Try wheeling a dead pig in a supermarket cart down Connecticut Avenue and see what it does for crowd clearance.
But there was no other way to get our 60-pound porker from the butcher at the Brookville Market in Cleveland Park to our car. It was being chauffeured home for a day's brining; the next day it would be barbecued to feed a troop of 50.
But this pig was not going to be hoisted onto a backyard grill over a smoldering heap of charcoal or even lowered into a pit for long slow cooking. No, this pig was the first experiment in our La Caja China. Sure you can grill 20 hamburgers or roast six chickens on one of those massive new stainless-steel outdoor grills. But consider the Caja China: a rectangular plywood chest lined with marine-grade aluminum in which you can roast a whole pig weighing up to 100 pounds, or a lamb, or side of beef. Or several turkeys. Or 18 chickens. Or numerous fish. It follows the Asian cooking principle of putting the charcoal on top of the food, not underneath. The amount of heat generated in the box is tremendous and cooks the food fast. A 40- to 80-pound pig takes 3 hours 45 minutes.
La Caja China, the Chinese Box as it is also known, was my present to my husband, Martin, for his birthday. Once summer arrives, my husband believes that barbecued anything is all we should eat. It's a result of growing up in England where summer picnics were spent in the car watching raindrops race down the windows.
I found the box completely by accident. One day I Googled "mojito," searching for a recipe for the rum, crushed mint, sugar and soda cocktail, but a link to a Web-log brought me to another kind of mojito. It was a recipe for pork marinade, also called mojito, and it accompanied a poetic account of the steps one Cuban was taking to roast a pig for his family's Christmas Eve celebration.
"This year," wrote the blogger, "I am using a Caja China." And there was another link, to www.lacajachina.com.
That's the thing about the Internet: you ought to be online, paying your bills. Instead you click. Eight days later two heavy, flat, rectangular boxes arrived at the front door: La Caja China, Model No. 1, for a pig up to 80 pounds.
Instructions for assembly come with skimpy diagrams and very few words. My husband had built our IKEA kitchen out of boxes when we lived in the Soviet Union but has balked at changing a lightbulb ever since. Besides, it was my present to him: I picked up the screwdriver and started.
I made my first distressed telephone call to La Caja China International in Miami at Step 4 out of 7. I had assembled three sides and added the wheels but couldn't haul the fourth side up to meet the rest. Pretty soon I had Roberto Guerra, president of the company, on the line: "Don't tighten any of the screws until everything is in place," he warned. But Step 2 had read, "Thighten [sic] with wing nuts." He also said, "Feel free to call me any time."
I'm not sure he meant in 10 minutes. But I couldn't snap on the lid-holding rails. "Did you tighten the screws already?" asked Guerra, ever patient. I had. I was abject.
When it was finished, the Caja China looked like a square wheelbarrow. On the bottom lies a huge tray to catch the juices. The meat is tied between two metal grids allowing it to be turned easily. The grids have feet that raise them above the roasting tray. On top of the box sits a metal lid with two handles, then a mesh grill over which you spread the charcoal.
In 1977, having heard about a Vietnamese equivalent, Guerra and his father, then a chef in New Jersey, designed their box. Their company was incorporated 10 years later. "It took us about 14, 15 takes before we got it down to the point," he says. "The thing worked perfect first time, but we could not get the skin crispy. For us Cubans, if you can't get crispy skin it's no good."
He talked to his son's science teacher who explained the importance of high heat radiation and temperature maintenance. So they played around with charcoal, adding this much at this point, that much at another, until they got the formula perfect. Now these directions come printed in red and black on the outside of the Caja China, so there's no excuse to muddle the instructions.
We planned a party and, of course, a big pig would be the main course. We turned to Pam Ginsberg, butcher at the Brookville Market in Cleveland Park, for the pig. And she told me straight off that a suckling pig would be hopeless. It's doll-sized, mostly bones not meat, and would certainly make sensitive children cry. What we needed for 50 people was at least a pound a person. She said to keep the head on and serve the pig with an apple in its mouth. I wasn't sure we'd fit the whole beast in the box, not to mention cope with the weeping.
Pig roasting is not a job for the squeamish. It's an exercise out of "ER" meets "The Sopranos." Later, once we got the pig home and checked with the photos in the La Caja China brochure, we realized we should have asked Ginsberg to split the pig's backbone between the shoulders to open the pig flat. Martin spread its little forelegs, and I bashed a cleaver with a rubber mallet.
Then, with the pig lying across the kitchen counter, I reached for the syringe, an instrument large enough to pump a football, which came with the box. Every four inches, according to instructions, I injected the pig with a flavored brine made from a recipe e-mailed by Guerra. The flesh began to balloon with liquid. It's easy to tell when a section contains enough -- when you withdraw the needle the pig squirts you back in the eye.
When it came time to move the pig and store it in a cooler overnight, we learned the meaning of "dead weight." Eventually we wrestled the pig down the stairs and into an ice-packed cooler, where we left it overnight.
The next morning, we strapped the pig between the grids, set it in the bottom of the box, closed the box, piled nine pounds (total) of charcoal at either end of the mesh grill and lighted it. Once the charcoal began to turn to ash, we spread the coals in a flat layer over all. Then we stood back, consumed with doubt that it would ever cook.
After the first hour we added another nine pounds of charcoal. Half an hour after that, a further 10 pounds. (It is important to follow the instructions printed on the side of the box not those printed in the booklet or on the Web site, which suggest less charcoal.) Three hours after enclosing the pig (the print on the box warns not to peek a moment sooner!), we carefully lifted the lid off the caja. The mesh tray was given a shake to sieve the ashes from the charcoal. Then we reached in with oven mitts to turn what had become, to our amazement, a cooked pig. We slashed its pale soft skin every 4 inches. Back it went into the box, skin-side up to crisp. After 20 minutes, we lifted a corner of the lid to check. It, too, was turning gold -- and crispy! Twenty-five minutes more and we judged it done.
When it came out, there was a puddle of grease in the roasting tray but beneath that was a perfect layer of juice that had been prevented from burning and sticking by the closed-box cooking process. We drained off the grease, put the pig into the tray of gravy and sliced off the crispy skin. The meat was so tender that pulling it apart with forks was the easiest way to carve it.
I had supposed there would be leftovers for days. But vultures couldn't have picked over the carcass more cleanly.