The Subtle Sweetness of 'Pig Candy'

Author Lise Funderburg's trip to Georgia, away from the familiarities of the North and closer to her father.

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Dad interrupts his own reverie with projections: how we'll occupy ourselves on this trip, what changes we'll encounter, what will have stayed the same. He anticipates, accurately, that we will find his 126-acre farm-cum-vacation home in pristine condition, thanks to the attentions of Troy Johnson, a friend and fellow retiree who watches out for the house and three ponds, the ancient grove of pecan trees that yield seemingly on whim, and several well-manicured pastures Dad rents out to the cattle-farming Howard brothers, 48-year-old identical twins named Albert and Elbert.

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Down south, spring has advanced. Pear trees are in full bloom, naturalized daffodils stripe the just-greening pastures with yellow, and deep red camellias dot walkways and yards, sentries at every door. Sweaters need to be kept nearby but not on, windows are cranked open to ensure a cross breeze. We make good time from the airport to the farm, just over an hour, and Dad and I don't bother to unpack before we turn our attention to the two items on our agenda: roasting a pig and getting him some chemo.

First, the pig. In January, my father read a newspaper article that chronicled the author's experiment with cooking a 70-pound pig in a Cuban-American–designed roasting box called La Caja China [kä-hä che'-nä]: a simple plywood cart lined with metal and designed to suspend coals above rather than below the meat. The outcome, sweet and savory, succulent and crisp, earned the paradoxical moniker "pig candy."

My father has always displayed a fascination for crafty mechanics, for improved ways to clean and fix and open and close. Clever inventions and well-prepared food both make my father's list of favorite things. Together they are irresistible. Dad instantly ordered the largest model Caja from its Miami manufacturer and had it sent to the farm.

In Monticello, population 2,500, with its intertwined bloodlines and relationships, word gets around. Dad tells everyone we run into about La Caja China, or "pig box," as we have come to call it. He informs anyone he can corner that he's looking to find a whole pig: that he needs it dressed and delivered and preferably 100 pounds, which is the box's stated maximum capacity. He mentions this to Connie, the cashier at the Tillman House Restaurant. He inserts this into small talk when he's charging wigglers and deer feeder pellets at Monticello Farm & Garden. He broadcasts it at Eddie Ray Tyler's barbershop, where one or two men sit in the defunct shoeshine stand that serves as a waiting area whether someone's in Eddie Ray's cutting chair or not.

Dad mentions his pig quest to Marshall Tinsley, a handsome man close to 60 with a strong, open face and a brilliant smile, despite a few missing teeth on the bottom row. Marshall is a mason twice over: by trade and also as a 33rd-degree Free and Accepted Mason of the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Georgia, for which he serves in the office of Worshipful Junior Grand Steward. Marshall's first visit to Dad's farm was to fix a screen door. His skill and thoroughness caught my father's attention, and now Marshall comes to Thanksgiving. One time, he even brought the turkey, which he'd deep-fried at three minutes per pound.

 

Marshall is somehow related to Holsey Tinsley (the childhood sweetheart and now second husband of my father's sister, Chase, which makes Holsey, I realize a few years after their marriage, my uncle) and directly related to the owner of Dave's BBQ & Soul Food restaurant, Dave Tinsley, who is Marshall's brother. Marshall has a bad back and a bum knee that collapses under him without warning. It looks like he's doubling over with laughter, except it's weakness and pain. He went through "the cancer," as some people here put it, and when he hears that Dad's prostate cancer has come out of a 15-year remission and that he'll have to have chemotherapy, Marshall recommends strawberry-flavored Ensure, which he drank when chemo killed his appetite, which was all the time. Dad is sure to mention the pig quest to Marshall because Marshall is well-connected through the Masons and work and church activities and through taking at least one meal a day at his brother's restaurant on Frobel Street, one block east of the town square. One of Marshall's closest friends is a heavily networked bus driver/prison guard/chicken farmer who goes by the nickname of Tater and is Marshall's partner in a venture concerning a herd of goats.

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