At Christmas, Puerto-Ricans do Parrandas, Mexicans do Posadas, and Cubans do Lechon. This means that while Puerto-Ricans and Mexicans have very meaningful and festive Noche Buena celebration, Cubans sit around and eat pig. Not that there's anything wrong with that; it's just that we're more... sedintary, if that's even possible.
Regardless, it's a wonderful time. The Caja China is the name given to the the Cuban pig roasting method. The Caja China is sold online, and I'm not going to knock it here. It is really a well-built, well thought out system of roasting the pig. But, as far back as I remember, Noche Buena at the Palacios house was done old-school. The Caja China was not store bought. Each year, the Caja China is created. In fact, as I write this, my brother-in-law and the master pig roaster (his dad), have already set up the cinder-blocks, heated the coals, and smoked the wood chips, thus starting the roasting of the pig. The mojo has been prepared with the skill of a chemist. The Cuban coffee is intermitently brewed. It's hot outside, but every once in a while a breeze blows through.
This is an all day event involving food, wine, cigars, and great conversation over a 7-8 hour period. The conversation revolves around the economy, who's running for president, and of course, Cuba; nostalgia, anger, passion and laughter over the silliness of it all.
When I was 9, the scenario would have been the same. The same Miami breezes were intermitently felt. the smell of the pig roasting was overwhelming and made my stomach grumble, even though I had been munching on Cuban bread, gingerbread cookies, and mariquitas for most of the day.
The whole day was spent thinking about 3 things. First of course, obsessively thinking about what amazing things Santa was going to leave under the tree. Second, the bliss and utter joy of knowing that for 2 weeks, I would not have to go to school and could spend hours playing with the amazing things that would be left under the tree. Third, that unbelievable pig roasting all day over that heat.
And there was family. Everyone was together. This was not the last thing I thought about. I didn't have to think about it. We were there and we were together. And it was wonderful.
But oh, that pig! That Glorious pig!
Many images have been struck in American culture of families sitting around the table on Thanksgiving or Christmas Day. In these images, we see a dad holding a carving knife in hand, ready to carve a white piece of turkey or goose, as the family sits still, looking on patiently for their delicious piece of that succulent meat. Norman Rockwell paintings captured these moments. They are beautiful and represent something that is timeless and noble, and are a reflection of what America represents to me; Love of God, country and family.
But someone really needs to capture that most important moment on Noche Buena, when the pig is hoisted out of the Caja China, skin crackling and popping. The entire family stands around, like ravenous wolves waiting for a turn at the most treasured part of the pig; the skin. Cubans really need an artist rendering of that moment. The pig-masters standing there wearing gloves, smelling of sweat and cigars. The rest of the family and invited guests looking on dressed in their Christmas best. The gloved hands begin cutting and ripping at the crisp, browned skin. Everyone begins to politely pick at the broken skin, which is still sizzling from the roasting. I can't eat bagged pork rinds. Once you've had them off the back of a freshly "Caja China" roasted pig, no bagged Frito-Lay pork rinds will do. The image of a Cuban family standing around a pig at dusk under palm trees in a Miami backyard. Any artists out there reading this, please accept this as my commission to have you paint this image for me. I would love to hang it next a to a Normal Rockwell in my living room.
The accompanying boiled yuca with mojo, arroz and frijoles.... pa' que hablar.
Well, it's only 11:30 am right now, so I better stop writing about this before I eat my laptop.
I was recently asked why I write this stuff down. I do it for the same reason Rockwell painted images of Americana. Someone has to capture these moments for my children. Historic moments, spontaneous ponderances, random ravings. Whatever they are, good or bad, meaningless or timeless, they only come around once in a while. If you don't write them down, they are easily forgotten.
Have a wonderful Christmas Eve. Make it memorable, and never forget it.