Smoking Cigars and Pigs in a Miami Hurricane
Jorge Padrón is at the slaughterhouse on Thursday. You really want to get your pig the day you're going to season it, but with Hurricane Katrina bearing down on South Florida, there is no guarantee a pig will be available on Friday. The pig that is selected weighs about 100 pounds. Alive. Soon it will not be. The pig will ultimately weigh in at around 70 pounds and be wrapped in thick plastic so that nothing will spill in the car while on its way to a night in the walk-in refrigerator at the Padrón Cigars headquarters in Miami's Little Havana.
Meanwhile I'm on my way to Miami from New Jersey, via Fort Lauderdale. My flight had been delayed by the storm sitting just 50 miles off the Florida coast. Arriving that afternoon at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, the site of the second annual Biltmore Lechón Cup, I settle in to see what impact this category-one storm may have on the impending whole-pig roast competition. I find out quickly. The power goes out around 5 o'clock and stays out. I decide to stay in as Katrina passes through Miami that night and leaves considerable damage and more than a million people without electricity.
On Friday, decisions have to be made. Downed banyan trees blocked roads. Ice is scarce. The Padrón facility is running off a generator. The pig remains cold. We have to figure out how we will all get together to begin the seasoning. We do.
This might be the best place to detour and advise those of you who do not like to meet your dinner before you consume it that what is about to happen is very basic, classic, some might say primitive. The festivities are much aided by a tumbler of Johnnie Walker Blue in one hand and a Padrón Serie 1926 40th Anniversary cigar in the other.
The fun begins as we washed the pig. Jose Orlando Padrón, the family patriarch, then takes ax and hammer in hand and proceeds to split the pig down the spine from the inside so that it can lay flat while being cooked. This sort of butterflying, if you've never experienced it, is a loud process that sends small pieces of vertebrae flying. For good luck, I puff the smoke from my cigar out over the pig. Our motto, which we later quickly abandon, becomes: "At Padrón, we're not just blowing smoke."
|The beast lays butterflied.|
Jorge then takes out the marinade and the spices. He dives right in, stabbing different parts of the pig to make it easy to stuff in the garlic. (Garlic, with lime, salt and grease are the staples of Cuban cuisine.) Then comes the sour-orange marinade, a classic Cuban ingredient. Oregano and cumin are also involved. And salt. Lots and lots of salt to help bring out flavor and to suck some moisture out of the skin, which is a key part of the competition. It becomes chicharron (in English, it's crackling) when the entire beast is finished cooking and then is flipped on its back to toast the skin. Crunchiness is key.
Saturday morning brings nice weather, but no good news from Florida Power & Light. Though the Biltmore is still recovering, the competition remains on. I get dropped off in the parking lot of the Padrón building. The tension is already, well, nonexistent. After all, we're cooking a pig. How wired can you really get when all you have to do is check on the fire at most every 30 minutes, and there's beer, Scotch, rum and cigars to be consumed while marathon domino games are played? Of course, there's a little more to it than that.
The key to making sure the pig comes out tender is to keep the fire very low, no more than 230 degrees over the roughly nine hours Porky is in the box. First -- and let me say here that the following is not the only way to do it -- the pig's back is over the fire. This helps heat up the skin and get the fat warm so that much of it will become liquid and seep into the meat and help keep it moist. The next step is to flip the cage that holds the pig so that the cavity is exposed to the fire and stays that way for many hours. When the meat is tender -- this is determined by touching your finger to different parts of the animal and feeling the flesh give -- that's the time to start toasting the skin.
More heat is required for toasting, and Jorge lights some new charcoal and hardwood. Here's where I make my most significant and perhaps only contribution to the entire process beyond smoking about six cigars that day. Jorge is concerned that the fire is too low. Not enough heat is being generated to get the skin crispy and the cooking done in time to get the pig to the Biltmore for the judges. I suggest that we take the top off the pit and leave the door open to let in more air that will feed oxygen to the flames. Brilliant!
Anyway, not too many minutes later, the skin is an evenly toasted golden brown. Willy Pujals, our team's skin expert, moves in and extends a fork through the door and taps the pig's back. It's pretty close to perfect. Now it's time for the delicate part: getting the pig out of the cage and onto the platter without causing parts of the animal, especially the legs, to come off. The meat is so tender at this time that it has little power to hold everything together. The entire pig must move in a balanced manner. For that, Willy and Marcos Soto-Padrón, Jorge's nephew and the one who made the pit, move in to help Jorge.
|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