Nochebuena In Miami
6:35 am
Mon December 24, 2012

Christmas Eve In Miami: Never Look A Pig In The Eye Before Roasting It

Today is Nochebuena, Christmas Eve, and for many Hispanics, that means roasting a whole pig. This Christmas tradition scared journalist and author Carlos Frias as a boy. But he got through it with one piece of advice: “Never look a pig in the eye.”

Frias told a version of this story at a Lip Service event:

Every December 23, Papi would get that murderous gleam in his eye and say, "Let's go pick out el lechón!"

For my father, who had been a farmer in Cuba, this is his favorite part of Nochebuena. It's what connects him to memories of Christmas Eve back home.

At the slaughterhouse in Miami, a couple dozen pigs roamed in a pen. My father would ask me to pick one out.

When I'd shrink, he'd say, "Don't be un verraco."

Basically he was calling me a squealing little pig.

So I'd look over the snorting mass and point to one unlucky bastard. My father would bellow: "¡No! Mas grande!"

The rest of the scene at the slaughterhouse would play out like a Chuck Jones cartoon: Tree goes into factory. Puff of black smoke. Out comes a box of toothpicks.

But in this case, out comes a cleaned and butchered pig in a clear plastic bag.

We threw it in the trunk and drove home. What better way to welcome the sweet baby Jesus.

"Never look the pig in the eye."

That’s what I used to tell myself as a little boy. But how could I not? The pig stared back at me from its shiny metal tray, lying on its back with that upside-down smile, looking like a refrigerated extra out of CSI: Miami.

To this kid of a Cuban exile, Nochebuena was equal parts fun and freak out. Our version of the holidays is more macabre than most. I mean, Americans have turkeys. But turkeys don't have teeth.

Then something changed.

One year, when I was maybe eight or nine, my dad included me in our annual ritual. He set me up with a juicer and I squeezed sour oranges until my fingers wrinkled. Together, dad and I cracked, peeled and mashed head after head of garlic. We and mixed it all together into an aromatic mojo marinade.

Then, we stood on either side on the metal tray and massaged the mojo into this flank, and that shoulder, and along the loin. Every so often, we'd push a clove of garlic just under the skin for added flavor. Then, we packed the pig with ice and set it to marinate.

Before I went to bed that night, I visited the deceased.

Chef Todd Webster drives this little piggy home from Mary's Ranch in Hialeah. The pig was later roasted in a caja china at the Front Porch Cafe in December.
Chef Todd Webster drives this little piggy home from Mary's Ranch in Hialeah. The pig was later roasted in a caja china at the Front Porch Cafe in December.
Credit Todd Webster / The Front Porch Cafe

I looked into its eyes.

Garlic and citrus swirled in the air between us.

I knew the house would be overrun with family the next day, and relatives would circle La Caja China, the giant broiler on wheels where we cooked the pig.

And I knew, right then, I would be the one scolding them, “Don't open the box!”

I would be the one sitting shiva — checking the charcoal, consulting with my dad about adding more, helping him flip the pig over when it was almost done.

And I would be the one flicking at the crackled fatback, waiting to hear that hollow thunk, and eventually snapping off a crispy ear to my dad's approval.

For the first time, I truly appreciated the work that went into preparing the meal that brought our family together.

This ritual? It is ours.

The pig wasn’t a gruesome boogeyman anymore. It connected my father to the island country he had to flee. And it connected me, to him.

It became our symbol of communion.

Palm Beach Post writer Carlos Frías is author of the book “Take Me With You: A Secret Search for Family in a Forbidden Cuba.” He read a version of this story for Lip Service Miami.