When I was but a boy, the West Side Market in Cleveland was a place of great mystery. My mother spoke of it in hushed awe as if it were sacred, or at least nearly sacred. The vendors there carried the run of the mill produce and meats of any market, but also some of the more exotic combinations that reflected the Eastern European heritage of many of Cleveland’s neighborhoods. Kielbasa, Blood Sausage, and Head Cheese, to name a few items, were the things that made my mother’s eyes sparkle just a bit.
She did not go to the West Side Market very often when we were young, and so its status grew in my mind as my mother schlepped herself to the A & P, and had to make do with the butcher there. She told stories of how her father, during the Depression, would take the cable car from their neighborhood of Tremont to the the market, and bring home a live chicken. Then her mother would pluck it in their tiny cellar so that she could cook it. There would be feathers, and blood, and filth all over the cellar and the kitchen, and her father would sit proudly in his chair smoking and reading the paper because he had done his part in bringing it home.
I remember going to the West Side Market once and seeing a whole pig in the glass display of the butcher. It looked far bigger than me, and probably was, given that I was only eight or nine. I had never seen such a thing. Eyeballs, snout, ears, and curly tail—it was all there.
The next time I saw such a thing was thirty years later when my neighborhood wanted to have a block party. We wanted to “do a pig roast”, and I was naive and foolish enough to retrieve the roaster because my van had a hitch on it. I was immediately promoted to chief cook considering that I lived on the cul-de-sac and we wanted to have the neighborhood party there, as well.
We started the charcoal briquettes at 6:30 in the morning, and the pig arrived at seven. I didn’t take time to marvel at the poor beast, but I should have, because I doubt that I’ll ever be foolish enough to roast another pig. By 7:10 A.M., the pig was settled in the roaster, and I sat in a chair on the lawn with two of my neighbors and we began to drink beer.
Less than an hour later, disaster came to visit. I had put too much charcoal in the roaster (our crime scene investigation revealed), and the pig caught fire. When a pig catches fire, it’s like something out of a movie. Flames fly out of the roaster like napalm, and the heat forces you to cringe and back away. Near panic, we tried to lift the pig out of the roaster, but no one could maintain their grip long enough to carry it to safety. We considered hosing the damn thing down, but instead one neighbor pulled the charcoal tray out of the back. We snapped the lid down, and hoped the flame would extinguish itself.
It turned out to be only a minor blemish. Part of the flank was charred. There was worry that more of the pig may, in fact, be ruined, but not having a lot of options, we decided to tone down the heat and see what happens.
Eight hours later, the pig was fully roasted. Having been snacking and drinking all day, I was fully toasted. I don’t think I even tried the pork. I wasn’t hungry.