this thing is the pride of every Cuban household around this time of year. The men in the family arrive early for the final preparation of the pig, a showcasing of masculinity that permeates our culture. A mixture of savory ingredients, like olive oil, vinegar, cumin, garlic, onion, oregano, paprika, and salt are pureed into a smooth paste and rubbed on the outside of the skin to give it a golden, roasted glow.
At around eight o’clock, the rest of the family begins to arrive. The food isn’t ready yet, so we resort to alcohol. I see parts of the family I haven’t seen since last year’s Nochebuena, which means we’ll partake in the same routine: Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, you look great, the pig smells awesome, let’s take a shot. The elderly women grab my arm or tug at my dress, wavering between telling me I look pretty and skinny, or that I’ve gained some weight since last time they saw me. In Latin culture, the latter is the compliment (something I learned after years of insecurity): weight and curves are healthy, happy things.
By now, the yucca is garlicky and fragrant, the table is set, and the grandmothers are properly inebriated. The entire family surrounds the pit, quietly anticipating the initial carving of the pork they’ve been waiting all day for. One lucky family member (usually the one who does all the work) gets to taste the very first piece of crispy pork skin as everyone watches – breaking into a mini salsa dance to express their gustatory pleasure while the rest of the family erupts with cries of success.
My stepfather-in-law has the honor of carving the pig for the long line of hungry revelers. I begin to organize my plate strategically, even though it’s the same every year: a pool of black beans surrounded by a moat of white rice, a yucca boat, fried plantains, and a hearty slab of lechón. While waiting in line for my piece, I ask myself, “Why did we go through all that work?” I grip my Styrofoam plate tightly as the hearty scent of pig fat permeates my nose, the culmination of nearly forty-eight hours of work.
It’s just what we do.