For 15 years, my grandmother Virginia Selby ran The Tasting Spoon, a Tucson cooking school taught by a variety of local chefs and home cooks. Virginia’s exemplary hospitality and flawless presentation were as familiar to her guests as her passion for cooking and conversation, but even Nana’s best-laid plans could go awry. In this piece, my grandmother describes one such occasion, an event we call “The Day of the Pig” (watch for a cameo appearance by yours truly). In addition to her passions for cooking and writing, she loved to read about food, and kept a close eye on family members around her copies of Edible Baja Arizona, a magazine she cherished. When I was hired to work for eBA, I told her I wanted to collaborate on a piece for the magazine, but she gently suggested I would need to do the piece on my own. Her death at 90 years young last April unfortunately proved her prediction right. While it will never equal hearing the words spoken in her characteristic soft drawl, my Mississippi-born grandmother left behind a wealth of her stories in a collection she titled Soul Food, and I share this bit of family folklore in her memory.
— Kate Selby, online editor for Edible Baja Arizona
By mid-summer it was a done deal. My son, Rob, had asked if we could have a luau class in the fall complete with suckling pig. I had finally found a meat distributor that promised they could have a pig in mid-October. Therein hangs my tale!
When the class was advertised, we had an immediate response from 20 or more people. Looking ahead, I bought Hawaiian print material for tablecloths and color leis, and had loads of seashells for decorating.
On the Friday before the Saturday class, I drove down the freeway to the meat company to pick up my suckling pig. I was presented with, not a cute little pink pig, but more like an adolescent with legs about as long as mine! When I voiced my concern as to where I could keep such a large animal overnight, he replied “No problem, just put it in a bed roll!” The average October temperature in Tucson is usually in the high 80s!
The pig was placed in my hatchback, looking right at my back. As we drove down the highway, we got some puzzled looks from the truckers who could look down from their cabs into my little Fiesta and see me and my adolescent pig! When I stopped at Reay’s Market to pick up a whole fish, I was complaining to anyone who would listen to me. Thank goodness, the manager heard my wailing about what to do with the pig overnight. He offered to keep it in their walk-in refrigerator, so after I hung my “friend” by one leg on a hook, they rolled it away behind the scenes and I took off for home.
We had had many grilling classes at the school, even one that had used the pit dug in the back side yard. Pit barbecue takes an extraordinary lot of preparation: lots of mesquite, lots of time. For the pig, we were supposed to have banana leaves to line the pit, but as this seemed more or less impossible, we were told that lettuce leaves are a good substitute. I begged my friend the produce man at Safeway for the outside leaves that are usually thrown away, and that evening, the mesquite logs were laid in the pit and the fire started to burn all night.
Next morning I picked up the pig and it was made ready for the pit. The coals were just right, with the lettuce leaves laid down, then the pig resting on them with leaves on top, covered by layers of foil and metal. Rob had put on heavy work gloves for all this and suddenly I saw him shake his hand violently and tear off his glove. I thought perhaps he had gotten a hot coal down his glove. “I think I’ve been bitten by a spider!” he exclaimed. By some strange coincidence, there was a small jar sitting nearby, and he had seen a spider fall out when he jerked off the glove. He scooped it up in the jar and we were looking at a genuine black widow spider. No one does well with a black widow bite, but Rob is highly allergic. With his hand in a bag of ice cubes, he and his wife Pam left for the emergency room. “Don’t worry, Mom. I’ll be back in time for the class.” This was about noon and the class was scheduled for four o’clock!
The next four hours were hideous…I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I was worried about Rob, and I was worried about what to do about the class. Along with everything else, they had left behind their baby daughter, Kate, 8 months old. I didn’t know whether to keep working toward having the class or start calling all those planning to attend and canceling…or just what. They eventually called from the hospital to say that Rob had been given a shot and they wanted to keep him there for observation for a while. In a sort of daze, I continued setting tables in the patio, and doing all the many other things that needed to be done to make this class work. My daughter-in-law’s parents arrived for the class, and I put them to work; my mother was there, and I called my daughter and her husband to come help. The family rallied around!
Meanwhile, the pig was doing who knows what… I had no idea how long it was supposed to cook, nor did I have any intention of taking it out. About 3:30 Rob and Pam came rushing in, Rob looking white as a sheet and announcing that he was going for a shower. I had forgotten just how dirty he was when he took off for the hospital, covered with soot, smoke and dust. People started arriving about 3:45 and I’d tell them, “Good news and bad: we’re having a class but it may be late…our teacher was bitten by a black widow.”
Finally the class began. Rob was still dreadfully pale, and talking to the class with his hand in a container of ice water. Ever so often, I’d see him learning up against something as if it was all that was keeping him from collapsing. He didn’t cut out a thing, and went through every technique, every method, every recipe planned to accompany the pig. Eventually the entire class went out to watch the “unveiling of the pig.” Out came this animal that had been in way too long and most of his hindquarters were cooked away, but if Rob was distressed, he didn’t show it. We quickly brought it into the kitchen and stuck the proverbial apple in its mouth and cranberries in its eyes, and hung a carnation lei that my mother had made around its neck. It looked terrific! As far as all the meat that was burned away, we still had piles of wonderful tasting sliced pork.
The afternoon class had turned into evening, and with the cooking finally over, we set about serving. It was a beautiful night and everyone seemed to be having a wonderful time. Pam’s mother, Helen, decided to bring out our precious granddaughter. As Helen walked across the patio between the tables, her foot struck a water faucet handle causing her to trip. The baby practically flew out of her arms, and there was an audible gasp from the students. Helen lurched, catching Kate, but twisting her ankle. Her foot had broken off the water pipe and now we had a five-foot waterspout in the backyard! The only way to stop the water was at the cut-off in the desert way out behind the wall. Rob with his sore hand rushed out to do just that.
After such a traumatic event, people seemed ready to relax and they started to leave. There was this one couple who were first time students. I walked to the door with them and stood there talking. “You know,” I said, “our classes are always fun but we don’t usually have this much excitement. I hope you’ll come back.” As I said this, the screen door fell off in my hands. They took one last look and scurried away. I’ve never seen them again. It had been the cooking class from hell!