This year, The Rock at Boston College is doing the season of joy in a big way by generating new content every day in our first ever “25 Days of Christmas”. The Rock is proud to present this installment in our holiday special.
I know it is Christmas when there is a dead fifty-pound pig in my shower.
Because the average American household does not include a butcher’s freezer in the garage, we make use of the next sensible place: our bathtub coated with ice. This, of course, is a precursor to Porky’s display on the kitchen table, head and all, cracked open lengthwise and ready to be seasoned.
It is not some barbaric pagan ritual. It is a typical Cuban Christmas Eve, or Noche Buena. This directly translates to “Good Night,” or Holy Night, which in my opinion extends beyond the religious reference and hails the joyous feast to come
Every 24th of December, the smell of roasted pork permeates the Miami air. For as long as I can remember, pork, or lechon, has been the main dish served at Christmas Eve dinner, alongside rice and beans and cassava (a root vegetable known to Cubans as yucca).
If this cultural overload seems insane, allow me to paint the scene:
One fine morning, we lure the pig into the house…just kidding—we buy it market fresh and farm-raised. You would think the sight of a deceased farm animal in your kitchen would be unsettling, but you grow accustomed to these things.
My Cuban grandmother injects the pig with a syringe full of seasoning while my father hovers overhead. In our backyard is a rectangular wooden roasting box with a metal grate, large enough to hold a full-sized pig or maybe a small goat, depending on your heritage.
This box is the star of the show and it is called La Caja China (directly translated to mean “The Chinese Box). I can’t make this up.
La Caja China finds its origin in Cuba. The term “china,” or Chinese, is a colloquialism in many Latin American countries for anything exotic or mysterious, and so this miraculous roasting box got its name. The boxes are available on the Internet, and while the tradition is found in other countries, it is most notably a Cuban one—at least in Miami, which is often deemed “Little Cuba” for its overwhelming Cuban population.
Every family has its own tradition surrounding the preparation and cooking of the lechon, and if your family doesn’t do one, you are probably going to someone’s house where they will do one. There is no escaping this. Vegetarianism doesn’t sit well with Cubanism.
After it has been anointed in pounds of precious Cuban seasoning, the pig roasts over coal for five to seven hours, or “eleven beers” if we are using my father’s measurements.
The result is all cuts of succulent pork and fighting over the charred skin called chicharrones, or pork rinds. My grandmother eats the pig’s feet but no one fights her for those. The amount of meat produced ensures that you should make friends quickly or you will be eating pan con lechon (pork sandwiches) for the next seventeen days.
Not that I have a problem with that.