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Going Whole Hog

Smoking Cigars and Pigs in a Miami Hurricane
Alejandro Benes
Posted: August 31, 2005

(continued from page 1)

Willy and Jorge take care when flipping the pig.
Marcos cuts the wires that have held the two parts of the cage together, sandwiching the pig in between. Willy and Jorge put a large tray on top of the upside-down pig. Each puts one hand atop the tray and grabs the cage with the other and quickly, smoothly, perfectly flip the pig onto the tray. Nothing falls off. Nothing slips. The pig's back looks as if it benefited from millions of sit-ups because the indentations left by the cage resemble an abdominal six-pack. Tapping the skin shows it's as tight as a snare drum. This lechón will be crunchy.

The last step is to cover the pig with foil and get it in Marcos's near-monster truck. The trip from Little Havana to the Biltmore is not long, but it will take more time than usual because of the hurricane damage. We make it in time for the judging. The four chefs sampling the pigs are rating presentation, taste and tenderness of the meat, and taste and crunchiness of the skin.

At the Biltmore, nearly 200 guests are drinking when we arrive. We've missed the canapés, but are there in time to see all the pigs wheeled out. The lights in the ballroom, running off an emergency generator, are dim. The thought comes to me, too late, that we should've flambéed this sucker and really put on a show. Ah well, next time.

The teams get introduced by Gene Prescott, president of the Biltmore, and Ana Navarro, who organized the whole deal. They are the hosts of the party and the competition. There's a breeze coming through the doors, opened to the terrace on three sides. Everyone is moist from the post-Katrina humidity. No way a lechón could stay dry in this weather. The band starts up. The food is served. Our team finally will be able to taste its handiwork. We sample the meat. It's extraordinarily tender. We bite into pieces of the skin. The crunch is superb. We are satisfied that we have done well in cooking this pig in the traditional Cuban manner. But we'd also like to win.

Dinner ends in about 45 minutes and Ana and Gene are ready to announce the results of the judging. We come in second. We're fine with that, though we briefly consider getting the names and addresses of the first-place team so that we might "persuade" them not to bother next year. I shake hands with teammates and console members of other teams that failed to place. I discreetly make my way back to the buffet to sample the winning pig. It's good, very heavy on the sour orange. Maybe too heavy for my taste, but they did a great job.

Time for another cigar. Orlando hands me a Padrón 1926 Anniversary robusto. I put it in the pocket of my guayabera and walk out to the terrace. I find Jorge and congratulate him again and thank him for inviting me to be on his team. We're all tired, hoping to find some air-conditioning and sure that we'll barbecue again as a team. We'll call ourselves "Los Barbecubanos." Next time, though, maybe we'll add a little grapefruit and lemon to the seasoning. Maybe a lot?

Alejandro Benes is a BBQ aficionado.

Photos by Tina Pujals

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