Sunday, May 28, 2006
We'd been wanting to have a Pig Pickin' at our house for a couple of years, especially after reading Bob Garner's book, North Carolina Barbecue: Flavored by Time. The initial plan was for 2004, but with the company I worked for quickly swirling around the toilet drain, we decided that it was not a good time to be laying out that kind of disposable income. Good thing, as I found myself unemployed about a month after we would've done the party. In 2005, I was gainfully employed again, but as a contractor, the cash flow also seemed too tenuous to blow on something like a big party.
But in 2006, permanently employed again, the time was finally right. We sent out pre-invitations to our Pig Pickin'; an event that we hope we can repeat annually.
Three weeks beforehand, I put down the deposit and payment for the weekend rental of a pig cooker; a converted 250 gallon fuel oil tank complete with a grate, doors for adding charcoal and controlling airfow, and chimneys, all mounted on an axle with a trailer hitch. $30 for the weekend, plus a $40 refundable deposit.
On the Monday before the party, after settling on as accurate a count as we would get, plus working in a fudge factor for the non-respondees, we decided on the size pig we'd need, figuring on one pound of dressed pig per person. Seventy pounds. I called in our pig order to Tom Inscoe's Wholesale Meats, on Alston Avenue in Durham. They're able to handle orders for pigs anywhere from 50 to 150 pounds.
Friday after work, I picked up the cooker and the pig. I'll bet you're wondering about the state of the pig when you get it. I know I was. It's fully dressed, meaning guts removed, cleaned inside and out, and de-haired, with the head and trotters fully intact. The backbone had been split down the middle so that the pig will lay flat on the cooker, like a butterflied chicken. There were USDA stamps all over the outside, and the pig was in a plastic bag. I had the kid at the meat market throw it in the back of my truck, and the pig, cooker, and I left for home, via the back roads as the cooker didn't really look like it was up for interstate highway speeds.
When I got home, after the obligatory photographs, the pig went into my Action Packer, and got loaded with ice. It was Friday afternoon, and cooking wouldn't start until Sunday morning. If your curious, a 70-lb. pig is roughly the same size as a Labrador Retriever.
According to the book, a pig the size of ours should take seven hours to cook, and require 60 pounds of charcoal. Since the party started at 5:00, I needed to put the pig on at 10:00 am, so I started the charcoal around 9. A word on charcoal. The guy in the book used charcoal briquettes, which I detest. They're sawdust and fillers like paraffin and creosote pressed together into a tiny pillow shape, and in my opinion good for nothing. I was using natural lump charcoal; charcoal the way Jesus intended. Charcoal with True Grit and none of that terrible jumble of insults and lame questions often found in lesser charcoal. (thanks, Mark). That being said, lighting it required about a quart of lighter fluid, which is something else I wouldn't ordinarily use, but in this case necessary since I needed to start with 20 pounds of coals.
I got the charcoal lit and while it was burning down a bit, I retrieved the pig from the action packer and started to prepare it. My part of the preparation involved drying the pig, and salting the inside. The hardest part was just wrangling it from the action packer. I couldn't imagine a career in the Mafia if a 70 lb. corpse gave me that much trouble. After hoisting the pig onto the grill (skin side up for the first six hours), I encounted what would be my main challenge in cooking this pig. The book said to keep the interior of the cooker at 225-250F the whole time, but that amount of real charcoal was going to burn much hotter than that. Every few minutes I would spray water on the coals to bring the heat down. Next year I'll probably use half as much charcoal to start.
So the first six hours were basically lighting and adding additional charcoal under the hams and shoulders, while keeping the area under the ribs coal-free to prevent this much thinner area of meat from finishing too quickly. At 4:00, it was time to flip the pig. With some help from Andy, we got the pig on its back, and began to butter and sauce the inside cavity. It was already looking and smelling great, and those of us present at that time (Andy, Jason, and I) sampled a bit from the ham. It was right! It just needed another hour on its back to crisp up the skin, and give the sauce (Eastern North Carolina-style; apple cider vinegar, red pepper flake, salt and pepper) some time to soak in.
5:00 came, the guests started arriving, and the pig was ready. We did the serving true Pig-Pickin' style, leaving the pig on the cooker, and letting people come up and get it themselves.
Stephen, who grew up on a hog farm in Eastern NC, which is were the best barbecue in the world comes from (don't let anyone tell you any different) grabbed a knife and fork and checked out the secret areas of the pig to see how badly I'd screwed it up. Surprisingly, he gave the pig his blessing, and gave me an A+ for my preparation of the pig. When he found out it was my first time, my grade was upgraded to A++. Coming from Stephen, that meant a lot. We were now officialy ready to eat.
Ironically enough, the first person to the pig was Shakir, a Muslim guy from Morocco who was in the midst of his first trip to the States. He didn't speak any English, but you could tell that he was really excited to be there, and enjoying this great American Tradition. This is probably how Americans cook out in their backyards all the time right?
So the party was a huge success, thanks in large part to Andy and Shelley for their constant help with everything, Jason for showing up at the right time and finding the keg, and Mebane Presbyterian Church for letting us nearly clean out their ice machine, and borrow their chairs and beverage cooler. (That was just iced tea in there, honest!) Thanks be to the guests too, whose wonderful assortment of side dishes and desserts, as well as their excellent company really made the evening.
So mark your calendars, the Traveling Roth's Second Annual Pig Pickin' is scheduled for May 27th, 2007.
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