Tallahassee, FL – January 1, 2012
I never met my grandfather. He died before I was born so I only knew him from a few pictures. Just two, really. One is of him cheering my father on during a football game. It’s just his chest, arms, and face. He’s wearing a suit and sweating in the Florida heat. His face is all joy and there’s a #45 armband around his sleeve. He looks so proud watching my dad play. I’ve always wondered if he saw a football star or if he saw that little boy who looked up at him nine years earlier from the backseat of a ’58 Oldsmobile in Key West as they drove off the Havana Ferry and vowed never to return to Cuba.
The other picture is of him standing next to a smoking pit and grill. There’s a whole pig over the coals. It’s been cooking for hours, soaking in a sauce of garlic and sour orange called mojo. Every time my dad saw me looking at the picture he told me that my grandfather used to cut down guava branches and use them to feed the fire.
“Because that is how they did it in Cuba,” my dad would say.
For as long as I can remember, my dad has roasted a pig on New Year’s Day. He gets up early and sets it on the grill and tends the coals for hours, adding handfuls when it looks too thin, raking down flames, listening to fat drip and sizzle. There are no guava branches though because we are not in Cuba and Tallahassee is too cold for guava.
I used to watch when I was young. I would come out, sit in a chair, and stare. My dad would sometimes hand me a brush and a cup of mojo to spread over the legs and ribs. We’d eat crackers with guava paste and cream cheese. I’d listen to stories about Cuba and growing up in Miami, about my grandfather, about his mother and how she grew up on a farm and knew how to slaughter pigs.
Then one year my dad asked me to help him dig the pit. It’s shallow, about six inches deep, enough to hold the coals in place, but you have to get the stacks of concrete blocks on the corners level so they can hold the grill four blocks high and not collapse. It’s an easy job, but important and it has to be done right. After a few years, he left it to me and I still get out a level and pile dirt under concrete, making sure that little bubble doesn’t drift from the middle of the lines.
The first time I helped flip the pig I felt scared. I didn’t want to mess up. It’s a big piece of meat, over a hundred pounds, and you have to flip it in one quick motion or it will fall apart. It takes two strong people or two strong people and a scared boy who thinks he is helping and doesn’t want to mess up. But one day it just took two strong people again.
After three flips, the sun is low and the meat starts to fall off the bones, and you know it’s done because if you tried to flip it again, it would fall apart. Friends, family, neighbors, they all come and we start cutting pieces away, chopping up the pig from four corners and stacking it in giant silver trays at the end of the grill for people to fill their plates with. We cut and cut but the trays never stay full for long. Before I could use a knife, my dad used to make me stand next to him and he would slice me a few of his favorite pieces and slip them on my plate.
“This is the best part,” he would say, whispering like he didn’t want anyone else to hear.
I would eat and eat until I couldn’t eat any more. Then I would stare at the pig and wish I could fit just one more bite.
I stood at my corner today, cutting and pulling away meat, stacking it in those trays, stashing away a few of my favorite pieces for later. I stopped for a moment to brush the sweat of my face and I looked around the grill. My dad stood at the far corner, smiling, laughing, cutting pieces of meat and hugging friends. His sister, my aunt, Tia Ana stood on my right, laughing and holding a bottle of mojo in one hand, the cap off, the sauce ready to pour on sliced meat. She was one the first people to ever hold me after I was born. She snuck me cookies when I was two. She always loved me like her own son.
My friend Brian stood on the other side of me, cutting away at a shoulder of pork. I met him in 3rd grade and his mom and dad are like second parents to me. I spent every other weekend at his house growing up. I watched him dance at his wedding last spring. Giulia was across from us, full of life, grabbing a knife and leaping in to help, bright and smiling, never again a resume and a name.
I thought of my grandfather who I never met, who I only knew through pictures and stories, his face full of joy, his roast pig and guava branches. My dad says he would have liked me. I think I would have liked him too.
I looked around again.
“This is the best part,” I said.
If anyone in the Tallahassee area would like to come to a presentation about the trip or just wants to see what a crazy person looks like (I may even bring my pink flamingo with me!), I will be giving a presentation this Monday, January 21st at the United Church of Tallahassee 1834 Mahan Drive at 3:30PM. It’s free and open to anyone who is interested so come on down, hear about the trip, meet Frank, see some pictures, and get any questions you have answered!