My father’s first efforts in suburban Los Angeles attracted the attention of suspicious neighbors. But Dad was undaunted, and for the next 30 years a pig roasting in the ground was more emblematic of Christmas than the artificial tree blinking in the living room.
I can only imagine all that the pig roast meant to my parents’ generation. Even as a girl, I could grasp its ritual importance: the digging, the setting of the coals, the stones, the grill, the banana leaves. The long, slow cooking. The men gathered around it, poking and prodding as they drank Budweisers and told jokes we weren’t allowed to hear. So it went for decades, the same story repeated across Miami’s backyards, and no one daring to say that now and then, frankly, the meat left a little something to be desired.
Then came the Revolution of the Chinese Box. La Caja China sneaked up on me. I left Miami for a few years, and when I returned everyone seemed to have one.
The Caja China is the creation of Roberto Guerra and his father, who made their first prototype in the ’80s. As Guerra tells it, his father based the design on a vague recollection of a device that Chinese immigrants in Cuba used for roasting: a box where the fire was positioned above the meat, not under it. “Roasting a pig the old way is a pain,” Roberto told me.
It’s true. But sales were modest at first. Cubans in Miami were slow to take to the contraption and clung to the old way, no matter how unpredictable it was. But the first intrepid buyers told a few friends and they told a few friends. Word of mouth spread.
It’s true that the Caja China looked like a pine coffin on wheels. It threatened tradition. But it produced the previously impossible: an almost perfect roasted pig. As Roberto put it, “You can’t mess it up.”
In 2004, The New York Times wrote a feature on La Caja China and sales exploded. Famous chefs came calling. So did the James Beard Foundation. Today, La Caja China does 82 percent of its business outside the state of Florida. It has yearly revenues of some $2.4 million and sells boxes everywhere from Hawaii to Spain. Earlier this year, Guerra moved to a new warehouse in the Medley section of Miami, doubling his square footage to 20,000. Christmas is a busy season. But so is the Fourth of July. The Caja China, it turns out, has been a monster hit with los americanos.
“At first we thought it would be a Hispanic thing,” Guerra said. “But Americans love their barbecue. They spend six months under the snow, and as soon as it’s over, they’re outside barbecuing.”
And what’s best is that they follow directions.
“The Cubans here, they’re lifting the lid, taking a look at it, talking about it,” Guerra said. “The Americans, they leave it alone. If you tell them they need to go out in their pajamas, they’ll do it.”
A few years ago, my die-hard traditionalist father finally gave in and bought his own Caja China. He was getting older; it was hard work, digging that hole every year. And there wasn’t a new generation to help out: His sons-in-law were uninterested and unversed in the whole digging-roasting-drinking ritual.
So Dad picked up the box and set it up. It was so easy. He split the pig, laid it out, put the mesh over it and covered it with coals. Then he closed the lid, rolled it out to the driveway, and left it there. A few hours later, he rolled it back in and uncovered the box, and we ate.
The pig was perfect. Crisp skin covering the moist, expertly cooked flesh. Not a trace of the temperamental roasts of years past. Everyone praised the cook and had seconds. Dad, though, seemed uncomfortable. An era was passing. He was no longer king of the backyard pig roast. What of all those years of struggle and sweat? The hard labor that went into digging the pit? Would we one day forget how difficult it had been?
Nah. It had never really been about the pig anyway.
Cacique Lunch Restaurant 112 W. Flagler St., Downtown (305-372-3323). Café at Books & Books 933 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach (305-532-3222). La Carreta 11740 Kendall Dr., Kendall (708-596-5973). Enriqueta’s Sandwich Shop 186 N.E. 29th St., Wynwood (305-573-4681). Nena Restaurant 3791 Bird Rd., Miami (305-446-4881). Puerto Sagua 700 Collins Ave., Miami Beach (305-673-1115). Rancho Luna Restaurante 45 N.W. 22nd Ave., Miami (305-642-9123). Tinta y Café 268 S.W. 8th St., Miami (305-285-0101). Versailles Restaurant 3555 S.W. 8th St. (Calle Ocho), Little Havana (305-444-0240).