Yes, Cochon de Lait stuffed and roasted for six hours on Christmas Day; all deep brown and crisp with a fat-rich world inside waiting to pour out onto our plates. Let’s back up a moment, how did this come about? I prepped my mind for two days so I would approach the pig with the right amount of respect, the right amount of reverence, the right amount of hunger. I think of the three men who appear before Abraham in Genesis 18, here in the New Revised Standard Version.
The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it.Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
I first encountered icon paintings when I worked as a guard at The Menil Collection. In a deep recess of the Antiquities section I’d stare at tempera and gold on wood, gesso and cloth, saints, martyrs, the Virgin, the Man of Sorrow. The intensity of the faces, actions and events conveyed without realism, or better stated, a different realism than one offered by perspective or mimesis captivated me and I thought I looked into a world where the visible and invisible had merged. Years later, a few months ago, I read a story by László Krasznahorkai entitled “A Murderer is Born” from his collection Seiobo There Below. A Romanian immigrant alienated and broke in Barcelona stumbles into a building and discovers an exhibit of Russian icon paintings.
. . . suddenly these gilded pictures had begun to attract him; he didn’t want to steal them, no such thought arose in him–more precisely it did arise but he immediately chased it away–he wanted to see how they shone, really just to look a little bit more, at least until they threw him out . . . (169)
A few pages on, just as he’s about to leave he encounters the three angels and the volume goes up to 11.
. . . it was as if they had stopped him, it seemed pure lunacy but there had to be something in it, he perceived that he was now staring only at the background, perhaps even more terrifyingly shining and golden than the previous ones, and that he wasn’t taking his eyes off of it, his eyes were dazzled from the illumination, just so he didn’t have to look at the angels–but already, he was well aware that he did not dare to look at the angels–so, this really takes the cake, have I gone crazy as well?! and he looked at the angels and almost immediately at the sight he collapsed, for he knew right away, as he looked at them, that these angels were real. (180)
A friend of mine at the college loaned me The Rublev Trinity by Father Gabriel Bunge who is a Greek Orthodox monk living in Switzerland. He explores the iconographic tradition of the painting as well as theological interpretations. To view an icon opens contemplative possibilities for viewing God through an image, not only true for one who stands in front of such a painting, as I did years ago in The Menil, but also for the painter who must approach his work also through contemplation and prayer.
If one gives wing for a moment to a fantasy, inspired by St Iosif of Volokalamsk’s account of Rublev and his friend Daniil, then it is not difficult to imagine how the humble monk Andrei sat on a chair for hours in contemplation of an icon of the Holy Trinity, perhaps the very icon his was to replace; how he took pains, lifting his eyes to the material colours of the icon, to raise his spiritual eyes to the immaterial and divine light of which the icon is an earthly reflection. As he wrestled to grasp the truth that was proclaimed in the Old Testament model, we can see his countenance change as the immaterial and divine light broke into his soul and filled him with an unspeakable divine joy because he had now beheld what he had to paint. (87)
I’ve mixed sacred and profane as I’ve approached this pig as a way of inviting into our hearth heaven and the underworld, offering hospitality to the living and the dead in a meal set on a table for our family to eat. It’s time.
Let’s begin with August Escoffier.
I’m slowly making my way through his Le Grande Culinaire which means I struggle between my very limited French, Google Translate, and Escoffier’s style which is of another age. Nevertheless, I open to page 553.
Escoffier has a special section entitled Cochon de Lait, where he advises that the pig’s skin should be croustillante et dorée. He advises between one and half to two hours for cooking with an average size suckling pig. If a stuffing is used, then add fifteen minutes for each pound. The essential point of cooking a suckling pig for Escoffier shines through the crackling skin, and to this end, he suggests constantly basting the pig with its own juice and any other fat or oil that is added. I’m using his Farce pour le Cochon de lait which calls for pig liver, an equal weight in sausage meat, bread crumbs soaked and dried, two eggs, Champagne and thyme. I’ll fill the belly, then arrange the pig in the oven, all upright and proper.
And with the approval of Julia Child, let’s begin. We’ll start with the bread, a proper french loaf.
Cut into squares and then brown in the oven.
Instead of pork sausage, I’m using wild boar, a way to bring our pig, henceforth to be referred to as Montezuma, back to his wild origins–also boar has a gamey, sweet taste I love. I’m using three pounds.
Ah, look at it, all pink in its pink rawness.
Next, it’s time for the liver, I have close to two pounds, which means I’m adjusting the balance of liver to sausage, but I believe the food gods will forgive me if not Escoffier.
I cut it into squares and lightly brown in a hot pan still sparkling with wild boar fat.
As much thyme as I can pluck will go into this stuffing.
And now two oeufs into a bowl and then beaten.
Time for Champagne, Champagne Pannier to be exact from Château-Thierry in the Province of Champagne. This particular bubbly has apple and pear notes, though not overwhelming in its sweetness, still a taste of the dry.
So good in fact, that I must have a glass as I cook, or three.
Ready for assemblage. I remove the pan of hot bread crumbs and stir all in, let cool.
Time to consider Montezuma. Time to offer a prayer from the Eleusenian Mystery.
. . . fair-wreathed Demeter did not disobey,
but at once made the seed rise up from the fertile soil.
All the wide earth was laden with leaves and flowers.
Then, going to the kings who give laws,
she revealed to Triptolemos and Diokles, driver of horses,
and mighty Eumolpos and Keleos, leader of the people,
the performance of their sacred mysteries and taught her
rites to all—
holy rites that are not to be transgressed, or asked about,
or discussed; for a great reverence for the gods restrains
Blessed is he of men on earth who has seen these things,
but whoever is uninitiated in the mysteries, whoever has
no part in them, never
has a share of the same joys when he is dead below the
dank gloom. (57)
I pour a healthy amount of olive oil over Montezuma and rub him down inside and out–a proper massage for a proper dead pig and Aztec king. Next I scoop into his belly all the stuffing, then set him upright and protect his ears and nose.
Montezuma goes into a three hundred degree oven for four hours. Let’s spend the time profitably, let’s join Montezuma in the underworld and see what we can learn. Listen to Ian McKellan read from Robert Fagles translation of Book 11 of The Odyssey, “The Kingdom of the Dead.”
Time and time, more time walking around underground. We’ll now turn to James Joyce’s great story “The Dead,” from his collection Dubliners—a work that marked me for life when I first read it as a wee lad of eighteen.
If we are going to meet death, and certainly walking below the dirt usually means you have passing acquaintance, then we need to take a listen to a great American voice of dying and all that entails, Flannery O’Connor reading from her famous short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
I turn up the temperature in the oven to 400 degrees for forty-five minutes, then up to 500 degrees for another forty-five minutes, must make sure Montezuma’s skin crackles–enough time for more bourbon and a listen to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album Murder Ballads. Killing never sounded so good.
Death is not the end, no, it’s only the beginning of cooking, and now I’m ready to take Montezuma out of the underworld.
The boy and I poke Montezuma, lifting out all the stuffing.
I place the insides into a pot and simmer.
Time to dig into Montezuma and find all the moist meat bubbling.
The skin is a crackling. The food gods have smiled upon this cook, this pig, this oven.
Now it’s time to plate–pig, stuffing, red cabbage, pears, watermelon radish and a gravy made with a roux and pan drippings.
The boy celebrates.
We’ve descended into the fires of the earth, seen the mysteries, returned to the surface–all in a meal, all with family and friends, all with the living and the dead. Merry Christmas! Bon Appétit!