Over the course of three days last week I ate, I would wager, as much lechon baboy (spit-roasted pig) as most Filipinos eat in a year. Thanks to 72 hours of intensive training, I now know a good one from a bad one, and could probably rate any lechon on a loosely calibrated scale of, say, one to five. Hardened arteries be damned.
Serious lechon research dictates a trip to La Loma, a barangay (a Philippine administrative unit) of Quezon City. Not to eat lechon - judging from what we sampled on site, and according to every local we spoke with, La Loma lechon is mediocre at best - but to get a sense of its important place in Philippine culinary culture.
La Loma is block after block of lechon roasters and sellers. The finished pigs are displayed outside the shops, exposed to exhaust and whatever else is floating about in the air. Most are sold whole, to party-givers and goers. Lechon is, more than any other Philippine food, perhaps, fiesta fare. We met a balikbayan (returnee) from California who told us he was picking up a porker to take to a family reunion a couple of hours outside of town.
'I don't eat it myself,' he said. 'Too fatty. But if it's a special occasion you gotta have lechon.'
In La Loma, pork-scented smoke hovers above the streets, where carts selling deep-fried pig innards do a steady drive-by trade.
Some of the roasting is done at streetside pits open to observation. The pigs are roasted over indirect heat for - depending on size - an average of three hours.
The shops offer delivery service - by foot,
There's always time for a game of cards as the pigs roast.
Heading back to our car, we came upon a live pig delivery. Face-to-face, so to speak, with my lunch.
As Dave snapped photos I listened to the pigs scream, as if for their lives. In fact, at that moment they were protesting being pulled by their ears.
From the back of the truck the pigs were loaded, one-by-one (or several at a time, if they were piglets) into bags to be weighed.
Once inside their bags the pigs quieted down.
After being weighed they were unceremoniously dumped into a holding room near the scale. I assume that they are slaughtered not far away. It's not nice, the way pigs are killed for lechon; they are hung upside down and their throats are slit so the blood drains cleanly.
This was the nearest I've been to my food when it was still alive, but so close to being 'meat'. The experience was ... disturbing. Standing there, watching and hearing, it was easy to swear off bacon. The sights and sounds stayed with me as we drove to our next appointment, through the afternoon, past our pork-free dinner. I'm an animal lover.
But I'll eat lechon again. So it is for carnivores.
La Loma, Quezon City, Philippines. No street names needed - every driver in Manila knows the place.