THE FIRST AND LAST CUBAN-STYLE BARBEQUE PARTY EVER GIVEN IN A
TOWN IN NORTHERN NEW YORK STATE. 2-5-11
Fred Wasserman was, and is no longer, an executive of a large package manufacturing company that was, and still is, located in a town in New York State that was, and still is, a scant twenty-minute drive away from the Canadian border.
Every year one of the top people in his company was expected to give a party at their home on the Saturday of the Labor Day weekend for – the irony of this evidently escaped them year after year – all the office staff and their spouses and on this particular year it was Fred’s turn.
The six previous annual parties that Fred and his wife had been invited to had all had distinct motifs and so, obviously, their party would have to have an original one too.
As the deadline came nearer they took time out on several occasions to think up a suitable theme, to no avail, and when, on the weekend before the big day, a final decision had to made – in order to get things started and have enough time for the necessary arrangements to be put in place and nailed down – they had to settle for the one theme that neither of them had vetoed out of hand and that one was ‘Cuban’ although the only things that they knew about that island’s particular festivity was that it called for lots of rum and beer and good loud music and colorful costumes – the last party like that had been, ‘Pirates Of The Caribbean,’ and it had easily been the most popular one of all up to then – and that the food provided had to include rice and black beans along with exotic, hardly-heard-of-before-in-these-parts, vegetables and that the central dish was always pork.
They figured that a large quantity of innocuous spare ribs would fill the bill adequately and although they knew that they couldn’t eat any of it themselves – they were Jewish and pork had never been on their menu at home even though they weren’t particularly religious minded – they weren’t all that put off about serving it to others and they knew that they could deal with their individual problem by restricting their intake to the rice and beans and the vegetables.
Having decided on the theme Fred, as a precaution, wanted to find out if it would be popular with his colleagues and so he mentioned it to his friend, the CFO, on the Monday morning and was pleased with his enthusiastic reaction and, as Fred knew would happen, he spread the news to the other heads of departments.
To his further relief, at lunchtime that same day in the executive cafeteria, not one but close to everyone eating there came up to him and gushed their approbation and several of the most urbane of them asked him how had he found a source for the center-piece which, as gradually became horribly obvious to him, had to be the whole carcass of a pig complete with its head and all four feet and a tail.
That was a bit much he thought, as did his wife when he called her, but the pig was virtually already in the poke, as it were, and they both knew that there was no way out of it so they agreed that she would spend the rest of the afternoon seeking out someone who was conversant with Cuban customs.
Accordingly, she drove into the nearest big town and lucked into finding a bodega – she recognized its potential from the large, garish signs in Spanish that nearly covered the whole of the exterior – and when she went inside she was astonished at how clever the proprietor was at packing so many items into such a small space.
She had to spell out her problem because the guy had little English and she had zero Spanish but he eventually got to understand what she needed and he took her name and address and telephone number and he promised that, “Is very good, Senora, mi primo va a contact with you, muy pronto.”
Sure enough, the next morning just before noon, an odd-jobbing gardener who happened to be doing work for a local landscaper and who had been born in Cuba showed up and offered to take charge of not just the barbequing part but the whole affair, including providing authentic music, and so Fred’s wife called him at work with the good news and he promptly dropped everything and drove home.
Once the man’s fee had been negotiated down a little, and a generous bonus had been promised – contingent on the whole enterprise being deemed, by one and all, to have been a success, of course – he was engaged and then given coffee so that they could ply him with dozens of questions.
When they’d received answers to most of their naïve queries the Cuban ex-pat, whose name was Raul, told them that the first thing that had to be done was to pick the site for the fire pit and when they’d all drunk their coffees he went out to look at the garden and he chose a sheltered corner and then he called a relative of his – another cousin, or ‘primo’ – who was sitting in their van outside the house, to come in and together they dug it and filled it with the charcoal that Fred had on hand and they promised that on the following day they’d bring more fuel along with an electrically driven spit, and its hardware, that turns the pig slowly which takes most of the drudgery out of the process.
