The Sanchez family, native Miamians, moved in across the street from me a few years ago and quickly became known as the nicest people in the neighborhood. Carlos and Ines and their three boys (Gabriel, Nicholas and Michael), along with Ines’s mother Gladys, are incredibly pleasant, upbeat people. Carlos and I both enjoy cooking and have been known to pop across the street and share what we’ve whipped up in our kitchens.
Around Thanksgiving, Carlos mentioned his family was going to roast a whole pig either Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve. I immediately perked up. Like Homer Simpson, I believe pork comes from a magical animal, and I had never experienced a Cuban pig roast. I’m not exaggerating when I say I salivated just a bit when I heard the news.
The Sanchez household has the best of both worlds. Carlos’s family is from Costa Rica, and Ines’s is from Cuba. It is the Cuban culture that typically celebrates with a whole roasted pig, usually on Christmas Eve (Nochebuena), but it’s not unusual to perform the tradition on New Year’s Eve. This is when the Sanchez’s chose to host their feast.
I met Carlos and his father at the local grocery store on December 30th to pick up the main course. I got there a little early and spoke with the butcher, Wesley. He told me they had sold several whole pigs for New Year’s Eve, and even more for Christmas Eve. How on earth have I lived in Marietta for seven years and not participated in this tradition?
I was relieved to find the pigs were not in giant plastic bags, as I’d feared, but rather in cardboard boxes, already cleaned by Wesley. Carlos and his dad picked up their pig and a few other ingredients and headed home to watch the Dolphins game on DVR. Carlos told me he was going to complete the butchering after the game and invited me to stop by and check it out. I politely declined. I’m not a vegetarian by any means, but butchering makes me queasy.
I dropped in on the Sanchezs’ around noon the following day, New Year’s Eve. Family is the main ingredient at these get-togethers, and their house was bursting with it (Carlos; his father; Carlos’s brother, Fab, and his wife, Vanessa; their two girls Elysse and Joanna and their son Jacob; Ines; the three Sanchez boys; plus Gladys). Preparations were well under way. The pig had been marinated in mojo overnight (a traditional Cuban marinade made with onions, garlic, and sour orange) and was already strapped in its metal cage, a la Hannibal Lecter. Carlos and Fab were preparing the fire.
I meandered into the kitchen to talk to the ladies. I discovered this is part of the tradition – the men stay outside and tend to the pig, drink beer and play dominos. The women visit inside, prepare the sides and catch up on family news. I sat down at the counter and listened to Ines and Gladys share their family stories about coming to this country after Castro gained power in Cuba. Tales of sailing on boats in the middle of the night, a black listed family member and a friend quietly clearing their paperwork when they had nearly given up hope of leaving the country.
Ines’s father came to America through an American Catholic charity known as Operation Peter Pan. Cuban children were flown to the United States and set up with family or friends to start a new life. He was just 14 when he came here, alone, and had no family or friends to live with right away. He stayed in a camp until a family friend was found that could become his legal guardian.
When Carlos came in for a quick break, he shared that his father sold everything he owned and came to this country with his wife, three sons and just $5,000. He was a bookkeeper for the Costa Rican government, but his first job here was cleaning a grocery store. He eventually made his way back into book keeping and earned his spot in the American middle class.
I deeply admired these men and women and their desire to make a better life for themselves and their children. They related their stories matter-of-factly, but I can’t imagine how hard it was to make the decisions they made, to give up everything, start from nothing and just trust that it would all work out. I’ve never felt luckier to be born in America.
But back to the food. A bit of a commotion was brewing. It was time to flip the pig! It had been about three and half hours since we started, and the savory smell of seasoned pork had seeped into every nook and cranny of the neighborhood. We gathered around the Caja China (Chinese box) to watch Carlos and Fab remove the coals and reveal the crispy-skinned, salty pork goodness that the ordinary pig had become.
A careful flip of Mr. Pig, a splash of salt water and we were in the home stretch. Only 30 more minutes or so to crisp the other side and dinner would be ready. Carlos was foolish enough to give me a taste of the meat, which melted in my mouth and made it nearly impossible to focus on taking notes and snapping pictures. The best thing for me to do was leave the vicinity of the pig and head back to the house.
The stove and counter next to it were teeming with kitchen equipment – a pressure cooker, rice cooker and crock pot containing black beans, rice and yucca. Vanessa was busy making a salad while Ines prepared the desserts. We were getting to that moment that occurs at every dinner party – when all the dishes come out at once. Things were about to get really fast. I knew to fade into the background.
Some neighbors arrived to join in the festivities. Carlos, Ines and Vanessa finished loading up the buffet as the rest of us paced around like lions waiting for feeding time at the zoo. Carlos gave the go ahead, and we filled up our plates with delicious Cuban food.
Here’s where the pictures stop. Usually my husband Michael takes the pics while I interview the cook. Somehow I ended up playing both roles on New Year’s Eve, and once I had my first forkful of roasted pork and yucca, I knew I was sunk. There was no way I was going to interrupt this delicious meal. So, my apologies, dear readers, there are no pictures of the black beans, rice or yucca. No shot of me towering over the Sanchez refrigerator. You’ll just have to take my word for it. And believe me, every bite of that meal was fantastic! Thank you so much Carlos and Ines!
The following recipe is from Carlos Sanchez. He’s never written it down, so this is his best recollection.
1 whole pig, 40-50 pounds
Mojo (Cuban marinade)
Break the pig’s spine, making sure not to pierce the skin. (I almost threw up when I read that!) Keeping the skin in tact keeps the juices from escaping and makes the meat very moist. Poke plenty of holes through the underside of the pig (making sure not to poke through the skin on the other side) and insert garlic cloves. Spread salt on the skin and marinate the pig in mojo overnight.
The next day, affix the pig to the roasting rack and place it skin side down in the roaster/Caja China. Insert the thermometer from the roasting box into the pig leg and attach the thermometer reader outside the box. Cover the roaster with the ash pan and 20 pounds of charcoal. Start a fire, adding 10 pounds of charcoal every hour without opening the box.
Once the temperature reaches 185 degrees, remove the roasting box lid, flip the pig over and rub some salt water on the skin side. Cut slits in the skin to make the skin crisp better. Cover the roaster again and add nine more pounds of charcoal on top. Roast an additional 30 minutes. Lift a corner of the roaster to make sure the skin is to your liking. (Carlos continues to roast and checks the pig every 10 minutes or so. He likes the skin crisp.) Carve the pig and serve with black beans, rice and yucca. Delicious!