Friday, December 11, 2009

Pig Heaven

“An elderly rabbi retired from his duties in the congregation and he decided to fulfill his lifelong fantasy to taste pork. He went to a hotel in the Catskills in the off-season (not his usual hotel, mind you), entered the empty dining hall, and chose a table far in the corner. The waiter arrived, and the rabbi ordered roast suckling pig. As the rabbi waited, struggling with his conscience, a family from his congregation walked in! They immediately saw the rabbi, of course, and since no one should eat alone, they joined him. The rabbi began to sweat. Finally, the waiter arrives with a huge domed platter. He lifted the lid to reveal—what else?—a whole roast suckling pig, complete with an apple in the mouth. “This place is amazing!” cried the rabbi. “You order a baked apple, and look what you get!”--Alan King

No one should have to feel guilt or shame in wanting to eat pork.

I am an avowed swinophile, a porcavore, a pig lover. I’ll even say it, “I love pig!” Nothing makes me happier than indulging in a meal of deep fried pork belly or roasted pork butt or having a glass of Sancerre and a bag of chicharron (pork skins) by my side. Whenever people ask what Filipino food is like I don’t waste any time. I always give the short and sweet answer: pig. In all its forms, no parts wasted. I grew up eating my mother’s wonderful dish of pig’s ears and tofu cooked in vinegar, garlic, soy sauce and black pepper. Whenever my dog and I go into a pet store and see pig’s ears, she and I go into a frenzy over who will get the ears first.

Filipino cuisine is essentially anything that is soaked, fried, braised, or boiled in pork fat. If there’s actual pork, so much the better. The pig is an important part of Philippine culture and every major life cycle event. Weddings, baptisms, Sweet 16s, anniversaries, and graduations are celebrated by roasting a whole pig on a bamboo spit. The 40th day of someone’s passing is commemorated with a lechon served to family and friends.

When my uncle died in the Philippines several years ago and I couldn’t go back for the funeral, I decided to send money as custom dictated to his family. This was a dilemma. Having lived away for so long, I was unsure about the appropriate amount to send. If I sent too little, I would risk insulting my grieving relatives. If I sent too much, I would be accused of capitalist arrogance for waving my greenbacks at them. In a conversation with one of my cousins, I hit upon a solution and asked, “How many lechons would this amount buy?” In my mind, I was calculating for two weeks worth of groceries.

My cousin replied, “Enough to feed them pig every day for a month and more!”

It’s a shame that a pig has to be consumed to be fully appreciated for all its worth. I see no reason why it shouldn’t occupy a seat at the table just like the rest of us. Of course nobody likes to sit next to a pig. A pig on a spit is so much better than having it by your elbow or in a book or in a movie.

I remember never being able to finish reading Charlotte’s Web to my children because my mind was too distracted by the possibilities of what Wilbur could become. The movie Babe was absolute torture because all I could think of was all that pork going to waste. At one point, it was suggested to me that I leave the theatre because not only was my stomach growling too loudly, I was also moaning and groaning too much. Before our family got a pet dog, I seriously contemplated acquiring a Vietnamese pot belly pig instead, an idea that was immediately shot down because of suspicions that my intentions were totally unkosher.

So when I turned 51, I only wanted one thing. I wanted lechon, a whole pig not just in parts but the big, fat sucker with the crispy, caramel-colored skin. So crisp that as you sank your teeth into it there was this crackling, staccato sound, the true sign of a properly roasted animal. Other women might ask for a 5 carat diamond, a trip to Lucca with a select group of girlfriends, or a Porsche Carrerra. Not me. I just wanted a pig.

It’s true you cannot put a pig on your finger and flash that finger around while playing mahjong or feign a headache in front of your admiring girlfriends, that same finger strategically placed across your face so that they can see your rock. Pigs do not sparkle in the light I’m afraid. Nor can you drive a pig on the LIE with the top down on a nice summer day, going from zero to sixty in six seconds, leaving the rest of those unfortunate minions behind in their practical maroon minivans. Pigs don’t come with turbo.

But who wants to drive a pig when you can simply eat it?

There was only one teeny problem with Project Birthday Pig: my husband is a nice Jewish boy from Queens who also happens to be a vegetarian.

He has been a vegetarian from the time he was 16, ever since his mother botched an attempt to cook lobster. He simply will not eat what he cannot kill although over time he has made exceptions for fish. Between you and me however, I have yet to see him snap a fish head in two. I on the other hand have no problem grabbing a live lobster with my bare hands, driving a French knife through its belly and throwing it on the grill.

