February 3, 2015
We get the pig from a farm.
I watch Luis kill it. He slams it over the head three times with a crow bar, and the pig slumps into the mud. Luis sticks the pig in the neck. Blood spurts out. The pig is dead by the time it hits the little truck that we ride out to the hog pens.It’s an awful, hard death, but a fast one. I feel a greater urgency that this pig comes out perfectly. It’s our third pig roast, this one for 100 people from the casts of Absinthe/Vegas and Absinthe/Australia. Each of our pig roasts is a testing ground for the next, where we try to make the skin crispier, the meat softer, the cooking time just right — not too long to dry out the meat, not too short to get limp skin.
Perhaps it is all the bludgeoning and whacking with a crow bar, and the bleeding out right before my eyes, but I want this pig to be the one to come out perfectly.
I decide to cook hard. Out of respect and obligation.
I touch the pig on the truck. It is warm and still. I watch Luis pull it by its teeth with a crow bar into a trough with boiling water, where all its hair is scalded off. And then it’s hung, split, entrails pulled out and heaped onto the floor. Luis has done this a lot. He is all sweaty hard arms and rote memory and efficiency. He barely even needs to look at the pig to do this work. I see purple liver, something that might be a spleen, long eel-like ropes of intestine, the colors of which were veiny blue-purple, like one end of a kid’s rainbow.
There is a lot of blood and a lot of washing the blood away with a hose. In fact, Luis is obsessive about washing away the blood – health code, I’m sure – but also as if he doesn’t want me to see what this killing really entails. He tries to keep it pretty for me, because I am, he thinks, a farm tourist or a delicate female.
Whenever we get a pig to roast, I always feel like I am a serial killer, and David and I are secretly trying to get rid of the evidence. We heave the pig, this one a 60-pounder, over one of our shoulders, usually David’s, and shove it inelegantly into the fridge. We slam the door, hoping it won’t pop the door open and fall out, revealing our crime. When I am ready, we take the pig out, lay it on a table in the backyard, and mojo the shit out of it. I stick it with needles, inject it with a concoction of pineapple juice, lemongrass, coriander, thai chilies, star anise, garlic, scallions. I rub it down hard with brown sugar and copious amounts of salt.
I have my hands all over this pig. And even though I wash my hands thoroughly, often, when I pick the kids up from school I still smell the porkiness on my fingers, because I have been all over that pig’s body, in and out of the crevasses and ribs, in its head, all my fingers feeling the sinews and the rubbery bands of fat, and the blood that still trickles out, reminding me I killed this thing. Really, I made that decision. I am in this pig’s body. In it. I am the violator. I am both serial killer of pigs and a rapist. It is both soothing and lovely and violent and raw.
After I am done, we shove the carcass back in the fridge, again the criminals hiding the body.
The next morning, we open the fridge and the smell is like some exotic open market, just dreamy and pungent all at the same time. I want to bury my face in the pig. Another fucked-up violation of its body. Then, it’s in the roasting box, split wide open and vulnerable, fully splayed out, dotted with slices of red chilies and the burnt browns of a few cinnamon sticks in its belly.
The coals go on, fat leaks out the bottom of the box in thick drips, the yard is hot with the pig smell. The neighbor dogs all congregate and sniff around. There is smoke, heat, there is excitement. Everyone loves a pig when it is a carcass. Everyone asks about the pig – how we got it, what its death was like, how I seasoned it, how long it cooks — and then the pig brings up some kind of memory or experience, where someone talks about another time they ate from a whole pig and they smile. They always smile.
It’s 6:30 now. People are eating appetizers. I, and some kitchen helpers, put out fried shoshito peppers, heavily salted and oily, turmeric grilled chicken, chicken satay with a spicy peanut sauce, fried wontons with a mushroom and pea shoot filling, spicy-ass Thai-style chicken wings, agadashi dofu, on-fire corn fritters, and grilled beef salad cradled in romaine leaves. Simple food, lots of it, that is the strategy. Just platters and platters of food going out to satiate the performers and acrobats and crew arriving in crowds.
The pig has been cooking for eleven hours.
The side dishes are re-heating in the oven. I’m scratching off dishes made and served from the master lists taped to my cupboards. This is real MasterChef reality TV shit. The pig goes out on the table. It’s the first time we’ve cooked a near-perfect pig. We are getting good at this. The skin is blackened and crisp as all hell. Maybe too black, but it doesn’t really seem to matter because I pop a piece in my mouth and it tastes like crunchy, salty, fatty, balls-on, wild animal. The meat is soft and wet. David and I start chopping up pig with big knives in front of a crowd of onlookers, like we are putting on some strange theatre of butchery, but I realize after you get through the skin, you don’t need anything that blunt anymore. I start pulling apart the meat with my fingers, and using the knife as a kind of spoon.
The muscle has completely given itself over to the heat. The pig just breaks down into heaps. Total submission. That it did what I wanted it to do is breath-taking. I never get tired of the surprises of cooking.
I look up and there is a long line waiting to be served, plates out. Someone wants the soft fatty cheek. Someone else wants the crispy ear. This makes me happy, all this longing. I set out the sides, Andy Ricker’s Stir-Fried Brussel Sprouts with Garlic and Chile, and Stir-Fried Noodles with Shrimp, Tofu and Cashews from”Pok Pok.” There are also two kinds of fried rice, Chinese sausage and no Chinese sausage, a huge wooden board piled high with spicy chopped salad, and a platter of brisket that I soaked in Bird’s Eye chilies, coriander, cumin, garlic, onions, coconut milk, salt, and lime and cooked super-low for 12 hours.
People eat. People eat more. I hear that I remind someone of a Ukrainian mom in the kitchen, and I know this is meant as a serious compliment from young people far away from home. I make myself a “secret tequila,” from a bottle I have hidden in the kitchen, just for the cook and kitchen helpers. The tequila is good and hard-earned. When I go back to the yard, the carcass is a butchered mess, all bones, sucked down clean, scraps of fat that the dogs (yes, people bring dogs to our parties) begged for under the table.
Lucy, my ten-year-old daughter, is the first to remind me of dessert and we set out buckets of ice cream and cones, and people make their own. I am done. The pig is done. All I see in front of me is a little house crammed with people laughing and talking, a fire dancing in our fireplace, the doors swung open so the outside of the house and the inside are indiscernible, my floors slicked with mud and dirt from when it started raining, nice people coming to me and introducing themselves, kids weaving in and out of the legs of friends and strangers alike, laughing and chasing each other, and conversations with the acrobats and performers from the shows, and them telling me how excited they are to get their first or second big break, and how they just appreciate being here, how young and excited they are, how not jaded and cynical.
Young people are lovely. I remind myself to hang around with more people under 25 years old.
For all my obsessing about the food and the pig these last few days, what I realize most, standing there, is that the food is the most important thing, and the least. You can have a great party without great food – I mean, really you can have a great party feeding people nothing but Doritos and Coors Light - but really, good simple food, served to people you care about, says we give a shit about you enough that we want you in our house and we will go to this kind of trouble for you. It’s the meta-message that means everything.
And this makes killing a living thing have some kind of value that maybe it didn’t before.
Or this is what I tell myself when I feel the ghosts of our guests lingering, long after they’ve left. Them on us, us on them. I pour myself another glass of “secret tequila” now, although it isn’t much of a secret. And I’m already thinking about the next party, the next people we get to see, the next pig to kill.