For The Love Of Lechon
- Catherine Jones () - December 30, 2007 - 12:00am

December spells lechon in Tagalog. I learned this lesson two years ago during my first Christmas in Manila, where I witnessed a whole pig being carried on a bamboo stretcher into a party that became suddenly silent then exploded with oohs and aahs. What was this thing wrapped under foil, tied with a bow, I wondered. And, being the curious person that I am, the simple answer of roasted pig didn’t work for me.

I needed to get to the bottom of this deliciously succulent beast that holds a special place in Filipino hearts.  It is still dark when I arrive at Mila’s Lechon on Calavite Street in La Loma, Quezon City. Mila’s crew of butchers commence their work at two in the morning, slaughtering dozens of pigs which are slowly roasting in front of me, twirling on spits above braziers of red hot embers, grease dripping from their corpses like leaky faucets. Now, before we go any further, I must confess that I am a city girl. I’ve never spent any time around livestock, and I’ve certainly never seriously contemplated the slaughter process—until this very moment. I rarely eat meat, and when I do, it comes neatly packaged on styrofoam trays embalmed in plastic wrap. It took coming to the Philippines, where people still connect with their food, and in many cases live alongside it, for me to fully unravel and comprehend the food chain. I push open the heavy, red barn doors. The stench of dung, urine, boiling blood, and smoke hit me in the gut. I hold my breath for as long as possible, then slowly release. The head butcher, Levi, a toothless, 55- year-old man, walks over. In a brief exchange, Levi gives me permission to walk around and ask questions. Johnny, a young guy wearing a baseball cap, sleeveless shirt, blue basketball shorts, and black boots is leaning against the wall, coaxing the final puffs from his cigarette butt. He’s missing the tip of his left index finger. I try not to think about how that happened.I ask Johnny how many men work here. “Ten,” he says. “We start at one o’clock in the morning and work until four. Then eight to eleven.” “How many pigs do you slaughter and roast per day?” I inquire, yelling over the cacophony of squealing pigs, barking dogs, and crowing roosters.“30 to 40 Monday to Friday, and about 100 on Saturday and Sunday. During Christmas we do 900, maybe 1,000 a day,” Johnny tells me proudly. “What is your least favorite part of this work?” I ask. “The hardest part is the roasting. It’s too hot. Two people roast. The pigs move by electrical belt. Before we did it by hand. But someone still has to work the coals, to move them around so the pigs roast nicely.” “Where are these pigs from?“ “Most of them are from Tuguegarao, but our agents procure pigs from other barrios as well,” Levi answers. “A shipment comes two to three times a week.” “How old are they?” “The small ones are four or five months. The larger ones, seven to eight.” “Who taught you how to do this?” “I learned by watching.”

“You ready?” Levi asks me, holding a knife in his hand.I nod. What am I doing here, I ask myself. Levi trails the piglets until he grabs a black native one by the hind leg. The piglet flips on to his back and shrieks loudly. Levi holds the pig’s leg in the air, then places his booted foot on the pig’s belly to immobilize him. In one clean jab, Levi adroitly inserts his knife into the jugular vein of the pig’s upper brisket. When he dislodges it, a fountain of blood squirts up about six inches into the air. Struggling, the piglet lurches a few feet, then keels over and...well... dies. The butchers all watch me. I remain stone-faced, though the brutality deeply disturbs me. The pig’s lifeless body is tossed from the floor to the tiled counter. Another butcher pumps blood from the pig’s chest, catching it in a small white plastic container for dinuguan, or blood stew. Shaving follows. The now-hairless pig is flung onto the stainless steel table where another butcher armed with a sharp knife slits his belly. Working like a surgeon, the butcher reaches in, bare-handed, and emerges with a wad of glistening innards. The butcher slides the gutted pig down the table where it is mounted onto a seven-foot metal pole. The pig is rinsed again and again before it joins others lining the wall. All are rubbed with rock salt and doused in soy sauce before roasting. I admit, I’m feeling a bit woozy and it’s only 4 a.m.

Mila’s husband, Serafin Cesario, a jovial man in his seventies, is sitting in a white plastic chair on the sidewalk. Both he and Mila take turns supervising the lechon production, which they started in 1986. I thank him for allowing me to come today. “What do you think?” he asks me.“Ummm...I’ve never seen an animal slaughtered before, so I found it disturbing...but I guess blood and guts are part of any slaughter house,” I end with a chuckle, masking my angst. He laughs too. “Bah. You get used to it.” I ask Serafin if he likes lechon. “Yes, very much.” “What’s you favorite part?” I continue.    

“All parts are my favorite. But I guess I like the crispy pata the best. And the skin, of course.” “Being in the business, do you ever get sick of lechon?” “Sometimes,” he admits. A couple hours later, Mila, a seventy-something, coiffed, graceful lady is waiting for me. On a shelf in her restaurant, I notice three awards: two AA awards for health inspection (triple A is the highest), and a plaque for overall lechon excellence. I ask her how her famous lechon empire came to be.“I started a sidewalk stand with 50 pesos in 1965, when 50 pesos was worth something. When I saved about 700 pesos, I opened a sari-sari store where I sold corn, fruits, and other things,” Mila explains how she used to buy and roast one lechon and sell pieces of it to her neighbors. In 1968, she opened a carinderia. “One day, I realized that there’s a lot of business from the cockpit arena across the street. So I started roasting lechon for the cock fighters... When they win, there is always a big celebration.” “Did you ever think you’d make your fortune with lechon?” I ask. “No. My father insisted that his kids know how to do business. So when I was nine years old I started as a business girl. I sold anything because I wanted my own money. My father taught us the importance of investing money and saving it. He was a businessman but he never gave his children hand-outs.” “What is your secret to success?” With a warm smile and a soothing motherly voice Mila slowly says, “Always hoping, industrious, and thrifty, and from the Lord, I ask for help. I never lose hope. That’s my secret.” After a reflective pause, she continues, “I have always worked hard. Even now, I spend ten to twelve hours at my restaurant. My kids are all in the business, even though they do other things as well.” As Mila tells me about her family’s other business ventures, a waiter transfers a huge, glistening roasted pig to a bamboo stretcher which he wraps in foil and ties with a blue bow affixed with a Mila’s Lechon sticker. I can already hear the crooning this bundle will generate when it reaches its destination. I will always remember Mila and my early morning adventure in her abattoir. My curiosity is satisfied, so bring on the lechon to satisfy my stomach!

Happy Holidays!

Catherine Jones is an author and food writer who is having fun exploring the Philippines. Check out her web site to learn about her books. You might need the one on reducing your cholesterol after feasting on lechon!

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