Was there a reason, beyond copycatting others’ common practice, for stuffing a lechon’s mouth with an apple? Maybe to deliver a moral lesson? That like Adam and Eve, “behold what befalls you if you pig out on the forbidden fruit”?
Or was it to hint on the piggy’s diet before it was executed? “Hey look! This hog was fed with nothing but delicious apples! Can you imagine the delicate fruity flavor of its superior meat? Yum!”
Or was it to sugarcoat the swine’s demise to ease eaters’ conscience? “Don’t worry, the pig died happily ever after eating an imported (yes, apples are not endemic to the Philippines) fruit that its relatives from distant orchards are known to love.”
Well, for Filipino- Norwegian Christian Andre Pettersen, Norway’s 2017 Chef of the Year, the impact was none of the above. In his personal story in the forthcoming book, The Migrant Filipino Kitchen, he was a little boy when he first encountered an apple-mouthed lechon at a fiesta in the Philippines. The memory remains vivid, a whole pig spread out belly down on the buffet table—legs, face, snout and all—on full display with an apple adorning its gaping mouth. Despite the bright red fruit, pity was the overriding emotion Christian felt. Because he associated the roasted comestible with a living being, no coaxing and cajoling could make him stomach eating the poor piggy.
While lechon is a Spanish word referring to a roast suckling pig, in the Philippines it refers to a whole roasted pig (young or old) in general. The dish itself has a cultural connotation in the country. It is a symbol of celebration—a communal event when folks get together to prepare, cook and feast. The slow-roasted hog becomes the centerpiece for fiestas, Christmas, New Year celebrations and other big events. An occasion isn’t grand enough without it.
Lechon is delicious. No doubt about that. But does the apple adorning the gaping facial cavity make it more delicious?
Many different cultures have been roasting pigs as far back as thousands of years ago in places such as Polynesia, China, the Middle East and Europe. However, reference to the custom of accessorizing the mouth with an apple dates back at least 800 years. Evidence of this time-honored tradition can be found in paintings where this iconic meal is served for medieval feasts. Legends for why this tradition exists are plentiful and vary greatly from region to region and family to family. Some believe that the apple’s placement is meant to symbolize the cycle of life and death. In springtime these infant pigs are raised on the fresh apples that grow amply in the region. Served feasting on an apple, even in death, pays homage to the life and sacrifice of the pig. This macabre detail is in keeping with Filipino values of life and the celebration of death. In many other cultures death is something to be distanced from, but in Pinoy culture death is seen as a part of the grander cycle of life and is not to be feared. (A morbid way to show it though, don’t you think?)
Other legends of the apple are more practical in nature. Some believe that without the apple to keep the pig’s snout and throat open, gases would be produced during the roasting that may cause the lechon to explode. This is a load of BS, however, as the apple is usually placed fresh into the mouth after the pig has finished cooking. Others claim that an apple is a helpful garnish to ease the unpleasantness of staring into the ghastly mouth that’s been forced opened by skin shrinkage during roasting. Either way, the image of the apple in the mouth has become inextricably tied to the image of lechon.
Lechon is delicious. No doubt about that. But does the apple adorning its gaping facial cavity make it more delicious?
So, to answer the question if the apple has an impact on the taste, I say it depends.
Strictly speaking, it doesn’t. But if you think that a lechon looks more alluring or appalling adorned with a fruit famed for keeping the doctor away, then yes. As you know, perception of taste is greatly influenced by our sense of sight.
Would you put an apple in a lechon’s mouth? Chef Christian didn’t. Instead, he served pork deboned and used the apple as a slaw to accompany the dish.
How do you prefer to see a lechon?