OP-ED: The History and Context of Wich, Please’s Second Most Difficult to Pronounce Sandwich

I could make an argument for every single sandwich on the Wich, Please menu. And maybe I will. But today I’m here to talk to you about the Torta de Cochinita. Do not fear its pronunciation. Co-chin-eeta. it’s pretty phonetic, actually. This is nothing more than a sandwich made of pork, slowly roasted in achiote, which lends the savage orange color and sour orange, a flavor the tender pork soaks up gladly, and nothing less than awesome. Malcolm learned about this magic food years ago in Mexico.

This sandwich – the filling also makes a delicious taco – is made and sold by women every weekend morning all over Yucatan. In the tiny fishing village of Chelem, where the crumbling, sun-bleached square was almost always empty except during Easter week when the town filled with vacationers from the nearby capital, the women sold cochinita outside the tortilleria, which was next to the dusty convenience store. You could buy your own stack of corn tortillas or French bread loaves and bring home a bag of meat (it isn’t eloquent but it’s reality) for your family to enjoy as a leisurely brunch. There is no Dunkin Donuts in Chelem. In Chelem there was one emaciated horse, tied up on the baseball diamond, who was painted with the graffiti of the favorite local political party. Chelem is where Malcolm learned to love this sandwich.

He made a study of it, every Sunday, instead of going to church. He spoke at length with these small women in broken Spanish about how they achieved such fall-apart, punchy, rich porky perfection. Spanish was a second language for these Mayans as well. Which worked out somehow for Malcolm, who’s Spanish drew mostly on construction vocabulary and the various types of tequila. There was an easy rapport between them and the women came to expect him with his sunburnt neck and ragged cargo shorts to buy as much cochinita as he could carry home on foot, should his untrusty Jeep stop running on the way back to the beach house we were building.

At some point the pilgrimages began. We’d travel to various contests and convocations in order to sample as much of the indigenous offering as we could. In these remote, colonial places women of indeterminate age, dressed in the white huipil embroidered with colorful flowers, sat hunched over the comal, the thin cooking surface where they made tortillas fresh to order. There were pigs, some live, some on spits turning over open fire, and others buried in banana leaves in the ground. This type of traditional oven is called the pib, and it’s similar to our New England clam baking technique. We’d pile plates high with small, bright tacos and sitting under a flowering tree eat until we achieved cochinita enlightenment. Then we went home to nap for hours, because in those days we didn’t have children or responsibilities and life was good.

He began practicing in our newly remodeled kitchen. I would wince every time he unintentionally flung staining achiote on my new tile counters and backsplash. But the results were pretty phenomenal. It took time to develop the technique, and of course, no matter how good his was, and it was already very, very good, there is simply no replicating the millennia of intuition which made the local version inevitably superior. It’s one of those ineffable things. But Malcolm worked hard for authenticity, and developed his own tricks and secrets, which he has brought back with him, like some Victorian explorer emerging from the wild with only his moustache, a tusk, and a native boy to guide him.

In short, I really think you need this sandwich in your life. Come to the restaurant, at Comida this winter for lunch every day but Sundays and Mondays and try one with a Mexican coke made with real cane sugar. Yes, I am his wife and occasional waitress, but no, Malcolm does not know I’m writing this, nor am I being directly compensated. This is my own opinion, biased though it may be.

Wich, Please at Comida is located at 421 Main Street, Rockland, Maine.

Jillian Bedell

Jillian Bedell is a writer and mother living in a farmhouse in Cushing, Maine. She is very good at talking about herself in the third person. She is co-author of Eating in Maine: At Home, On the Town, and On the Road. She creates content on the internet, on subjects ranging from summer camps to semi-precious stones to the folklore of food. With Malcolm, Jillian was one of the original "Insiders," for the Visit Maine tourism campaign. She loves telling the stories of her adopted state, finding out-of-the-way places, and people making interesting things. Watching her daughters play in the wild woods and fields of Cushing makes her very happy.

2 Comments

  1. While I appreciate the work and dedication that went into making the delicious cochinito (and I can attest to it’s quality having eaten it in it’s home country) – do wish an effort had been made to help the starving horse. Kind of sad.

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