Sunday, May 24, 2009

A place where pork meat leaps from the bone onto your tortilla…

Before: You asked for what!?!
I can’t even recall when the seed was planted as my heart’s desire birthday gift, but I’m sure that the original soil would have been that fertile field which is the Catoe Parsonage’s back deck. And I’m quite sure that the seed would’ve been blessed by Mr. Catoe as it began to take root in all of our minds. Then, we would’ve watered that seed well with Pinot Grigio or Riesling or Slim’s home brew beer, or a combination of all three, and called it a night. Who would’ve thought that an honest answer to an honestly asked question would evolve from the seedling of an idea to the Sequoyah of reality? What do you want for your birthday, Carol? A pig roast. A Cuban pig roast…

I may have awakened the next morning after that conversation not even remembering hitting the lever of the wheel I had set in motion. I probably had forgotten the talk of Chef Wood procuring a pig, and Kris offering his back yard for the pit, because there had to be a pit, because I must have dreamily recalled my friend Olga talking about the pit pig roasts of her Puerto Rican childhood. And I probably dreamily recalled standing at her kitchen counter in NY, exactly one floor below my kitchen counter of our apartment building, listening to Spanish music, drinking sangria and helping her peel and mash hundreds of cloves of garlic to rub, with Adobo, into the pig she would be serving at her rehearsal dinner. Pit roasted pigs are not something you see every day, especially in Gadsden, AL. Pit roasted pigs are the stuff of legend (and I would later find out, the cautionary warnings to fictitious offspring of the ornery kind…”If you don’t quit hittin’ your sister with that two by four, the headless pig will get you tonight,” or “Ya’ll keep disobeyin’ me, an I’ll let that headless pig come and take u’uns away…”

So, I went for days, possibly weeks without thinking about a pig roast again. Then, one night while having drinks with the Catoes on their back deck, Mr. Catoe says “Well, the Woods think their house will be done in time for the pig roast, so we’re going to have your birthday party over there.” I sat there for a moment or two, contemplating the size and cost of a pig, size of hole for roasting, number of hungry people, where one can find a pig pusher from which to purchase a pig to roast…things like that. Slowly, I began muttering something like, “Um, what if we just buy some pork shoulders to roast? We can get a bunch of those at the Dixie, and not have to worry about finding a pig and digging a pit in the Wood’s yard.” Mr. Catoe, without hesitating, “Oh, but Chef is already on it. He thinks he has a line on a pig, and the yard won’t be landscaped yet anyway, so you can’t mess up what isn’t fixed. And Chef is really excited about this! He’s never pit roasted an entire pig before.” I glanced over at Slim, he sitting there beside me, looking at me as if I was, by suggesting we cook something smaller and easier than a pig, actually suggesting something so disdainful, I may as well have been suggesting we go out and buy the ten for ten dollars Swanson’s Chicken Pot Pies from Johnson’s Giant Food. Any further protestations died on my lips. My friends had taken up the gauntlet I had inadvertently thrown down. The pig roast was as good as done.

I will never know what took place behind Fleegan communication lines to make that pig roast happen, but I do know that Chef and Slim did some research unbeknownst to me. I also know that a very savvy looking invitation was created and sent out by Dame Catoe. And I do know that by the late afternoon of Friday, May 11th of 2009, Liz and I were helping Chef transport from the SUV to the tub of the Wood’s unfinished bathroom an 80lb. half a pig that Chef had just brought from Weaver to Southside. The pig was wrapped in white plastic trash bags, placed by Chef on black plastic to prevent fluid seepage into the back of his truck. Upon opening the back of the truck, the plastic-wrapped pig looked like the body of some unfortunate deceased hitchhiker, stowed away from prying eyes by the person or persons who had done him in. Liz and I marveled out loud to Chef over the eerie dead-body-like-ness of the pig, to which he responded, with a nervous laugh, “Yeah, the guy who sold it to me said that if I got stopped by the cops on the way back, to not look nervous…”

During: To dig, to set fire to, to rub, and then to cook...
The sun was just beginning to go down that Friday evening when we began digging by hand at the scar on the ground that Chef had begun earlier with some large earthmover.
On this old rock pile, with a ball and chain, they call me by a number, not a name! Oh, lord! Gotta do my time. Gotta do my time. With an aching heart. And a worried mind.
Slim, Les, and I dug through the clay farther and farther down, sometimes passing the shovel off to one another so that we could take a break; the Dame and Cookie Magoo observed from a careful distance. The freshly arrived Mr. Catoe, one week away from surgery, and keeping an eye out for the concerned, and possibly disapproving eyes of Dame Catoe, attacked the hole like a hungry man eating a steak. He took some off the sides, plunged into the middle and made short work of everything in between. I think that we all enjoy doing this kind of work. I know I sometimes miss doing it for a living. But my, oh my, it is hard work.

