Mark dug the knife into the side of the pig, it's golden roasted skin crackling as he drew it down to its foreleg, carving out a generous haunch for the guest of honour sitting to his right: a pastor that would, at 10PM later that night, be one of the dozen preachers to give consecutive messages until bell rang 2011 in at midnight.
We were sitting at a long table, looking out across green, waving fields from the airy porch where the feast was set, red flowered cloths tacked up in horizontal bands around the porch roof's edge to soften the tropical sunlight that filled the air around us. Before us was set stacks and stacks of some of the best food, its cooks coming from a family that taught their community to serve and eat a five-course meal, and who served Queen Salote's fresh breakfast bread. Around my slowly emptying plate were still-full saucers and bowls of stuffed beef rounds, fresh grilled fish, turkey slices, chicken curry, and creamy pasta. Everything was overshadowed by a massive platter of sliced yams, sweet potatoes, and taro next to the enormous pig, looming up in the centre like a golden glistening log. It was just bigger than my torso, and sat steaming and dripping on a tin platter that I might be tempted to use as a toboggan in colder climates.
The knife crackled through the side of the pig as Mark drew the knife along the back ridge, meat so tender it was slipping off the bone. I scraped the layer of fat off my piece, surprisingly lean meat under the outer ring of blubber, and took a bite so flavorful it didn't need salt. Not even half an hour earlier while chatting on a mat under a mango tree with a friend and her aunt, we'd seen this very beast getting carried by on its platter, dripping and steaming from hours patiently roasted on a spit.
Across from me, a trim older man reached into the centre for a large slab of pig skin, two centimetres thick with fat, and bit into it with relish. I smiled, surveyed the empty bones of half of an arm-length fish that lay on my plate, and sat back to enjoy the sight of the crowd sitting around, listening with one ear to the thank-you speeches mandatory at such a feast. One by one, the hostess, the guests of honour, and the pastor got up to speak for a length of time to the line of people at the table, acknowledging the other guests, thanking the cooks, and telling stories and jokes. This kind of speech-giving is a fine art we have yet to master; somehow after about 30 seconds with ideally at least 5 minutes more of speech-time left, I've always petered out and ended with a clumsy "So... thank you very much. Thank you."
Later, sitting at the table around the decimated remains of the feast, one of the family told the story about why this particular community, Fua'amotu - famous for being the current King's grandfather's village and for the international airport that cuts through one end- is also famous for its delicious pig. One day, a noble woman decided to try to find some place to settle down. She was looking for a husband. She went to the villages on the west side of the island, and wasn't satisfied. She went to the villages on the east side of the island, and wasn't satisfied. Finally, she got to the very end of the east side and as she came into town, there was a strong, muscular man carrying a freshly roasted pig back to his house. She thought, "This is a good place to stay," and made Fua'amotu her home. That's why the Tongan proverb goes "Fie uakai ngako, 'alu ki Fua'amotu," or "If you want to eat some delicious pig [fat], go to Fua'amotu."
A friend we talked to later gave his own explanation, "Because the [other] royal palace is at Fua'amotu, they were killing so many pigs all the time, and would throw out the fat. If you were a commoner at that time, you didn't get good food easily, and so you could go and get the fat from the king's table."
At the end of the noblewoman's story after the feast, everyone laughed uproariously as the story finished. I liked that explanation a little better, not in the least because we had just seen a young male member of the family carrying this pig to the table an hour before. I could just imagine a noblewoman appearing on the scene and immediately falling in love with the man and his pig. The pig sitting in the middle of the remains of the feast winked at me and agreed.
Addendum: If you're wondering how I managed at that feast with my stomach... well I wasn't the one eating huge hunks of pig, and lets just say I've drunk a whole lot of ginger tea in the 24 hours since. Oh, but without regrets it was so worth it!