It soon became obvious that nepotism played a big part in Raul’s business enterprise because he told them that his wife would be the one who was going to supply and cook all the food – the list of side-dishes that he quoted as being essential was formidable in that besides the basic one, rice and black beans that are mixed to make what is called, ‘congri,’ it included plantains and yucca and yautia and garbanzos and onions and red and green peppers and bananas, and on and on – and that one of his uncles could be entrusted with purchasing and slaughtering the pig and, after preparing it and removing the bristles, he would deliver it the night before and then Raul, and yet another uncle, would light the fire and set up the pig on the rotisserie and, fortified with a bottle of rum, they’d stay with it all night and see to it that the fire never died down.
It also came to light that the two guitarists and the drummer and the saxophone player already contracted for, complete with authentic costumes and flamboyant accoutrements, were relatives of his as was the DJ who would bring a C/D player, with massive speakers, and disks of traditional music that would be used to spell the live musicians as needed.
The arrangements sounded so right, and were so well ‘sold’ to them, that Fred and his wife agreed to all of the extra charges and, on hearing that, Raul’s face almost split in two with delight and he promised them that they wouldn’t regret it for a minute and that all of the guests would have a wonderful time.
After saying that he left, with a fifty per cent down payment in hand, to get everything started.
As promised, the party was a roaring success and, by the time that the ice in the glasses of rum began to melt, there were no wallflowers because everyone wanted to get out there, and shake it, and no partner was needed for that.
Actually, the outcome had never been in much doubt from the beginning because the combination of freely flowing rum and beer and good food and hot music has hardly ever been known to fail.
When the pig was carried in and put on the serving table it called for, and got, “Oooohs” and “Aaaahs” from all around because it was glowing and golden all over and the abundance factor and the succulence factor, combined with the novelty factor, affected everyone and started all of their gastric juices flowing.
The pig was served Cuban style in which the head and the feet are cut off and placed to one side and then, as each guest in line gets to the front, he or she receives not slices but chunks of meat on their plates and there is no requesting, “Uh, some spare ribs, please,” or, “I’d like to have some shoulder meat,” or, “Can I have some slices from the loin,” or anything else like that because the person in charge is wielding a cleaver, or a saw or a knife as appropriate, on the part of the carcass that is nearest to him and the server hands out each serving sized piece as it is separated and in reach of her tongs. The server also automatically sees to it that each piece of meat has some of the vaunted crackling – ‘chicharron’ – attached to it or, if not, she cuts some of it off and adds it to the plate.
When everybody was sitting down, and eating enthusiastically, the musicians laid down their instruments and let the DJ provide canned music for general entertainment and then they lined up and got their own plates filled and they took them to a table that was just slightly, but significantly, over to one side.
Neither Fred nor his wife ate any of the delicious meat – ‘delicious’ according to general opinion, which was freely offered in their direction from all sides – but they enjoyed the congri and the exotic, mostly-never-before-sampled, side dishes.
However, Raul, and his uncle, knew two things that Fred couldn’t know: One was the fact that the pig hadn’t come from a USDA regulated source but had been one of a litter of eight that had been raised ‘communally’ in that the families involved were charged with feeding them and so what the animals got was mostly garbage. The second thing that was unknown to Fred was that when it had been Raul’s uncle’s turn to stand a two hour watch in the early hours – to make sure that the fire under the revolving carcass was adequately fed to keep it hot enough to cook the pig thoroughly – he’d started to take swallows from the bottle of rum instead of little sips to help him stay awake and alert, as is the custom, and so, being over seventy years old, it wasn’t long before he fell asleep in his chair.
When Raul woke up, about four critical hours later, he saw that the fire was reduced to ashes and embers and that the carcass, far from roasting, was barely warm.
When he’d finished cursing his uncle – Cubans are very, very good and inventive at cursing although they do get to be peculiarly crude about it – he built up the fire again and tried to save the day, as it were, by making it much hotter than usual and, to compensate for that, he adjusted the speed of the electric motor upwards to stop the pig from burning.
