He stared at me with blank eyes, fixed, indifferent, cold, expressionless. I was frozen with a sense of dread, not knowing what next to do or how to do it. I was terrified. I wanted to scream. Instead, I picked up the marinade and started to work.
This was not a killer or even a burglar. This was a 90-pound frozen pig I was trying to roast. After years of making fried chicken and other foods for my guests, I had decided to do something really special. Now I was face to face--eyeball to eyeball--with my dinner, something most Americans experience only with seafood.
I was having a big party, about 90 guests, and I wanted to do something different and adventurous. Roasting a whole pig seemed to be the ticket.
When I lived in Miami, a friend of mine roasted a pig every Christmas in classic Cuban style and served it to a yard full of delighted family and friends. I had called her to get some pointers, and I called other Cubans I knew. But in the end, I discovered that the art of roasting the pig is just that, an art.
The beauty of roasting a pig Cuban-style is that all you need is a pig, a hole in the ground, wood for a fire, metal racks (which can be made with about $20 worth of materials), some banana leaves and patience.
Plan on a pound of pig per guest if the pig weighs more than 50 pounds. Smaller pigs have less meat relative to weight, so adjust accordingly. Whole pigs are best purchased from a wholesale meat packer. Call in advance to be sure one will be on hand.
Pork is forgiving; it loves to be slowly cooked in the most primitive environments. It is best complemented by garlic, oregano and cumin. Cut slits in the meaty portions of the neck, shoulders and legs and put in whole (peeled) garlic cloves. It is virtually impossible to put in too much garlic.
My friend’s marinade recipe for a 20-pound pig is 5 cups sour orange juice (or half orange and half lime), 2 heaping tablespoons salt, 2 heaping tablespoons red pepper, 2 heaping tablespoons cumin, 2 heaping tablespoons oregano, 2 heads of garlic, mashed. Do not use any barbecue sauces. Sugar will cause the pig to burn.
Marinate the pig in a plastic bag for at least 12 hours. It can be stored in the bathtub and you can put ice around the plastic bag to keep it at a proper storage temperature.
Making a “pit” for cooking the pig is relatively simple. Dig a hole 2 feet deep, 3 feet wide and 6 feet long. Mound up the dirt from the hole along the sides into 1-foot berms so that in all the hole is about 3 feet from the top of the sides to the bottom.
Make sure there are no underground pipes or wiring near the hole, particularly gas lines. You also will need at least 3 feet of working room. Consider wind and smoke and try to separate the hole from the gathering and serving area. If you can’t separate the two, at least dig the hole downwind so you won’t smoke your dwelling and your guests.
You will need eight 6-foot reinforcing bars and two 30x60-inch metal grills. The metal grill is flexible and has a diamond pattern.
Place all but two of the reinforcing bars across the hole from side to side, leaving about a foot between the last bar and each end of the hole.
A small, slow-burning fire of a mixture of soft and hard woods is best. Remember, you want to cook this pig as slowly as possible but still get it done. Charcoal or a fire that has burned down to coals is too hot. A slow fire, with about two sticks of wood actually burning, is the ideal.
Use a complementary aromatic wood such as citrus, almond, fruit, hickory or mesquite. Whatever you do, don’t use eucalyptus: This is not a massage, it’s a roast pig. You will probably need about three bundles of wood for a fire that will burn eight to nine hours.
Let the fire burn for about an hour before you put the pig over it. This is the same as preheating an oven; you are heating up the hole so that the heat that radiates into the pig will be more even.
Set up a work table near the roasting site with a piece of heavy plastic on it as a cover. Put down one of the pieces of grill and lay the pig on its back on top. You must now flatten the pig, which is not unlike splitting a chicken to place it whole on a barbecue grill. Start at the hips, pushing down both hind legs. Push down the front legs in the same manner. Then push on the ribs of both sides at once so that the ribs disjoint at the backbone and lie flat.
Place the other grill on top and place a piece of reinforcing bar along each side between the two grills. Tie the assembly together with a straightened wire coat hanger, being careful to include the reinforcing bar in each knot. Tie the four corners and the middle of each side. This makes a nice iron “envelope” in which the pig can be easily handled.
Place the pig in the pit on the rack of reinforcing bars, at least 2 feet above the fire. Cook the back of the pig first. Pour some of the marinade onto the pig so that there is a pool of it in the center. Make sure you have stirred the marinade so that lots of the garlic will be in what you put on the pig.
Cover the whole affair with moistened banana leaves, with each end open about a foot for access to the fire. Make sure there are no combustible materials near the site and have a water hose close by.
The fire needs to be kept burning, but just barely. Remember, slow heat. About 60% through the cooking time, uncover the pig and turn it over, then cover it again. The roasting process is a mixture of patience and patience. The most common mistake is trying to hurry it along.
Have a couple of family members or friends help you. Part of the joy is sitting around the fire and just being with one another, something most Americans rarely do. Play cards, listen to or make music, contemplate the purpose of your life. By surrendering to the process, you will understand the secrets that the pig has to offer. Just let it happen and don’t try to rush it.
Cook the pig about five minutes per pound. The last pig I did was about 85 pounds and it took about seven hours. The aroma will change: There is the aroma of the cooking meat, which is good but not complete. When the pig is almost done, the aroma changes to the complete aroma of meat that is done.
Doneness is most precisely gauged by inserting a roasting thermometer into the front shoulder, the thickest meat on the pig. If the meat is around 160 to 170 degrees, it is almost done. At this point, break up the fire so that it will burn out in about 15 minutes. Let the pig finish cooking for 45 minutes to an hour more with only the residual heat of the pit and the heat of the “blanket” of banana leaves.
Then, remove the banana leaves, move the “envelope” to the table with the back of the pig down. Remove the top grill and begin to remove the meat. If the pig is cooked well, it will have crisp skin and even be blackened in some places. The meat will be moist and will fall off the bones with little resistance.
A little pale pink may be found in the most interior places, but this is normal as long as it is pale and not red. If you discover any red, just do not serve it. You can put it in an oven for further roasting, and next time you will know where to put the thermometer.
We do not present the pig center stage for two reasons. The first is that it is easier to “carve” at the cooking site and then carry pans of meat to the main table. Also, those who are not yet ready to see a whole pig don’t have to look at it, and those who are curious are free to wander back to the place where the cooking and carving occur.
My brother, who has spent more than 20 years in Army Special Forces, takes great pleasure in being center stage while he is carving with his army survival knife. But the joke between us is that the meat is so tender he could use a butter knife.
About 10 minutes after the meal is served, a hush of quiet “oohs” and “aahs” will settle over the house and yard as guests dig into one of the most delicious plates of food they will have all year. The roast pork is tender, not greasy, and has just a hint of smoke flavor.
Only first-timers show up late; everyone else comes on time to get a good starting position. Expect people to gorge themselves on seconds and thirds. The table will quickly look like a cloud of locusts has passed through.
In a city of often overly catered entertaining, the primitive act of roasting a whole pig over an open fire is a tribal gathering.