A re-post from Christmas Past
Well it was Nochebuena, Christmas Eve in South Florida and Nochebuena in South Florida means pig roasting. This Brooklyn bred, Staten Island New Jersey Italian guy was going to partake in a 500 year old Hispanic tradition.
Roasting a pig.
Makes no difference that none of us was Hispanic. Martin, our Christmas host, a black South Florida lawyer and an in-law had previously roasted a pig and was excited to follow the maxim – when in Rome do as the Romans do!
Martin had purchased a caja china – a roasting box especially for our Christmas pig – plus bags and bags of charcoal. All we needed was a pig.
Early on Christmas Eve morning we headed south from Lauderdale by the Sea into Miami-Dade with directions from a Cuban friend to Matadora Cabrera, the slaughter house on Mary’s Ranch in Hialeah. We only got lost once. Getting back on the right path we began passing roadside stalls selling various and sundry forms of wood and coal, salt and marinade – for those seeking a particular flavor. We made a right and followed the line of cars into Matadora Cabrera.
It was a sight.
Hundreds of buyers picking out their pig, which is apparently as important to the community as turkey is on Thanksgiving. Men came with their sons and grandsons undoubtedly recalling tradition and the time with their own fathers.
Now piggies here ranged from 30 to 300 pounds – at $1.85 a pound. A big pig can set you back $500 bucks for the Nochebuena feast. We settled on 80 pounds.
We had only one problem. None of us spoke decent Spanish. I’m ok with the basics but it was obvious to all that we were three amateurs in their midst.
Not to worry. The regulars were more than generous with assistance whenever we needed it and seemed genuinely pleased that we were there with them to celebrate the holiday.
The first line leads into the pig pens where you let the staff know how big a pig you want. Alternatively, you can point to a particular pig. We were able to communicate our desire for about 80 pounds. We were given a ticket (number E-18) and proceeded to the line to pay for the pig, which had been weighed and came in at just over 80 pounds.
Now lots of city folk would be a bit squeamish about picking out a live pig for dinner. I thought about it for a while considering that every pig in that sty was going to be slaughtered that day whether I was there or not. Is there a difference if I buy a ham or a pork roast at the Publix Supermarket? Doesn’t seem to be. I am not a vegan but I am is a city boy. I’m sure anyone raised near agriculture would not find pig picking out of the ordinary including my own grandfather. The slaughter house is licensed, registered and monitored by the Department of Agriculture. It seemed that half of the Cuban population of Miami was on Mary’s Ranch this Christmas Eve.
Next wait in line was to pay for your pig. Se acepta Visa y Mastercard! I could understand that. Men and boys waited patiently in line, wishing each other Feliz Navidad and exchanging recipes for marinades, tips on roasting etc. While we are waiting the animal is being slaughtered and prepared.
Paid receipt in hand, we went to the slaughter house exit to wait for our pig. Strong young dudes carried out the butchered pig in a plastic bag over their shoulders and took it to your car or truck. Everyone, including us, had a giant cooler to store the animal on ice for the trip home.
We waited to hear our number, E-18, in Spanish. Sensing our difficulty, the crowd adopted us to ensure we didn’t miss our pig. After about forty minutes came the call – E diez y ocho!
“That’s you!” went half the crowd, smiling and pointing in our direction.
Our piggie was carried to our cooler in the trunk of the car, covered in ice and driven home to the all too different world of Lauderdale by the Sea. She got marinated and salted over night (we had our roast on Christmas day rather than on Noche Buena). In our Italian tradition we had a multitude of fish on Christmas Eve.
Next day we roasted our pig to a crispy golden color in the roasting box covered by a bed of charcoal on the metal lid. I sat out front in a lawn chair on a glorious Florida Winter’s day with an inch of Dewar’s and an ice cube. For good measure we also deep fried a turkey while the ladies prepared scrumptious side dishes. The aromas wafted all across the seaside neighborhood as locals and tourists strolled by from the beach wondering and asking what we were cooking.
When it was all done we gathered together as a family, said a prayer of thanksgiving and celebrated a Christmas in South Florida.