What he ended up with was a pig that was cooked perfectly as far as its appearance and taste was concerned but decidedly imperfectly as far as safety was concerned because the harmful microbes that were lurking in it hadn’t been totally destroyed by heat and, consequently, everyone who ate it became violently ill not long afterwards.
The three bathrooms in Fred’s house quickly became unapproachable, as did, lamentably, the approaches to them because horrendous projectile discharges, from both ends, became the norm among his guests and the hired help.
We’ll skip describing the horror that ensued but both Fred and his wife behaved heroically until the fleet of ambulances arrived with para-medics who relieved them of that nasty duty and, suffice it to say, in the interim they’d used every towel and every sheet and blanket, and most of the drapes, that they had in their house to use as covering for the thirty three people who had been forced to discard, after bagging, the large part of their clothing that had been rendered disgusting.
When the last of the walking-wounded had been ferried off in wailing ambulances Fred’s wife used a large amount of water and detergent inside the house and he wielded a water hose to wash down the patio and the lawn – they couldn’t so much as contemplate not trying to restore some order to their home there and then – and by the time it got to be midnight they’d dealt with the, uh, with most of the mess – but by no means all – and they decided to call it a day as far as that part was concerned but they knew that they weren’t going to get any sleep for several more hours because they’d systematically and repeatedly called the various hospitals that their guests had been taken to and they’d been given the welcome news that there were no fatalities and that they’d all have recovered enough to go home starting at around one o’clock.
Fred and his wife agreed on a plan and then they took their separate cars and used them to drive the weakened, and emptied, patients to their homes – that is, of course, except for the ones whose family members hadn’t already done so or were waiting in the reception areas for them to be released – and they were all very quiet during the trip because they didn’t trust themselves to say a single civil word to their erstwhile hosts in case it led to the airing of what they were really thinking.
It got to be three thirty in the morning before Fred’s sense of obligation was fully satisfied when, after dropping off one of the musicians, he was told by every hospital involved, in turn, that there was nothing left for him to do. He was advised to go home himself multiple times but not once did he detect any compassion in the voices of the advice givers.
Not only was he physically exhausted from having gotten up early to check on a myriad last minute details to ensure that the party would be flawless but he was also still very upset from knowing that the blame for the debacle was sitting firmly on his shoulders and that kind of thing is debilitating and, on top of all of that, he was pretty sure that his job was, to put it mildly, no longer secure and he wondered how far away he’d have to go to find another company in his field that would be willing to employ him.
That culmination of sorrows proved to be a lethal mixture for him because it caused him to completely mishandle a long, dipping, curving turn that he’d negotiated successfully dozens of times before – by braking into it and then accelerating out of it – and he stupidly accelerated into it and before he could fully correct his error Newton’s first law went into affect and his speeding, heavy car refused to take the turn and it continued in a straight line and hurtled off the road. It broadsided a massive paper-bark maple and Newton’s third law was proven to be true yet again.
He was badly injured and, because of the late hour, no one passed that way for around an hour and by the time the paramedics arrived he was barely clinging to life and he died just as they were pulling up in front of the Emergency Room doors of the nearest hospital.
The Doctor who had to sign Fred’s DOA form had been forced to work non-stop for around seven hours on some of the food poisoning victims and when he was being told that Fred had been the one who’d hosted the disastrous party – and why he hadn’t been poisoned too – he was in the act of filling in the space next to the ‘Cause Of Death’ heading with a list of the multiple injuries that had been responsible for it.
When he’d finished doing that, and was adding his signature, a thought occurred to him that he felt he just had to share with the world.
Even though he was mentally and physically exhausted he knew better than to write anything that was not relevant on that particular form, over all other forms, so he found a pad of Post-it notes and he wrote his thought on the top one and then stuck it to one side of his signature.
It read –
“Real C O D – One – DWJ + feeling guilty.
Two – Not eating undercooked pork.”