Glorious Carnitas: True Motives (College Essay Series)

For JW – you are wise beyond your years, honorable beyond your awareness, and worthy of all good things.

I don’t know if it was because I saw a lot of his father’s face in him, (father is a former coworker of mine) or his quick-to-appear grin, but J’s personality engaged me immediately. It helped he didn’t have any hangups about his experiences — he was very comfortable and open discussing his academic passions and dislikes, and very vocal about the teachers who had made him nuts in school and those who had engaged his brain. He also loved his skateboard, and would excitedly try and explain to this skateboard novice some trick with a cool name, using his fingers and tiny little skateboard he had on his desk. He was quieter about what he thought he wanted to do “for his job,” but clearly had strong interests in physiology and the mechanics of the human form.  He was also incredibly self-aware about his position in his world, his biracial ethnicity being one of the key factors in both his development as a human and his understanding of the communities he is a part of.  It was clear within a few weeks that his perspective of his experience was far more complex, nuanced, and sophisticated than the easy-going personality let on. He was never afraid to challenge and question his own motivations.  In the early weeks, I had a far clearer picture of who he was going to be, versus what he was going to do job wise.

The Common Application essay prompts are varied, inviting students to respond in various ways. There are essays that I consider to be slightly “easier,” in that the topics are obvious in approach. These are ones that invite student to measure and discuss something concrete from their own experiences – an achievement, accomplishment, a failure. For that reason, I always ask students to start attacking the challenging essay prompts first, because I often find that the essay prompt that is harder to answer pushes students more. I asked J to answer Prompt #4: “Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.” He balked initially, but then he began considering all of his activities, and said, “I want to change how people volunteer.”

The idea was raw and underdeveloped, but it came from a place of experience. J, together with his mom, had spent many days volunteering at a large church in their city. The church itself had done an amazing job really inviting as many people as possible to volunteer to help feed the homeless, ostensibly to draw attention to the homeless crisis in the city where J lives. However, J describes the scene with the volunteers writing, “I have seen tech companies bring in a bus in order to publicize that their respective company is ‘charitable’…but unfortunately I see other organizations, as well as individuals, use it as an opportunity to publicize how ‘good’ they are, leaving with their egos groomed, feeling as if they have just rid the world of hunger. ” J was bothered by the attitudes of those who volunteered, the selfies they posted on Instagram and Facebook, sensing that their motives had less to do with the people they served and more to do with their own sense of accomplishment. I think the Pastor Edward Paz (incidentally another former student of mine) from the Movement Church summed it up most clearly: “You don’t show compassion to get something for yourself. You show compassion to give yourself to something.”

Ironically, J initially didn’t want to volunteer, but went because his mom pushed him to do something for other people, and his mom went weekly every summer, taking J along with her. However reluctant his beginning, once he got there, he also figured out how to make the most of the situation, and that came from giving himself to the homeless. He summed up his wish for those who volunteer at the end of his essay:

“I want people to really think hard about why they volunteer. I wish for the volunteers to have empathy for the people they serve, and even see the people they love in whom they serve. The most rewarding experiences I’ve had are those working with the disabled and elderly at the church’s cafe. Because we deal with guests who are less mobile, volunteers are asked to bring the trays of food to the person’s seat, as opposed to having the guest come to get their food. Working in a smaller, slower setting allows for more intentional work to take place. Conversations between volunteers and guests are common. The rules are also a little looser, which makes it easier to sneak a guest an extra of their favorite flavor of yogurt, or a little extra sugar for their coffee and oatmeal. I’ve found that connecting with people is more than doing things for them, but seeing the humanity in each and every person that walks through the church doors.”

While J’s essay revealed to him his personal standard for volunteering, it also made me reevaluate all the reasons why I do something; his words challenged me to look at how I do things, to think about my own motivations for doing things for others. It’s much easier to serve when you already know what your return will be, but it is far more challenging to serve when you have no idea what the reciprocation. True service is the act of giving generously without any thought of what the return will be. True compassion is the act of giving yourself to something. I know I have a long way to go to fully demonstrate living both generously and compassionately.

Just as my student challenges me to rethink how to act generously and compassionately, I challenge you to rethink what carnitas should look like – which is this – it’s not one color.  It should not look pale grey, or lifeless, or uniform in color and texture.  Carnitas should have all these many textures and colors because when cooked using a nice heavy pot with the beauty of time, it comes out to be something rather glorious. It isn’t hard to get the results, but it does require a commitment to the process of time and the right attitude going in.

Glorious Carnitas (Little Meats)
Serves 10-12 (make the whole batch and you get leftovers to enjoy, or make the whole batch and share with a family)

Ingredients (these ingredients will be divided into half between two pots)
6-7 lbs boneless pork shoulder or butt, cut into 2-inch pieces (I get the package from Costco that is already cut into strips, which makes the cutting into 2 inch pieces so much quicker)

1½ cups citrus juice – I use a mix of orange, lemon, lime, tangerine, whatever I have around. (Not too much of the super tart, as you do want some sweetness so don’t shy away from using some orange or tangerine)
4 tablespoons chopped garlic
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 bay leaves (optional)
2 sprigs of thyme (optional)

In two large heavy pots, divide up the pork shoulder.  The ideal pots will hold a majority of the meat so that they touch the bottom of the pot, and not chunks of meat on top of one another.  The first part of the process is about rendering the fat and tenderizing the meat through cooking.  Add 3/4 cup of juice to each pot.  Add 2 tablespoons garlic to each pot.  1 teaspoon salt to each pot.  1 bay leaf and 1 sprig of thyme to each pot.

Add enough water to barely cover the pork pieces.  A couple of pieces poking out from out of the water is ok, as long as you can push down under the water during the cooking process. Bring both pots to a boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer.  Simmer uncovered for 1.5 to 2 hours, until about half the liquid has reduced.  Try and not touch the meat during this time.

After the liquid has reduced down, increase the heat to medium high and continue to cook, carefully and gently turning over pieces increasing the caramelization and browning. This is not a saute quickly and roughly moment, but rather a moment of carefully turning tender pieces of meat so that they can brown and crisp up in their own rendered fat. (This is really what makes carnitas so good – the browning of the meat in its own fat.) If I am unable to eat the entire pot at the moment, I will take pieces of the carnitas out and brown it in a fry pan, which is also delicious.

When the pork has gotten golden brown on as many sides as possible, it’s ready for eating. Check seasonings and serve with whatever fixings you like.  I like some crispy salad, guacamole, cilantro, and some salsas.

Printable recipe

Let me convince you that you should eat carnitas like this.

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