University of Minnesota

“If It Isn’t Fun.” – Pigs and Pears

Roast fetal pig was the delicacy promised for the celebration of my farewell to Cuba. I had worked well with the Cuban staff in the mission clinics all summer but had been quite sequestered socially by Garfield Evans, the Methodist missionary at whose invitation I had come and in whose home I was a permanent guest. The conformity and routines of an evangelical preacher’s house were not entirely unexpected, but after naval service, medical school, internship, and a certain experience of the world, they were now an unaccustomed constraint. The kindly but paternalistic missionary preempted all my time and activities. This led to my developing few friendships among the clinic staff and making little progress speaking Spanish. Treated as the fair-haired, preacher’s son-doctor from the States, I missed the rich camaraderie and collegial aspects I was later to experience from medical work in the field. This was, after all, a colonial-style medical mission, led in the paternalistic, proselytizing way of most evangelical missions. Moreover, our clinics were separated by many miles, each with a staff unto itself, and we had never met as a group until the celebration of my departure.

Of course, my host the good missionary did what he felt was his best to entertain this young medical sophisticate, with social activity built around our busy work plan for that summer.

I am, after all, considerably in his debt for arranging my introduction to Nelly Trocmé, the French girl from the student work camp in Gibara, who was later to become my wife.

He took us on an exquisite side trip to the United Fruit Company sugar plantation and the residence of expatriate plant supervisor, Don Townes, in a thoughtfully planned weekend away from our grueling schedule. 

Near that plantation was the last of the five Oriente clinics we were to establish that summer. Our visit there also became the occasion for the staffs to congregate before my imminent departure, after that long, hot summer. Garfield Evans and his native Protestant followers created a special fete, gathering together under a thatched shed in a pleasant clearing next to a cane field where the cane was now quite high and waving in the trade winds. As each clinic group appeared in the corral, I attempted in my limited Spanish to greet them and thank them for coming. The chief clinic assistant had preceded us by several hours and had wrapped the main course for the evening, a fetal pig, in banana leaves, laid it on coals, and covered the whole with branches and soil. When we arrived, the pig had cooked for approximately three hours.

For some time I watched, a bit shy and detached, the happy social goings-on among the sweet devotees of the mission. They were all kind to me with their warm smiles and greetings. But I was ill at ease being celebrated at all. I felt that I had made no profound contribution to their medical mission and certainly none at all to this social occasion. I wanted badly to be the typical gregarious American, a clown who could make people laugh with an international language of humor. To no avail. My discomfort was prolonged by the painfully slow cooking process, and there was no aperitif, no picnic games, no music — a Methodist Mission social, after all.

At last, with great fanfare, came the disinterment of the fetal pig. Brought out from the coals and the banana leaves peeled away, it was a perfectly awful sight: a slimy, pink, unappetizing naked little beast. I fixed a smile on my face that was to remain frozen for the rest of the evening. As my colleagues “oohed and aahed” over the delicacy, I watched horrified as they dissected the skin and separated out the meat, gristle, and bone, constructing a mucinous mountain of supposedly edible parts on a large platter. The pig was the sole entrée of our banquet. With it there was no savory sauce, no vegetables, no complementary salad, no crusty bread, no wine, nothing — except the slightly sweet “honorific pig.” The locals considered it a great delicacy, wading in to their ears, clutching the gelatinous flesh with bare hands, eating with great relish and much smacking of lips.

Meanwhile, I sequestered as many paper napkins as I could and within them surreptitiously wrapped the several pieces of pig that I was unable to avoid accepting. Pretending to eat, I stuffed the gooey mass into my jacket for later disposal, and, though I actually ate very little, it was enough to make me quite nauseated.

When everyone had cleaned their platters, dessert was announced, again with great fanfare, and just as proudly presented as had been the fetal pig. Our host, the chief clinic technician, opened before us a gallon tin and served us its warm, syrupy contents in paper cups: Bartlett pear halves! I’ve not been able to stomach a canned pear in syrup during the 50 years since that day. Not to speak of banana-wrapped, pit-roasted fetal pig.

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