Friday, November 28, 2014

Pigs, Proulx and Pernil: A Cook the Books Review of That Old Ace in the Hole

The Shipping News, author Annie Proulx's most well known books, is one that I count among my top ten favorite novels. It's a book that I have bought multiple copies of to press into the hands of our bookshop customers and which I have read with gusto numerous times. I love the minutiae about Newfoundland weather, geography, history and maritime lore that Proulx packs into it and the characters are exquisitely drawn. I also have enjoyed Proulx's other works, including Postcards and Accordion Crimes, but somehow I hadn't yet prowled through That Old Ace in the Hole, so I was delighted when Simona of Briciole, the current host of this round of Cook the Books (the bimonthly foodie book club) picked this fun book.

That Old Ace in the Hole is one of Proulx's trademark intensive explorations of a region, in this case the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles. I have not personally been to this part of the West, but after reading this book, I feel I have had an armchair tour of some of the dusty small towns, farms and landscapes that dot this sparsely populated area.

I have to say that I fell in love with the front jacket photo of the British edition I have (but not the high-acid paper content that makes the pages so browned already). The expression on the dude's face makes me laugh and seems to fit the central character, the hapless Bob Dollar, a young man who is abandoned by his parents at the doorstep of his uncle Tam, who runs a Denver thrift shop and is a fiend for Bakelite and other "art plastic". Bob finishes junior college and then is hired by a light bulb company from which he is fired after he recoils from massaging the owner's damp and fetid stockinged feet. He signs up as a front man for a hog farm conglomerate and is assigned to go undercover in the Texas and Oklahoma panhandle to scout out possible locations for more pig farm-factories.

I also love that the book is positively festooned with ridiculous names: Sheriff Hugh Dough, Rope Butt, Tater Crouch, Red Poarch, Ribeye Cluke, Francis Scott Keister (aw, come on!) Hefran Wardrip, Jerky Baum, Freda Beautyrooms, and on and on.

WARNING The following paragraphs contain a spoiler alert or two, so don't read on if you plan to read the book, which I hope you do:

I am annoyed that Proulx did not wrap up the two ongoing mysteries that I thought would be explained at the end of the book. In fact the very last sentence of the book just mentions that Bob Dollar is going to ask his former landlady, LaVon Fronk, to finally tell the story behind a photo of her grandad with whip scars on his back that readers have been wondering about for 250 pages. And I thought Bob's wayward parents might show up in the pages to explain why they never scooped him back up or at least some resolution of that issue might be explained (their bones lying bleached on a dusty Texas arroyo). Perhaps a Bob Dollar sequel is in the can....?

At Cook the Books, we not only read and blog about our chosen book, but we cook up a dish that represents a scene or embodiment of our reading. In my case, I went for a porky meal, a nod to small-scale pig farming discussed so eloquently in the book. This Dominican-style Roast Pork Shoulder (Pernil) recipe is one we have been enamored of at our favorite restaurant in Albany, New York, Casa Dominicana. The owners, Hector and Maria, are the sweetest, friendliest couple and make you feel right at home in their cozy restaurant. They have a large menu, but somehow our family never makes it past the CRISPY-skinned roast pork steaming at the ordering counter. Hector and Maria make a spicy cilantro, garlic and jalapeno sauce to sprinkle over the pork, which we haven't as yet successfully reproduced. But the couple gave us basic instructions for pernil, which they cook in huge quantities in their restaurant oven, which we have tweaked a little to adjust to our home kitchen. The trick as Hector says, is a long, slow cooking time.

Pernil a la Hector and Maria (start recipe two days in advance)

1 pork shoulder (go for 10-12 lb. shoulder, since this is a somewhat time- and labor-intensive dish. That way you'll have plenty of delicious pork for several meals. And be sure to invite your friends over to help you eat it up)

1/2 cup orange juice (about 2 small oranges)
1/2 cup lemon juice (about 2 lemons)
1 bunch cilantro, stems and leaves, rough chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
8 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
2 Tbsp. ground cumin
2 Tbsp. oregano
2 Tbsp. paprika
Salt and pepper to taste

Rinse and pat dry the pork shoulder.  Slash into the skin and fat as much as you can to draw in the marinade.

Mix all ingredients except pork in a blender or food processor and whizz until smooth. Pour over pork shoulder and let marinate at least 24 hours in a covered glass bowl or baking dish in the fridge. Two days is better. Turn a couple of times during this period.

Remove pork from marinade and discard marinade. Place pork in heavy roasting pan, add in 1 cup water, and roast at 300 degrees F for 5-6 hours. Baste every half hour and add in additional water if needed. You should start out uncovered, but then, after turning the roast a couple of times, cover for last hour. Test for doneness by poking with a long fork. If roast is ready, it is now time to crisp up the skin. Sprinkle with a little extra kosher salt, turn up the heat to 375 and take off the cover. When skin is sizzling and crispy, take out roast and let it rest for at least 20 minutes before carving.

Pernil is great served with rice and beans and a little salad on the side with a citrusy dressing.

The next book we will be reading for Cook the Books is Sustenance and Desire: A Food Lover's Anthology of Sensuality and Humor, edited and illustrated with paintings by Bascove, one of my favorite book jacket illustrators. Readers may be familiar with her luminous jacket art for the Brother Cadfael mysteries by Ellis Peters or the novels by Robertson Davies, but she has done many, many more. I will be hosting this next round of Cook the Books and hope you will join us in reading and cooking from this tasty book. Submissions for the next round are due Feb. 2nd, 2015.


Alicia Foodycat said...

That sounds lovely Rachel!

I hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving and aren't under too much snow.

Simona Carini said...

Great post, Rachel. I also loved The Shipping News and Postcards and I guess those earlier readings prepared me for Proulx's style of, as you well say "intensive explorations of a region." I smiled at the image of you pressing The Shipping News in the hand of a customer. I haven't said this before, but I got The Old Ace in the Hole at a used bookstore and had a nice conversation with the owner over my original quest and the book I ended up purchasing. Your dinner looks like a feast! Well done. Thank you for your contribution to this edition of Cook the Books.

Wendy Klik said...

Good choice Rachel to go along with the book this month. Looking forward to next month's selection.

mickeydownunder said...

G'day What a great choice for this month's Cook the Book challenge too!
Cheers! Joanne @ What's On The List

Debra Eliotseats said...

I am definitely making this, Rachel. I love that face on your book, too. So comical.

Amy CookingAdventures said...

That looks amazing! I'm so glad you chose a pork dish! I was frustrated that those 2 mysteries were never solved, too!!

Deb in Hawaii said...

Great post Rachel--I always enjoy hearing what you think about the book. This was my first Proulx and I struggled to get through it at first, but then it clicked and I ended up really enjoying it. I love the cover on your copy--too fun. That looks like quite the delicious meal and pork is perfect for the book. ;-)