A Man and his Pig

Rene Ortiz.  The man, the myth, the farm dinner legend.  I had heard the story of last year’s October 10th dinner more than once.  For the evening’s second course, Chef Ortiz of Austin Texas’ La Condesa was to prepare a whole Richardson Farms hog with pickles, cornbread, and apple chutney.  About 15 minutes before the plates were to hit the table, front-of-the-house manager Elaine Skinner looked at expeditor Troy MacLarty with utter fear.  The pigs were still whole.  Now, I do not know much about butchering whole animals, but I do know that for most people, it takes a hell of a lot longer than 15 minutes to do.  Well, Rene is apparently not “most people.”  From head to tail, he expertly wielded his knife at an alarming speed and plated the pork with time to spare.

Photo Credit: Jeremy Fenske

Rene’s pig prowess alone was enough to ask him to do a dinner again this year; not to mention that the pig that he so deftly butchered left dinner guests speechless.   Rene returned this year with pig once again this year…two Twin Oaks 45-lb. Red Wattle and Bershire crosses to be exact.  And while I am fully aware of the boldness of my next statement, I am going to write it anyway.  Rene’s pulled pork with housemade tofu, Texas gulf oyster sauce, broccoli rabe and pasilla chilis was, to date, the single best dish of the season.  Aromatic, slightly spicy, and layered with both Thai and Mexican flavors, this dish was absolutely addicting.  Servers brought heaping platters to their tables, only to remove the empty plates just minutes later.

Photo Credit: Jeremy Fenske

And the way that Rene prepared this dish was something that I had never seen before.  To prepare the pork, he used a Caja China, which is, in the most simple of explanations, a wooden box with a charcoal grate on the top of it.  Baffled by this unfamiliar contraption and how it produced such a tasty pig, I decided to do a little investigation.  After some reading, googling, and a bit of YouTubing, I found out a little more about this mystical apparatus.

Often described as “The Magic Box,” the Caja China can roast an entire pig in just four hours.  After a pig is properly cleaned, brined, etc., it is placed in the sealed box and a charcoal fire is lit on the racks above the box.  As heat from the charcoal circulates down, the pigs are roasted slowly and evenly, creating a famously crispy skin.

Texas may have been once known as the land of steak and potatoes, but this is simply not the case anymore. It is a place of handmade tofu, artisanal products, and a fervent adherence to local ingredients; a place where inspired chefs use innovative cooking techniques to prepare some of the most delicious food one may ever have the good fortune to taste.

Photo Credit: Jeremy Fenske

Photo Credit: Jeremy Fenske

Photo Credit: Jeremy Fenske

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