For someone who didn’t come from an observant home or was raised kosher, he will bring-up Leviticus whenever the subject of pig comes up. You know, the part where it says, “And the pig, though it has a split hoof completely divided, does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. You must not eat their meat or touch their carcass.”
Like, Leviticus would stop me. Can you imagine my pain and disappointment when I was told that there could be no lechons for the bar and bat mitzvahs of my children? It was non-negotiable as far as Dan was concerned.

Most of the time, the challenges he and I face in our marriage have less to do with our religious and cultural differences than the food we like to eat.

Don’t get me wrong. My husband loves me. Deeply, loyally, patiently. We have been together 23 years and he has never wavered in that love. He may not share in my pig obsession (and frankly, not many people do) but to his credit he has never held it against me nor has he ever asked me to become a vegetarian. I did go on a meatless diet early in our marriage in the spirit of matrimonial unity and harmony but that didn’t last. Deep-fried tofu just isn’t the same as pork shoulder fried in a gallon of Canola oil.

Every Christmas Eve, he will prepare a ham dinner for my sake just like the family dinners I used to enjoy as a child before my parents separated; before I left Manila where I could rely on an invitation from a relative or friend to have ham on Christmas eve; before my mother who lives on Roosevelt Island stopped cooking Christmas dinners because it became too difficult and unwieldy for her at her age.

It takes courage for a nice, vegetarian Jewish boy from Queens to cook his Filipino-Catholic wife a ham. That’s why I call him the good egg. The first time he cooked ham for me, he went to Eagle Provisions, the 5th avenue Polish food store, on the suggestion of a girlfriend who like me, is also a pig fan. He bought the ham, asked them to wrap it in many layers of thick brown paper and triple-bag it for the ride home. When it was time to stick it in the oven, he wore gloves that went up to his elbows and balanced the ham on tongs that extended out from his hands a little further. He looked like Edward Scissorhands without the hair. He checked on the ham by asking the kids to see if it was ready. I was not allowed into the kitchen, not even to take a peek, despite my expertise. It was the best tasting ham ever.

So given that he was a good sport about the ham all these years and that my birthday was coming up, how hard would it be to trade up to full swine? The more I thought about the pig, the bigger and fatter it loomed before me. But how was I going to convince Dan to give me one considering that apart from being a vegetarian, he and the pig share a past?

In 1988, we were on holiday in Boracay, a tiny island in the Philippines. Throughout the day, a pig was roasting on the beach to be served that night to the resort guests. As we lay on the sand alternately repulsed (that would be him) and tantalized by the smell of cooking flesh (that would be me), there was a another group of live animals reaching a high of their own. Unknown to us, there were bats living among the coconut trees next to the resort where we were staying. By the time the sun set and the pig was served, splayed on a banana leaf-covered buffet table, the bats were sufficiently wound up and went full throttle. They descended upon the resort, swooping down like kamikaze pilots at maddening speed, moving in for the kill.

We were in our little bamboo cottage, getting ready for dinner when we found ourselves no longer alone. The bats had suddenly swarmed into our bedroom, flying in a frenzy looking for that pig. Unable to see where they were going, they kept knocking into us instead. We shrieked and screamed like Rod Taylor and Tippy Heddren in Hitchcock’s The Birds, waving pillows and blankets to get them out of the room but we were outmatched and outnumbered.

Project Birthday Pig was not going to be easy. My husband is a good sport but asking for a whole pig, birthday or not, would be considered testing the limits. Even good eggs crack under pressure.

It’s not easy being a porcavore married to a vegetarian. When I told my mother that I was dating a vegetarian, she heard veterinarian. Years ago, frustrated with having to always cook two different meals for the both of us (and three when the children arrived) or calling restaurants in advance to find out the catch for the day and then having him ask me after the fact if the fish had scales, I totally lost it and yelled that if he truly loved me he would bite into a spare rib just once. He looked at me in the way only a husband can look at his wife when she has gone off the deep end and he no longer recognizes her. Of course, he never bit into the spare rib. I guess if I wanted proof of his love for me, I would have to find it elsewhere.

“I want a pig for my birthday,” I announced while he and I were running errands.

“Cooked or alive?” he asked. I looked at him in the way that only a wife can when she is contemplating making her children father-less. He was silent.

“You don’t have to answer right away,” I continued. “Please think it over. If you decide that it’s too disgusting I will understand.” I lied of course and began planning for the pig just the same.

He said he would give it some thought which was a good sign. I had to see it as a good sign.

In the meantime, I did my homework and found a Filipino restaurant in Queens that does lechon all the time. They told me I needed at least four days to place the order. I was also told that the pig would have to be cooked in advance which was probably best for all of Park Slope and most of all, my husband.

