There are some once-a-year winter holiday extravagances I thrill to see again when their numbers come up. There’s a frozen milk punch and a caviar sandwich and a homemade Boston cream doughnut; there’s a hand-chopped steak tartare and a grilled Cheddar-cheese sandwich and a mid-December cookie swap pfeffernusse cookie with imported candied citron — all of which can still stop me in my tracks, eyes closed for a few seconds, savoring my annual reunion.
The whole roasted suckling pig — for one holiday party a year — is a singular heart-racer. With its crackling skin so crisp it sounds as if you are cutting a loaf of bread, and its profoundly sticky, ribbon-soft, milky meat, this pig makes every single person light up when it’s served. Its smell hits you in the nose, that compelling, faint-but-heady whiff of urine (a good pig from a good butcher will have spent its days in a good old-fashioned barnyard, folks), most concentrated in the pan drippings that draw you in and hold you there, head bowed and inhaling deeply with your eyes closed, as if you are at some kind of church service. There is no overstating how special this can be.
And there is no other dish on the traditional holiday table that you can cook so beautifully this easily. No seven fishes, no crown roasts, no standing rib-eyes. Not even a spiral-cut ham, with its infinity of slices, which too easily dries out. As long as you have measured your oven and been quite firm with your butcher regarding size — don’t take home a pig that’s more than 30 pounds, which most likely won’t fit in your oven — there is nothing easier for a party than roasting a whole suckling pig. I would confidently task my 15-year-old son with cooking this, even for an important event or a magazine photo shoot.
The only difficulty you might face is psychological: reckoning with the size of the animal and its undeniable resemblance — in form and heft — to that of a family pet. You will not be the first person to blanch slightly when you lift it up in your arms to wash it in the kitchen sink or the bathtub and notice how uncannily it reminds you of your neighbor’s beagle. I’m sorry in advance. Your relationship to eating animals should be robustly discussed and examined. But if you eat pork chops, jamón ibérico or even deli ham on rye, you cannot be a prude or a scold about a whole suckling pig. I think that the virtuous frown on hypocrisy more than they frown on conscientious protein consumption.
Once the pig has been rinsed and thoroughly dried, it is slicked with oil and given a good rain of coarse kosher salt. It can be delicious to season the pig with traditional Italian porchetta seasonings — minced garlic, fennel seeds, citrus zest, black pepper, red-pepper flakes, rosemary — but for the first-timer, I think it’s revelatory and instructive to see what you get from just plain salt, a few cloves of garlic and the pig itself.
Then it goes right in your oven and roasts all afternoon. The pig breaks down quite slowly, looking for a long while as if it’s merely going to sweat the whole time and never become crisp or mahogany, as you have been promised. Don’t worry. The cartilage and bones inside are slowly rendering a great deal of collagen, the hallmark of that sticky gelatinous tender meat. It’s only for the last 20 or 30 minutes that you blast the oven so that the subcutaneous fat liquefies and sizzles in the extreme heat, leaving pockets of air that inflate the skin, crisp and crackly — like a single giant chicharrón encasement. It’s nothing short of exhilarating.
When it’s time to present it, I put a shiny small apple in its mouth and set the pig out on a massive wooden cutting board garlanded with fresh bay leaves and rosemary branches or sometimes a heaping bed of watercress. A neatly sliced loaf of very good seeded dark rye bread — the best you can find — goes exceptionally well, as do some pickled tomatoes, some grainy mustard mixed with mayonnaise and some strong aioli. Even if we are just going to be seven or eight old dear friends sitting around the kitchen table and drinking beer, I still perform this small formality of dressing the pig correctly, with the apple in its mouth. If it’s going to be one of our glittery parties where everyone’s in velvet and pearls, we make sure to neatly stack the gold-rimmed bread-and-butter plates on the buffet, right next to the small cocktail forks rolled up in linen napkins. But even then, I’ve never seen people able to resist, at some point, setting down their Champagne flutes and just reaching in with their bare fingers.
Recipe: Whole Roast Suckling Pig