With the hole dug, and the obligatory mock crime scene photos of me laying in the hole taken, heating the hole up was the next order of business. Slim and Chef laid large flagstone rocks in the bottom of the pit, and then stacked pallets in on top. Various kindling was added, and the proper accelerant was drizzled on top. After backing away from the pit at least three times while Chef tried to light the pile (we feared the entire thing would blast itself out of the ground in a big ball of pallet-fire), it finally caught. What a blaze we had! Very prehistoric and terribly effective for the work at hand.

We then fetched the pig (named either Wilbur or Dinner, depending upon who you ask) from the tub, and laid her out to be prepped on an eight-foot table. I cannot describe the conflicting visions of both gruesomeness and mouthwatering tastiness as Chef, Slim and Liz injected marinade into the muscle of the pig. With marinade seeping from multiple puncture wounds, Adobo was rubbed into the skin, and the pig was covered with aluminum foil, wet burlap and then cradled in a bassinette of metal lathe. She was then slung into the hole, topped with sheets of plywood, and covered with a thin layer of dirt. As we walked away from the pit that night to go, tuckered out, to our respective beds, you could hardly tell that anything lay below the mound of disturbed clay in the Wood’s back yard…

Saturday, May 12 2009

When Slim and I arrived the next day to assist with additional party prep, Cookie was already hard at work, transforming the garage from house-building-storage-area to a Cuban cigar bar. Liz and Chef seemed to be everywhere at once, vacuuming in one area, moving things to another area…and the pig was cooking away in its pit in the back yard, filling the air with the most delicious smell. Chef walked out with us to look at the fissures that had formed around one edge of the pit. It was like a big Glade Air Freshener, except the name of this air freshener would’ve been Adobo Rubbed, Pit-Roasted Pig, instead of Pomegranate Spring. Chef commented on how the smell was so rich because, if you thought about it, all of the cuts of pork were cooking at once in that pit…the shoulder, the bacon, the butt…

By party time, we were almost in a frenzy, so excited to see the results of Fleegan ingenuity. It took the same three people who cast the pig into the pit the night before to pull the pig back out. Slim, Chef and Liz hoisted the steaming body from the pit onto a plywood stretcher and carried it up to the table. As birthday girl, I was given the honor of unwrapping the gift, which was now sitting in a rapidly forming pool of tasty juices. As I pulled away layers of foil, glistening meat began falling away from rib bones, leaping towards imaginary tortillas, imaginary pots of black beans. Wilbur/Dinner was cooked to perfection. That WAS some pig…

I found myself (as I’m sure many other folks did that night), hours later, belly full of pig meat, black bean salsa, guacamole, cheese puffs, rice, pie, fruit, and sangria, sitting at a round table in the Cuban Cigar bar area of the party, puffing away on a cigar. I was in my favorite place to be: that place of food, drink and conversation where you can take communion with friends. It was the best birthday ever.

Post Script: It took me awhile to get around to writing this post because, for days after the party, I felt that no matter what I wrote, I wouldn’t be able to properly do justice to what went down. But once I started writing, it wrote itself. I want to thank everyone who was a part of my Cubano Pig Roast Birthday Party. My heart is filled with great happiness for you all being a part of my life.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

To Craig

I thought maybe if I read Shells again, and Eric read it with me, then it would turn out that nothing happened to Craig. I thought perhaps if we listened to Jeff Buckley enough times and drank lots of wine, Craig would somehow be magically okay from these efforts. I even thought that maybe if I avoided writing the words that Craig was gone, then maybe it wouldn't be so.  Eric and I (as I’m sure so many others) tried to wish him into safety and continued life, even as Craig was, unbeknownst to all of us, already days gone.

Craig's partner Rebecca posted on Facebook that evening that the search team found evidence that Craig suffered a leg injury, and very soon after that, fell over a precipice. It was a fall he could not have survived. They would continue to search for Craig, but there was no hope of finding him alive. He was gone. Rebecca went on to address her love for Craig, love that was unconditional and lasting. The following morning, Rebecca's post was gone from public view, but was quoted by Ben Fulton of the Salt Lake Tribune in his article Poet fell to death from cliff.

I have seen on the Find Craig Arnold Facebook site that people have begun sharing their personal stories about Craig, people whose names I recognize from another time, another place. Most of the recollections are funny, many of them kind, some of them mischievous. That’s the way I remember Craig, funny, kind and mischievous. He was quite a remarkable fellow. I mourn the loss of Craig, his life and his poetry.

So, when I close my eyes and think of Craig, how do I remember him best? Craig is the “come on” inscriptions he wrote in everyone’s copy of Shells that evening at his rock-concert-like reading and book signing in the Denver of 2001. Craig is a pitcher of mojitos at Cuba Cuba (and another pitcher to for good measure). Craig is the warm pavement of my Capital Hill streets. Craig is the spiciest jungle curry on the menu of Tommy’s Thai. Craig is the intoxicating anise flavor of absinthe. Craig is Jeff Buckley singing Lilac Wine with a voice so sad & sweet, he’ll make you cry.