Monday, March 6, 2017

Cookin' a Pig

It’s a whole hog barbecue and it’s called many different things across the USA: In some places it’s a hog roast, a pig pull, or a pig roast. The Cajuns call it “cochon de lait.” It’s called a pig pickin’ in the Carolinas and other parts of the deep South. It’s an echon asado in Puerto Rico where it’s the “national dish.” It’s famously practiced in Hawaii luaus where the “Kālua pig” is buried in the sand with hot coals, protected in banana tree leaves. Pretty much everywhere it’s done with a big group of people as a celebration. And although there are many ways to do it and lots of different styles of sauces and trimmings, it’s almost always good.

In Jefferson County, TN, where I grew up and learned the art, it is simply called, “cookin’ a pig.” We used to serve it over cornbread hoecakes, and eat it with a smoky and sweet tomato-based sauce (that’s got a little spicy kick). Usually slaw, baked beans, and corn-on-the-cob are served as sides. Some want buns to make a sandwich. My mouth is watering even now. It is simply one of the best ways families and groups can celebrate together or just enjoy each other’s fellowship.

From time-to-time, someone will ask me about whether Christians should be enjoying pork so much—let alone celebrating something church-related—when the Old Testament law forbids its consumption. I think a case can be made that it is the perfect food for a Christian celebration! We are not under the law but under grace. The people of God are no longer a closed group of Jews and Jewish proselytes (the circumcision). All that changed with Christ. He came to fulfill the law. All the ceremonial laws in the Old Testament pointed forward to him. Now the Good News is for “all nations” as he commissioned us. What’s more, remember Peter’s vision of a sheet let down from heaven with unclean animals that God told him to eat (Acts 10)? I’m pretty certain there was a pig in there! His vision symbolized that God had included the “unclean” gentiles in his plan and saves all those who believe. Why should we not keep this symbolism? When we eat pork, we are celebrating the fact that God has included us! Just as the pig was once considered unclean (like me), and even though the pig was previously a filthy, slop-eater; he can be an aromatic and delicious blessing to many through his own sacrifice!

Cooking the pig is not hard, but there are several ways things can go wrong. You must take care that the fat that runs off the pig does not catch on fire. That’s the worst thing that can happen. A burning pig will amaze all who witness it. It will destroy anything around it. Don’t let it happen. This means building a pit on a slight grade so that the fat will drain away, and not putting coals that are still flaming underneath. Keep a shovel and 5-gallon bucket of water or hose near the pit in case a flame gets going. The main reason someone must be responsible to be with the pig at all times is this. Also don’t cook the pig too fast. This is always the temptation. It warms up slowly. It cooks slowly. Don’t rush things. No matter how many times I say it, people always do.

Don’t run out of wood or let the feeder coal fire go out. That’s not good. It can allow the pig to drop in temperature. If you are about to run out of firewood, go to Wal-Mart and get a bunch of charcoal. The natural lump kind (rather than briquettes) is best, but either will work.

I think one of my favorite parts is the fellowship that is engendered, not just when eating the pig, but while cooking it. The way I cook a pig takes about 24 hours, and there’s not a whole lot of work to do, but it requires someone to be present the whole time. This means there’s a lot of sitting and talking that happens. It’s a great—perhaps even perfect—environment for men to get to know each other. We have a task, it takes some skill, and the whole time we’re enveloped in aromatic, smoky goodness. It’s also done under the stars and sky in an outdoor setting. I don’t know of another thing that brings guys together and opens them up like cooking a pig.

Here’s how it’s done:

1. Order a pig. It’s becoming more and more difficult to find pigs. I used to know several slaughter houses that would sell a whole hog to the public. Lately I’ve had to get them through Food City’s butcher who could get one for me. When ordering a pig, the slaughter-house (or meat processor, or grocery meat department or whoever you can find to provide it) should clean and scald the pig. A “scalded” pig still has it’s skin and is much better for several reasons, most of all so that it will not dry out as much while cooking. It also makes the pig easier to handle and makes the grease easier to manage. I like to have them leave the head on, along with all feet and the tail (it’s kinda fun, especially with the reactions you get from city-slickers). Good cooking pigs should weigh between 60 and150 pounds dressed. The bigger ones are harder to handle and cook. The amount of meat per person depends on the group. One pound of dressed pig per person is a good rule-of-thumb (a 100 lbs. pig feeds 100 people).

2. Rather than digging a pit, I prefer to build a temporary pit of concrete blocks two blocks high, five blocks long, and three blocks wide (32 blocks for one pig) on slightly sloping ground which helps the grease drain away. I’ve also built a pit out of bricks or rocks, so anything will work that are about the same size.

3. Make sure the floor under the grill is suitable to prevent fires from happening. To go all out, line the ground in the bottom of the pit with heavy duty foil (not regular thin foil), then place a few bricks on the foil, then lay a coarse screen (fine steel grate) on the bricks. Place the coals on the screen. This makes it very easy to control fires. I do not always use foil or a raised grate to put the coals on if I have a gravel spot on which to build the pit, which allows laying the coals on the ground in very small piles under each ham and shoulder, and sometimes the middle of the pig. The gravel disburses the fat well enough to control fires. Important: keep a shovel or water hose or bucket nearby to put out grease fires while they’re small.

4. Find a steel grate that can be laid on top of the blocks and is strong enough for a man to stand on. I like a 4’ x 8’ sheet of expanded steel grate. of Before cooking, spray the top of the grate with cooking oil. This will help with flipping the pig.

5. When the pig arrives, start a fire with dry, seasoned hickory wood. The purpose of this fire is to prepare hot coals to place under the pig to cook it. You must keep this fire going for 24 hours, which will take about a half cord of wood. If you don’t have hickory, any hardwood (except locust, sweet gum, sycamore, or poplar) will do, especially apple (or another fruit), pecan, walnut, or oak. Do not use evergreen or soft wood. And definitely do not use treated lumber. Not only will you ruin the taste, you could get sick.

6. Final pig prep: even a slaughtered and processed pig might need some additional preparation:

• Rip-out the kidneys and any veins, etc. that the pig will no longer need.

• Take a sharp single-bladed axe or hatchet and hammer to split the inside of the backbone so the pig will lay flat on the grate (this is called “butterfly” style). Open the pig up so he will lay-out like a flying squirrel. Do not cut or make any holes in the skin. It will cause problems later on.

• Open the mouth and insert an apple. It will take a real man to open it. It’s important because the pig will bite the apple when he is done (not really, but it’s fun to tell people that).

• Lay the pig belly-down on the grate. