The meat in our local supermarket wasn’t very good, so I crossed the street to Oscar’s butcher store. I entered early Saturday morning, most times as his first customer. He was maybe a few years older than me, too young to be called a curmudgeon. If he smiled more, Oscar would have been handsome—dark eyes, high cheekbones, powerful wide chest over which he always folded his muscular, tattooed arms. But he never smiled.
Every Saturday, he ignored me for a good five, ten minutes. But the early hour was the only one available to me, with my young sons already careering through the house and chores unable to be tended to during the workweek incessantly piling up. Oscar busied himself with wiping down his case, slowly drinking coffee, slamming a knife down on meat slabs in the back. His unwelcome also included the fact that I was white, an observation he made on my second visit. He didn’t shy away from opinionating that it meant his Latino neighborhood would gentrify, his family and friends soon pushed out by people like me. It wasn’t and still isn’t, but he never relented.
Oscar’s meat was superb because he bought it at the halal live animal market a couple blocks away. He knew the New Jersey and upstate New York farms where the animals originated from and personally picked out his poultry, lamb, goat, and pig. Sides of beef were butchered near the pastures they had grazed in. Fresh, local sourcing was not as widespread then as it is today. I’m pretty sure he would see this development as another sign of an invasion on his turf.
His unfriendliness bothered me but not enough to stop me from returning. I worked steadily though his selections and tried not to be nervous when, with each purchase, he asked me if I knew what to do with it.
“This isn’t Perdue,” he said of his chickens.
“You know you need bones?” he chided with his stewing goat cubes.
“Rabbit?” he scoffed when I said I would roast it.
Pork was the one meat he wouldn’t make a comment about because I stuck with chops. I figured he thought even an idiot knew how to cook chops—except for pork shoulder, especially the ones encased in plastic bags. He steered me away in almost a refusing tone the first time I asked for one. He didn’t explain; he just said they were special orders.
I remember it as a year of weekly visits, a whole year of purchases, before he told me why he didn’t think I deserved a plastic bag of pork shoulder.
“That’s been marinating for four days, you know that?” he asked.
No, I did not know that.
“It’s for pernil.”
I had never heard of what has been called the national Puerto Rican dish.
“So I’m going to tell you what to do. You’re going to take it out and put it in a cast iron pot. You got a cast iron pot? You put it in a cast iron pot with a tight lid. Then you put it in the oven at maybe 200 degrees and cook for six hours, maybe longer, until the fat melts. Make sure the fat melts. But the top fat needs to be very very crisp, hard like a lid. Then you’re going to bring me a piece and I’m going to let you know if you did it right.”
I almost backed out, the responsibility and challenge too overwhelming. But my relationship with Oscar had come too far. I paid for the pork and, the next day, followed his directions. The marinade stained my fingers red—a mixture of what I had come to recognize as Adobo, sofrito, and sazón. The thick wrapping of fat made the meat slippery as I placed it in my cast iron pot. It cooked all through Sunday afternoon, my family’s home slowly filling with an addictive scent. By the time I brought the pork to the table, the meat had fallen away from the bone into shreds. My husband and I fought over pieces of crust.
Oscar was about to close up his store by the time I got home from work the next day, picked up the kids, and dragged them with me up the hill to his store with a small aluminum packet containing the last of the pernil. He unwrapped it, tasted it, and gave it back to me.
“No.” Not a word more.
A couple of weeks later, I bought another pork shoulder and cooked it the way he told me. Then a couple of weeks after that, I did the same. I’m going to say five tries later, or about half a year, I again brought him a small aluminum packet of pernil.
He licked his fingers and said, “Not bad.”
That’s how I learned to make pernil, continuing to try to perfect it every time. And I believe this is why Oscar began to be sort of kind to me and why one Saturday morning in late spring he came around his counter. Very uncharacteristically for his store, a radio played. A salsa beat came on.
“I’m going to teach you something else,” he said and extended his arm to me, hesitating to put the other lightly around my hips. Oscar began to try to move me to the music but gave up after a few awkward turns. He shook his head, returned to behind his counter, the both of us laughing. I thought it was my mastering of pernil that led him to such a gesture, but I learned later it could only have been because he found a woman who made him happy. They had a huge wedding in the nearby Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and, by the year’s end, he told his customers he and his wife were moving to Florida.
¼ cup unflavored oil
12 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup fresh oregano, or 1 tablespoon dried.
2 tablespoons Adobo seasoning
2 tablespoons sofrito
2 or more packets of sazón, depending on your taste
1 bone-in pork shoulder, about 7 pounds
1 teaspoon salt plus more for seasoning at the end
Black pepper to taste
Mix together in a bowl the oil, garlic, oregano, Adobo, sofrito, and sazón. Place the pork shoulder inside the bowl and roll the meat around until it’s well covered with the seasoning. Put the meat into a large plastic bag. If there’s any seasoning left in the bowl, scoop it out with your hand and smear it over the meat. Seal the bag and let it marinate for at least three days in the refrigerator.
Take the meat out of the refrigerator and place it in the cast iron pot you’ll cook it in. Let it come to room temperature. Again, if there is any seasoning left in the bag, scoop it out and smear it over the top and sides of the meat.
Preheat the oven to 225 degrees. Bake the pork with the lid on for about 3 hours. Remove the lid and bake for another 3 to 4 hours. The pork is done when the meat begins to fall apart in shreds and the crust is hard to your liking.
Take the pork out of the oven and let it rest in the pot, uncovered, for about 20 minutes or so. Transfer it to a cutting board, cut the crust off, and begin to shred the meat. You may want to place your board a little over the sink to keep any remaining fat or juices from messing up the counter.
Mound the meat on a serving platter. Cut the crust into thin slices to have enough for everyone and arrange on top of the meat. Adobo and sazón already have a lot of salt in them, so be careful if you want to sprinkle on more. Sprinkle black pepper to your taste.
Bring to the table and enjoy. Serves 4.