Can you just see him looking out into our backyard and seeing this whole pig being cooked among our hydrangea and rose of sharon bushes? Or our dog growling and barking because she wanted something out there she knew she could never have? Or the squirrels. Let’s not forget the squirrels.

When the restaurant told me that they didn’t deliver, I had to figure out a way for him to transport the pig. I didn’t want him to be stuck with a pig in his arms, its fat oozing and seeping through the box and trickling down his jacket. The image of him cradling a thirty pounder, while wickedly funny, was too much to bear even for someone like me. Good thing my friend Segundo was willing to be my husband’s wingman if and when the time came to get the pig. Like me, Segundo is a committed carnivore married to a committed vegetarian. He is also from Argentina so not only was he sympathetic to my cause but more importantly, he loves pigs. In Segundo’s arms, the pig would be safe.

Every thing was in place but so far no word. The window for ordering the pig was getting smaller. I began to think about serving pigs in a blanket just in case the pig was a no-show. I know it wasn’t the same but I needed a back-up plan. Maybe I could find tofu pigs at the Food Coop or carve tofu cakes into piglets and deep-fry them. I began to feel guilty about asking for a pig. Perhaps it was time to read Leviticus after all.

Was I selfish in insisting on a pig? Should I have asked for the Porsche instead even though the chances of my getting one was next to nothing? Should I have just stopped my age at 49? Gone to Canyon Ranch instead for a major beauty tune-up? What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I be content with turkey just like everyone else in America? Why should I aspire for an ocean-front cabana in Costa Rica when a Florida condo will do just as nicely? Perhaps, if I stared at the turkey long and hard enough it will begin to look, smell, and taste like pig. I began to pray to St. Anthony, the patron saint for lost causes. I was desperate for a pig miracle.

The day of the deadline arrived. Some time at mid-day he announced simply, “Okay, let’s get your pig.” There was no quote from Leviticus, no tongs, no opera-length gloves, no nothing. He only asked that once the pig was in the house, that we tuck it in a corner, far from where he may have to see it, face to face.

“I’d rather not have to be in the same room as the pig the entire evening,” he asked. It’s one thing to see a pork chop on a plate, quite another to have the beast in full view, in the middle of the dining table. Very gently he also reminded me that not everyone will be as tickled or as excited as me to see a whole pig.
Oh the joy, the joy. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I was like a pig in the mud, snorting and squealing with glee.

For the record, the pig was heavenly just as I always knew it would be. It was gorgeous, its skin the rich color of bronze, its texture all shiny and smooth, like a beauty queen on the night of her coronation. There was a serene quality to the pig’s face, its eyes closed as if in dying it knew that it was answering to a higher calling. The meat was so tender and buttery it slid down your throat without effort, no chewing was required. By the end of the evening, there was nothing left of the pig. Even the ears were gone.

By the way, the pig didn’t come with an apple which was okay. I’ll make sure it’s there the next time, when I plan our wedding anniversary.


Eileen said...

fabulous writing! i was with you all the way and i was raised in a conservative jewish mom served us canadian bacon because it didn't 'look like bacon'. all things better through pork products.

Sophia Romero said...

Thank you so much! My mother's idea of vegetarian food was making a stir-fry of mixed vegetables with shrimp, pork and chicken, and then telling people to "pick through the stuff and you'll be fine."

Arnold said...

Napakaswerte mo sa napangasawa mo. Sana masuklian mo. Magpaconvert ka sa orthodox at hilain mo rin ang asawa mo. Ang kaluluwa ng buong pamilya mo nasa kamay mo.

Cody said...

Super writing Sophia!! Over in the Phil., i have buddies from different faith. A little adjustment as a sign of respect for their faith when ever they come over to the house but fortunately they understand and accept that i drink wine or beer or what ever i can reach in the bar.....By the way, have you ever written about DURIAN? That would be pushing the envelope!!!!!!!

Linda Hall said...

I just found your blog. Pig Heaven is heavenly. Have you sent this anywhere? I think it's very radical - especially because you live in Park Slope, and Park Slope is filled with what my husband called the Tofu Taliban. Hilarious!

Thanks for sharing. I have a story related to this. A friend of mine asked a new maid to bring the suckling pig on a tray and "make sure there's an apple in the mouth!" Well, she did bring the pig on a tray but the apple was in her mouth!

Linda Hall said...

I just found your blog. Pig Heaven is heavenly. Have you sent this anywhere? I think it's very radical - especially because you live in Park Slope, and Park Slope is filled with what my husband called the Tofu Taliban. Hilarious!

Thanks for sharing. I have a story related to this. A friend of mine asked a new maid to bring the suckling pig on a tray and "make sure there's an apple in the mouth!" Well, she did bring the pig on a tray but the apple was in her mouth!