How I Caved On Picking The Pig for Nochebuena
It was to be the Year of the Pig. Christmas 1994 would be my first back in Florida after a 30-year absence, a time during which the exodus from my native Cuba had turned this region into something very similar to my homeland. In Miami, Spanish was heard more than English, and throughout South Florida Cuban-Americans kept up the traditions I had grown up with. In December, this meant big Christmas Eve feasts, the Nochebuena (Good Night) tradition of pigging out on roast pig.
This was going to be the real thing and since I’m the food freak in my family I orchestrated the Noche buena dinner, assigning to various family members the black beans and white rice, the yuca (cassava) with garlic sauce, the fricassee of guinea hens (a lesser known but quite authentic Cuban treat), the nuts for appetizer and Spanish nougat for dessert, and the wine. I would take care of la piece de resistance, the roast suckling pig.
No ordinary porker would do, now. I was going for authenticity so I wanted a real baby pig, freshly slaughtered, authentically seasoned with sour oranges and garlic, roasted in a very hot oven. Roasting suckling pig presents a logistical problem, since most home ovens do not accommodate even the smallest piglet. I recalled that in my Havana childhood, my family usually made an arrangement with a local baker to fit in its huge oven. In Florida, most Cuban-Americans simply bought a takeout roast pig from a Cuban restaurant or food store.
But no drive-by pig for me. I talked to my old New York friends at Victor’s Cafe, the famous Manhattan Cuban restaurant that is now a Miami classic, and they agreed to slip in my own piglet among the many they were roasting for their Nochebuena menu. They even agreed to season it and marinade it for me and let me know where I could buy the best, a Cuban-American slaughterhouse on the outskirts of Hialeah. Since the marinade takes a couple of days, on the morning of Dec. 22 I called the slaughterhouse and told them how many pounds I needed.
“On the hoof?”
“Live or already slaughtered”
“Oh, already slaughtered, of course.”
“No problem. Just come. We have plenty of them.”
It was a rainy day in Hileah. My brother-in-law, The Wall Street Journal’s Jose de Cordoba, joined me in my quest for the perfect Nochebuena pig. We drove and drove and Hialeah ended and farmland began. Cuban farmland. For we kept seeing signs in Spanish telling us that fresh pigs and goats were for sale and the men we spotted had the look of guajiros, Cuban peasants. We turned into a side road and there even the homes looked like Cuban country dwellings.
The slaughterhouse was huge. Well, it look huge to me, but I had never been to a slaughterhouse before. Outside, dozens of four-wheel-drive vehicles were parked and tough-faced Cuban hombres came in and out of them, men who, like me, were buying their families’ Nochebuena dinner. In my brother-in-law’s Japanese sedan, I started feeling less than rugged. We followed the macho crowd to the side of a large corral, jammed with squealing piglets. A woman in her thirties presided over the scene, taking orders from the men, yelling the poundage the customers requested at the farmhands who stood in the middle of the corral grabbing the unfortunate beasts, and, once the yelping victims were brought to her, slapping them on the side with an ink stamp on a stick. “Is she going to beat them to death?” Jose asked.
I let her know how many pounds I wanted and when she asked me to pick one I told her, rather quietly so the men around me wouldn’t hear, that I preferred one already slaughtered and dressed. She turned around and yelled at the top of her lungs, “Are there any killed ones?” The answer was no. “We’ll have one ready in 15 minutes. Just pick the one you want.”I looked toward the corral and a farmhand was holding up the sweetest, pinkest, unhappiest piglet I have ever seen. “Nah, too small,” a customer by my side said. And piglet’s life was spared, for the moment.
The corral smelled like, well, a corral: pig manure and probably pig fear. The squealing was deafening. The tough hombres went soberly about the business of selecting their dinner. The tough mujer went soberly about the business of slapping the piglet’s hide with the ink marker. I felt like I was going to faint. Pretending to confer with my brother-in-law about exactly which pig we wanted I backed out of the corral area in perfect synchronicity with his steps.
Read the Rest at Sun-sentinel.com