Bringing a Taste of Noche Buena in St. Croix to My House in Florida
Regular readers of Uncommon Caribbean know that we make a point of updating our little blog with at least one new post every day. In the 10 or so months since we started, I think we’ve missed our goal just twice, both times with good reason. The first miss occurred in early-November, when I was busy in NYC meeting our newest correspondent for the first time. The other time was exactly one week ago when I was working with the guy pictured above, Uncle Luis, to bring a taste of Christmas in St. Croix to my backyard in Florida.
What we’re making, of course, is lechón, a full-sized pig (47 lbs in our case) cooked rotisserie style outdoors over hot coals in a big metal box. Lechón is the essential, must-have dish for the traditional Noche Buena celebration that is the highlight of the Holiday Season in much of the Latin world.
With its close proximity to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, St. Croix has a significant Hispanic population (about 14% of all island residents are of Puerto Rican descent). Natually, many Latin traditions have become ingrained in the local Crucian culture, Noche Buena chief among them.
Well, chief among them at least for me. I LOVE LECHON! Not just eating it, but the whole process that goes into making it. From mixing the seasoning, to dressing the pig, getting him on the pole, arranging the box, managing the coals, getting him off the pole, carving him up and finally eating him, the whole thing takes several days, always involves a few friends, and more than a few beers. The fun and camaraderie enjoyed along the way are a big part of what makes the Season bright for me.
In our circle of Crucians in Exile here in South Florida, Uncle Luis is the ringleader of all our pig roast parties. As he’s quick to tell anyone, the secret to great lechón is in the preparation. The seasoning has to be right and applied in a special way the night before cooking. I have no idea what all he puts in his seasoning, and he’s not telling, but I can tell you it takes a hearty soap to remove the smell from your hands if you’re involved in dressing the pig.
Speaking of dressing the pig, that’s just as important as any other aspect of the preparation phase. After all, what good is great seasoning if you don’t put it in the right places? Rubbing down the whole pig isn’t enough. You have to get inside the meat and under the skin for the flavor to really come through. For Luis that means stabbing the meat in many, many strategic spots and shoving the seasoning deep inside.
Tying the pig is also critical. Lots of people do it lots of different ways, but whether you use wire, metal stakes, or some combination of the two, like we do, the important thing is to make sure the pig is absolutely secure. If any bits are flapping around as he cooks, they’ll eventually fall off, wasting some of the meat. You obviously want to avoid this at all costs.
After the pig is fully seasoned and secured to the pole, we leave him leaning up outside against the house overnight. This allows the seasoning to really seep in. This is also the end of the hardest part.
That’s right, cooking the pig is actually much easier than all the prep work. When you’re ready to cook, you just get him on the rotisserie and make sure you keep a line of coals going along the length of body, though not too close to the pig. My friends re-purposed the motor from an old dryer to make sure the pig keeps spinning at a steady pace. Once the initial coals get started, all that’s left to do is crack open a cold one and periodically keep adding more coals. We started our pig at about 10:15 am last Friday. By 6:30 pm he was being carved and served. That’s eight or so hours of hanging out, enjoying some drinks and playing a few games of dominoes – not a bad day’s work.
The actual Noche Buena party that followed was great too, but for me, there’s just as much to be said for the fun of the journey.
If you’re in South Florida and interested in having Uncle Luis work his lechón magic for your next party, send me a note via our contact page and I’ll be happy to put you in touch.