When millions of Cubans fled the island for Miami in the early 1960s, they took with them what little was left of their life in Cuba: Money and belongings were prohibited, but Cuban traditions were fair game. Soon Miami was filled with scenes from a more Caribbean life down south: Men played dominoes in the park, clubs blasted salsa music in Calle Ocho, and roosters crowed fervently at daybreak to welcome the morning. Thanks to the invasion of the Cuban community, Miami had a little more flavor. 


Photo by Carsten ten Brink


And we mean that quite literally, since Cubans also brought with them vibrantly hued tropical fruits and vegetables and traditional plates of steaming rice and beans. Outside of Cuba, no place does Cuban food like Miami, where down any random street you'll find cafes serving croquetas and mamey milkshakes out of windows, the pungent aroma of Cuban coffee wafting through the air. Food is to a Cuban like oxygen is to every other person: Surviving without it is impossible, and celebrating any kind of occasion without truckloads of it is practically sacrilegious. 

That's especially true during Christmas, when Cubans spend an entire week preparing to party for the birth of Jesus. Traditional Noche Buena celebrations are nothing like the dignified Christmas dinner depicted on TV and playing out in many a household across the rest of the U.S., where everyone says grace at the table and wears their finest Christmas threads. Cuban Noche Buena is in a rowdy, plastic-tablecloth-covered banquet hall, filled with every second tio or distant prima you see only on Noche Buena. Celebrated on December 24, Noche Buena carries on to the morning; at midnight, children tear open their gifts and the adults break into the rum and Johnnie Walker Black.

But the best part of Noche Buena — aside from your grandpa's Benny Moré records  is definitely the food. There's no such thing as ham at Noche Buena: Cubans prefer to roast the entire pig, leaving no succulent morsel left behind. It's traditional to eat every crunchy inch of the Noche Buena pig, right down to the beast's crusty ear and winding tail. Tons of garlicky, juicy meat is paraded around proudly, accompanied by black beans and rice, boiled garlic yucca, sweet fried plantains, and plenty of turrón for dessert.

Want to get in on the action and have your very own Cuban Christmas? The first thing you have to do is visit the pig farm. Yes, there are farms designed specifically to cater to guests celebrating the blessed event of roasting a pig. While there are plenty of occasions on which Cubans roast pigs, Noche Buena is the ultimate event. Mary's Ranch in Hialeah, one of the busiest pig farms in Miami, tells Savoteur their phone starts ringing off the hook the day after Thanksgiving. You can order your pig over the phone if that's what you prefer, but the typical Cuban family considers retrieving the pig a rite of passage: They send their patriarchs and aspiring young machos to the farms, where they handpick a 90-pound hog and, in some cases, even shoot it themselves.

Meanwhile, Abuela is in the kitchen making gallons of Cuban mojo to slather onto the pig at least 24 hours before its scheduled burn. Foraging hundreds of bitter oranges, sometimes from the trees that grow in backyards across Hialeah (otherwise buying them at their local Sedano's), Cuban woman mix the citrus's tart juice with plenty of garlic and raw onions with a touch of olive oil and oregano, for basting the naked pig by rubbing their bare hands across its skin, coating even the organs with the tangy marinade.

Photo by Suzie's Farm


Overnight the pig soaks in its sauce, and then it's time to start cooking. While many cultures roast a pig on a spit, Cubans invented an ingenious method for pig roasting that makes the process a little bit easier: The Caja China, a rudimentary aluminum box with a roasting rack, makes roasting the pig over coals a lot more practical than digging wooden stakes into the ground. The men of the family arrive early in the morning to start roasting their Christmas dinner — it's really not more than a two-person job, but that's not the point. It's more about coming together and keeping the roaster company, drinking beer, and playing dominoes for the eight or so hours it takes to roast a succulent pig.

And once it's ready, there's only one obstacle in place: pushing away the heaping plates of seconds and thirds your abuela is convinced you need, and which ultimately are just too tasty to resist.