Ah, Christmas Eve. A quaint day spent by the majority of those who live outside of South Florida doing nothing out of the ordinary. But if you're a Cuban-Miamian, Noche Buena is what's up on the 24th. Noche Buena, which translates to "good night," is more than just a massive family gathering where you get to see all 15 of your aunts and uncles and 27 of your first cousins. It's an overabundance of eating, drinking, and merriment -- it's a feast for all of the senses.
If you've never experienced a Cuban Noche Buena, here are a few things you should be expecting.
Noche Buena is not the most vegetarian-friendly of feasts. You see, the
main attraction of any Noche Buena is the lechón asado (roast pork).
There's an actual science involved in the procurement and preparation of
a properly roasted pork -- a two-day process at that. It all starts on December 23. The hombres go pick up porky at a slaughterhouse, but
this isn't an activity for the faint of heart. No, only the bravest
with a stomach of steel can actually witness their food butchered,
de-haired, gutted, and tied up. Fortunately, this step can be avoided by
ordering your pig from your local Hispanic supermarket (i.e.: Sedano's) a
few days in advance.
Once at home, the pig is then cleaned and marinated overnight in adobo -- a
potent blend of garlic, oregano, cumin, naranja agria (sour orange
juice), and copious amounts of salt. On the venti quarto, the pig is put
to roast, but a caja china is the utmost essential. This
roasting device is an enclosed box that cooks the pork under coal for about four hours. The moment it's ready is usually quite the
spectacle. It's a culmination of hard work, delivery, and anticipation
akin to the birth of a first-born son. Everyone gathers around drooling, eagerly waiting until the scalding lechón is cool enough to rip a
piece off of the crispy skin. Some families may or may not fight over
the pig ear (ahem). It's barbaric-style fun!
If you're not a diabetic now, you just might be after just one Noche Buena.
Indulging your sweet tooth in an assortment of dessert prepared days in
advance is a given. The usual suspects include dulce de naranja (orange
shells in a heavy syrup) and buñuelos (Cuban doughnuts) made of
boniato (white sweet potato), which is fried and served with syrup.
Gouda cheese is also served with just about every dessert, especially
slices of guava and dulce de coco (ground coconut dessert). Homemade
desserts are usually not enough to stuff your belly. That's when turrón
comes into play. These Spanish confections are pre-packaged, come in
several varieties, and can be purchased anywhere "oye!" is an acceptable
expression. The fan favorite is turrón Alicante -- you can probably chip a
tooth by biting into this nougat candy made of honey, sugar, and
toasted almonds, but it's pretty irresistible.
Noche Buena is more than just a belt-loosening largesse of a day.
Playing un juego de domino is a must. The traditional way to
play is on a dominoes table with domino racks holding up your 11 pieces.
It helps if the table comes with built-in cup holders to keep you from
knocking over your beverage when shuffling the pieces in between rounds.
Aside from the food and games, there's also cigar smoking -- the men
usually convene at one point in the evening and smoke their finest
Cubans. The music is also a big deal. Salsa, merengue -- anything with
bongos or Celia Cruz that allows you to dance rapidly while
simultaneously hoping you'll burn off some excess calories. Ladies, you
may also partake in the unavoidable family gossiping. Fair warning: Your
aunt may stab you with the ever-so-unwarranted "your biological clock
is ticking" comment, but that's why it's imperative to keep a strong
alcoholic beverage tight in your grip at all times. This leads us to the
drinking. Drinking is like the national sport of Noche Buena. Pure, unadulterated, and unlimited drinking is encouraged at all times.
You drink while policing the pork; you drink while playing dominoes; you
drink while eating; and you pretty much drink whenever you're sitting,
standing, walking, yelling, and dancing. Not drinking is, for all intents
and purposes, prohibited.
Getting to do it all again on Christmas day
Food is something you simply can't avoid in a Cuban household. On
Christmas day, you can gather with the family once again and pretty much
do everything you did the night before. Since abuela will most-likely
cook enough food to feed the entire block, you'll have leftovers for a
solid three days. It's also the one time of year you'll probably never
suffer a hangover thanks to the fatty, starchy foods that are readily
available around-the-clock. If you're lucky, you will have a period of five
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days to rest your cholesterol-laden bodies before you have to repeat it
all over on New Years Eve.
-- Vanessa Martin