Mastering the Pork Roast

Delta Junction, Alaska This time around, our peripatetic gourmet, Reggie Nadelson, travels over theriver to Weehawken, New Jersey, to learn how to roast pork Latino-style.

It’s very simple, easier than roasting a turkey,” says Maricel Presilla, pointing to the pig on her kitchen counter. There are some who think it’s grandiose, others find itdisgusting, but

I’ve always wanted to cook a roast suck-ling pig—ever since, years ago, I saw an ad on a FifthAvenue bus that read do you dare to try this recipe? To which I silently replied,You must be kidding.

There’s something both seductive and terrifying about it,especially for a novice. But on a recent Saturday morning I find myself in the sunlit Weehawken, New Jersey, kitchen of Maricel, a handsome blonde Cuban. Maricel is an expert onLatin food—roast whole pig is a classic Cuban dish—and the co-owner and culinary spirit behindtwo acclaimed restaurants in, per-haps surprisingly, Hoboken, New Jersey: Zafra, a small Cuban café with fabulous tamales and pork, and the elegant Cucharamama, which covers not just Maricel’s native land, which she left in 1970, but the entire Pan-Latin territory, including Chile, Peru, Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico.

“This is such a lovely little pig,” she says. “Ten pounds, enough for eight, and so young, the meat is completely fat free. It hasn’t had time to get fat. It’s gelatinous with little bones so soft, you caneven eat them.” With blue eyes and a pink snout, the animal is very lifelike, and I think with horror, I’m cooking Babe.

“You’re going to marinate it,” says Maricel, handing me anolive-wood mortar and pestle to crush some garlic. Smashing and grinding, I add oregano to the garlic, then coarse salt and black pepper, and then the juice of six bitter Seville oranges,which I squeeze by hand. “If you can’t get bitter oranges, youcan use limes,” Maricel explains. “And you might add the juice of one sweet orange.” My hands smell of Spain.

“Why don’t you sit? Latin women always cook sitting down, often together,” Maricel says. Claudia and Paloma, Maricel’s helpers, bustle around the kitchen; parrots from another room scream ¡hola!; a Havanese, the only Cuban pur ebred, runs in and out. From a CD player, the Buena Vista Social Club plays its sweet, seductive music. Soon I’m applying the marinade, oradobo, over and inside the pig—the butcher has made a deepslit in its belly so it’s easy to flatten on the baking sheet.

“You’re not squeamish, are you?” Maricel asks. Wrist-deep in the pig, I try assuming a nonchalance I do not actually feel when I touch the porcine flesh. I’m no vegetarian, but could this play into some taboo buried deep in my secular butnonetheless Jewish consciousness?Neither observant Muslims nor Jews eat pig. I’m not observant; I eat bacon, but it usually isn’t served still attached to its face. Will a furious God punish me for preparing and eating such obvious treyß

Great cooks, of course, are never squeamish; the world is their platter, everything in it a delicacy. Maricel isa great cook and also a medieval historian who, when she taught at Rutgers University, sometimes made medieval banquets for her students that featured roast suckling pigs. “Inone case I turned it into a unicorn by adding a tuber for a horn,”she recalls. “The presentation of the pig is very important.”

Roast suckling pig is not just Cuban. Medieval, Renaissance, and Elizabethan Europe all indulged in endless feasts withincredibly decorative food: fresh roses, painted dough, an apple in a pig’s mouth, a gilded peacock, a festooned boar’s head. People were crazy about deception, food disguised to appear assomething else—for example, a roast bird with its feathers putback to make it look alive. Chefs sewed animals together to create a “monster,” or covered live birds or frogs with pastry