Sure, it’s most often used during the holiday to roast a Christmas lechon? But the caja china remains the ultimate Hispanic form of outdoor cooking—and perfect for summertime cooking. As a way of honoring this most hallowed tradition, NBC Latino asked the granddaughter of the man who invented La Caja China decades ago to re-tell its story.
Nothing is more tantalizing than the satisfying crunch of cooked pig skin after it’s been roasted for hours in a wooden box full of hot coals. It’s the tease before a plate of lechon and my annual Christmas tradition.
Growing up in Miami, the smell of roasting pork fills the streets and backyards of homes on Noche Buena and my uncle’s house is no exception.
On special occasions (or just because) we use La Caja China to cook an entire pig for the whole family to enjoy. Translated it means the Chinese box. It’s made of wood and sheets of metal, and it was created by a Cuban man in South Florida. His name is Roberto Guerra, but I call him Abuelo– the man behind “the box.”
I always get asked about how it started and how it got its name. It’s called “The Chinese Box” for a reason. Back in 1955, my grandfather saw a similar box being used by a Chinese family in Havana’s Chinatown. But the idea of creating the box wasn’t discussed until over 30 years later.
Together with my uncle, that idea was manifested into reality in the back of a warehouse at my father’s company with nothing more than willing hands and a little bit of carpentry knowledge. I still remember the smell of plywood in the air when I would go and visit my grandfather.
It’s a business that has since gained international success.
My uncle runs the reins of the business but my grandfather is still very much involved. He just turned 87 but you’ll find him every day at work in his uniformed cap, tucked-in shirt, and white sneakers.
He still lives in the same house where my mother and uncle were raised in Hialeah- a city in northwest Miami with a large Cuban population (and the best cordatito a buck can buy). He still tends his guava tree, cheers for his favorite baseball team (the Marlins, in case you’re wondering) and I’m convinced his favorite pastime is watching me enjoy any meal he prepares for me.
My afternoons with him are spent under the shade of his mango tree, as I listen to him talk about dreams, motivation, and how important it is for me to never give up. Each sentence seems to end with, “Echa pa’ lante.”
His hands are rough and worn and show the marks of a hard man’s work. They’re the same hands that gathered his family from the middle of a revolution to search for opportunity in a foreign country and gave life to the first Caja China back in 1987.
And now, just like with my family, the wooden pig roaster has become a staple for many during the holidays. My grandfather still inspires me to hold fast to my dreams. And I hope after reading this, his story will do the same for you. Even if it means you have to think outside “the box.”
Sasha Luque is a NBC News Associate, born and raised in Miami, FL. She is a self-proclaimed foodie, writer, traveler and lover of all things dipped in chocolate. You can reach her via Twitter @sashaluque.