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Pig Roast Cuban Style in Viñales, Cuba

Travel tip: To get to Viñales we decided on Cubatur (after we almost lost toes to frostbite on the Via Azul and, well, I can’t even bring myself to joke about the train). It was a small private shuttle that essentially cost the same as the Via Azul with a trilingual tour guide and full-on tourist amenities. We highly recommend it.

The best way to learn about a culture is to experience it. Interacting with local people through sharing meals and home stays can change the way we understand a culture. We see it from the perspective of the other, enlightening us as to not only what they believe and think but the origins of those ideas. It’s an opportunity to see deeper into the place we’re traveling.

Upon arriving we fell into the arms of a wonderful couple, Tony and Odalis, which was lucky for us since Viñales is quite touristy despite being a tiny town. Partly, it’s the stunning natural beauty of the surrounding mogotes (moss-covered monoliths with limestone cliffs) and red dirt tobacco fields; and partly, it’s simple country life. We felt fortunate to find ourselves with real country folk who were ready and able to give us an authentic Cuban experience.

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Tobaco House. Viñales, Cuba

Tony and Odalis gave us exactly what we had hoped for. On our first evening renting a room in their Casa Particular, we ended up sitting with them (and their neighbors) on the roof drinking rum and watching the sunset over the farmlands. One mention of a Cuban style pig roast, which they do for birthdays and end of the year festivities, and I knew it was going to be a bonding experience. The process they described to me was nearly the same as a cochon de lait. We went to sleep, dreaming of the possibilities.

The next morning Tony got a pig, approximately 30 lbs, and brought it back to the house for a full day of true Cuban cooking – not frozen restaurant fare, but rather, the cooking of a neighbor’s pig, bringing revenue to the local community, and delicious, free-range food to our bellies (and the other fifteen family members and friends that shared the feast). It cost us 20$.

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Sean, Toni and Rubio in the pig’s final moments. Photo by Mittie Roger.

Sean was surprised to learn that the one who purchases the pig must also harvest it. The method? A knife through the heart. Despite his fear and empathy for the animal, he rose to the occasion, concentrating on the instructions given.

It was a single, short stroke and the pig died in one exhalation. We saw, upon gutting it, that the heart had been cut in half – as easy and quick as the death could have been. Its hair was removed with boiling water and the pig, seasoned with cumin, oregano and garlic was set aside while we prepared the fire pit.

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A single cut in the heart. Sean Reagan Photography.

(It’s interesting to note here that American culture is several generations disassociated from killing one’s own food. Often viewed as barbaric, Americans typically have no problem buying butchered meat off of a grocery store shelf. We aimed to challenge this cultural norm and, as meat eaters, participate in the act of harvesting the animal in the most compassionate manner possible.)

We filled the pit with Guayaba leaves (for a smoky flavor) and ultimately covered the pig in banana leaves. Then we drank a lot of rum. And they made sure to point out how crucial that was to the process. Several hours of pig cooking and rum drinking passed – too many to count really. We spent them laughing, sharing stories and learning how to dance salsa – country style. This included Odalis explaining (very matter-of-factly) that putting her hands on the ground and bouncing while Tony stood behind her was absolutely not sexual.

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Malanga Root. Sean Reagan Photography.

Odalis brought out snacks while we talked – fried malanga root, similar to french fries but with a creamier texture and flavor, and a plate of cooked organs including the heart, liver, and tongue.  While I pigged out on the former, Sean pigged out on the latter (pun absolutely intended.) Though I couldn’t bring myself to partake, I was happy he did. It sealed our bond with them and he said, for the record, that it was all delicious.

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Sean, Tony and Rubio. Pig roast completed. Photo by Mittie Roger

Then, at some point, Tony decided to tell us a Cuban fable. It went something like this: A horse and pig live next to each other. The pig laughs at the horse, working all day while all he has to do is relax and eat. The next day the pig is slaughtered. We walked away from this experience with many memories and a better understanding of Cuban culture. They believe bad things happen to those who just consume and never work. They believe in having parties where they laugh and dance, where they’re generous to their neighbors even though they have little, where they drink a lot of rum. We were thankful to have been part of the festivities.

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Tony and I chowing down after the pig roast. Sean Reagan Photography.

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