Roasting a pig, for many, is much more than cooking–it is ceremony as sacred as any religious rite divined by man. I mean, sure, I guess the overwhelming majority of religious rites don’t include copious amounts of rum, domino matches and tall tales of the old country, but you know what they say…one man’s swine is another man’s holy ham…or something like that. And though countless pigs get roasted throughout the year, for me it is the one prepared and served for Christmas Eve that I cleave to the most. It is the one that echoes with indelible memories of a childhood spent surrounded by family, each doing their part in the mastery of the meal, even if that role was as simple as making sure the music didn’t stop playing at any given time, even if it was 3am.
For the most part, the pig is the domain of men. The women busy themselves preparing the half dozen other dishes that are served with it, while the guys are charged with buying the pig, cleaning the pig, marinating the pig, and keeping it chilled until the roast begins. And much like Italians will argue about the “right” way to assemble a lasagna or what does/doesn’t belong in a pot of red sauce, part of the song and rhythms of roasting the Christmas Eve pig always includes animated “discussions” about just how much charcoal is needed at any given moment, where that charcoal should be placed, and whose turn it is to refill the empty glasses that thirst for rum.
And if you’re a smart little gonzo girl, you divide your time equally between the men outside and the women inside, so you become master of both domains, because neither of them are easily tackled, and both require equal parts intuition and experience. It is no small task to serve a pig that is succulent and moist, with a skin that crackles and crunches. Nor is it a cakewalk to monitor beans, yucca, plantains, rice and mojo, all with completely different cook times and temperatures, so that they are all done at the same time…and more importantly, at the right time. And while the women would of course welcome that little girl in the kitchen, convincing the men outside to let her watch, listen, smell and help was often a matter of batting her eyelashes just so, and plopping herself on her dad’s lap so that exiling her would be hopelessly impossible.
The reverberation of old men laughing as they regale themselves with a dirty joke or two, the clank of dominoes on the table as one of them fans his feathers in a show of masculinity with the move that essentially kicks every other player’s ass, and the rhythmic patterns of salsa music subconsciously making you sway while you rake the coals…it all eventually seeps its way into your bloodstream as the years pass. I consider myself fortunate to have been humored as the female outsider–the one who listened to it all, not just the cooking instructions. Now, as a woman of 42, having that internalized sense of zen whether I’m in the kitchen tending to the beans or in the backyard tending to the pig (both tasks with rum in hand, of course) is not lost on me.
It is the taste of love, the scent of community, and the sound of a family that makes a pig roast a ceremony and not a mere meal. It’s the act of feeding others, as I often come back to, that instills a sense of pleasure and satisfaction in your soul that can’t be rivaled by many other things you’ll do in your lifetime. It is that intangible sensation that we call home, and that hopefully, if we are wise enough, we teach the next generation to yearn for in the same way.