The sun arose red through the sulfur clouds still present from last night’s festivities that burned out within an hour of midnight. Mountains of fireworks, boxes of gun shells, and multitudes of voices has been exhausted and weary sandal shod residents were sleepily shuffling to outdoor tables to eat some leftovers of last nights barbecue along with some newly cooked rice. Although our family was no exception, our meal was at a slightly hurried pace because we had a party to prepare for. Yes, another one.
Every year on New Year’s Day, my mother-in-law’s side of the family has their family reunion and this year it happened to be in Tarlac City where I was. It was to be an intimate family gathering of just the immediate family so I quickly got drafted to start setting up the tables for the 300 expected guests. If you haven’t learned by now from my writings, Filipino families are not small and there is no such thing as a small party.
The sun was out and though the temperature was in the mid 80’s, after half of winter in the frozen midwestern United States and almost two weeks up in the mountains of northern Philippines, I was soon breaking out in a sweat. The Filipinos whom I had poked fun at for the last two weeks when they bundled up in their heavy winter clothes every time the temperature dipped below 70 were now wondering if I was feeling well. Silly gringo. Walks around without a coat when it is 68 degrees, it is no wonder he gets sick when it gets up to 85 degrees. Although I could hear their thoughts, none were expressed verbally beyond worried looks at my forehead.
After my two helpers, John and Rap, and myself got the tables squared away, chairs set up, place settings readied and napkins fanned out properly as shown by my catering business owning Uncle, someone finally thrust a ice cold San Miguel beer in my hand and I sat down in the shade for a bit until guests began to arrive. Shortly before lunch, the guest of honor arrived sprawled out in a cardboard box on a bed of tinfoil with skin so red that it looked as if they had been roasted… and they had. The lechon baboy or roasted pig was here and soon crowds of hungry Filipinos were sneaking over for a look and to break off a piece of the skin to munch on while waiting for lunch to start.
I have searched high and low for a recipe for this dish since the failure at last year’s Filipino Independence Day Hijacked Into a Birthday party but without success. Everyone keeps their recipe close to their vest because I think there is too much fame and glory that goes along with a perfectly roasted pig. But from the conversation in halting Tagalog and English, I think I learned the secrets. There are no secret ingredients. Before the pig is cooked, the skin is loosened from the flesh and boiling water poured between them. The water is drained and the pig is skewered on a rod set high above a hot charcoal fire and constantly rotated. When the skin becomes tight but before it starts turning colors, it is brushed now and then with oil to turn it into that red, crispy skin that is a delicacy among Filipinos. Indeed, you have never had a near death experience unless you have found yourself in-between the lechon and 300 Filipinos immediately after grace is said.
As I stood their admiring the excellent cooking masterpiece and sipped another San Miguel, a Filipino wearing a white apron suddenly came towards me drawing a huge machete like knife and raising it in the air. The sun reflected off the blade temporarily blinding me and I didn’t catch sight of it until it was too late. With a meaty thunk it plunged through the spine of the lechon nearly severing the head from the torso. Another meaty thunk and it was free. The knife was sheathed, the head was carried over and gently set on a silver platter in the center of the buffet table and an apple appeared and was promptly lodged in the open mouth. As if on cue, steaming vessels of food containing everything from stewed chicken’s feet to rice were whisked out and set into place. Grace was said and I immediately sensed the danger I was in as the crowded surged towards the lechon behind me.
I was able to duck back to the cooler where I grabbed an ice-cold coke in a glass bottle (the glass bottle industry is still alive and well in the Philippines and glass bottled pop is the best) and slipped between some shrubbery and the barbecue grill where sinuman was grilling away and made clean my escape. Sinuman is tilapia (a perch like fish) that gets shoved mouth first onto a bamboo skewer, wrapped in a banana leaf and is steam grilled over coals and if very delicious.
With my heart still beating from the near death experience, I was going to sit back awhile and wait for the crowd at the buffet table to thin out but my wife was in the midst of it and I could here her calling my name and waving a plate that she had secured at me telling me to hurry up. I rolled up my sleeves, joined in and ate enough food to make a medium sized army proud, all washed down with a couple more ice-cold glass bottles of coke.
Soon, only a few stewed chicken feet, a handful of rice and the gleaming bones of a denuded lechon were all that remained. Tables were cleared, dishes were done and just when I thought I couldn’t eat another mouthful, a giant tub of ube ice cream was brought out for dessert. Ube is a yam like root crop that evidently makes a very delicious dessert for I ate a large bowl full of it. It melts downs in the gaps right?
After the tables were cleared and the dishes washed, for the second time, a space was cleared for the games. There were standards games such as singing, dancing and trivia contests along with others like musical chairs but there were also some uniquely Filipino games such as the egg race and the blindfolded banana feed. In the egg race, females pushed an egg up a male volunteers pant legs, up through the inside of the shirt and out the neck hole. To the amusement of the watching crowd, some eggs strayed close to some sensitive male parts causing the males to squirm and the females to blush. Because I was the only one wearing shorts, every female wanted to be my partner but in the interest of keeping things fair, I withdrew myself from the competition and instead joined the second game.
In the second game both sides were blindfolded, separated, mixed and given a banana. The object of the game was to find your partner and feed each other the banana. My partner was my aunt Daisy and on go, I shouted out at loud as I could in English her name. Without moving a single step, within seconds I found a banana stuffed down my throat and the banana in my hands disappear down someone else's throat. I grabbed the hand of the other banana holder, held it up high and peeled off the blindfold happy to see that it was Daisy. Since everyone else was trying to out shout each other in Tagalog, which got confusing, Daisy and I easily swept up the competition.
The afternoon wore down, guests started leaving and soon perhaps only twenty or so people remained so the biggest Filipino party aid known to man was brought out. A television hooked up to a karaoke machine was wheeled out and fired up. Everybody knows that karaoke sounds better to both the singer and the listeners when liberal doses of alcohol are consumed and despite a few San Miguel here and there, everyone was stone cold sober. It was harsh. Exhausted from the previous night and running on about four hours of sleep, I snuck into the house and up to the bedroom which felt like the very oven the lechon had been in early and in the late afternoon hours, tried to ignore the cat like karaoke screeching going on below and grab a nap.
When I awoke a few hours later the sun had mercifully withdrawn and a slight evening coolness had replaced it. A few diehard souls were still singing their hearts out on the microphone and alternately issuing challenges to the American to see if he could beat their high scores. Now I fended them off the best I could but time eventually wore my defenses down and I relented. I punched in the number of my secret weapon, took a healthy swig from another San Miguel and began to belt out Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.” Much to my surprise and my hurting ears, I scored a 99, which impressed my hosts mightily and brought out suggestions that I might have been holding back. I would have liked to say that I quit while I was ahead but sadly I didn’t. For several hours we battled it out back and forth as I started singing songs I barely knew and butchered badly. Finally I admitted defeat, found my wife and crawled to bed but not before stealing another piece of skin from the lechon head on my way inside. It is after all, the Philippines and when in the Philippines, do as the Filipinos do.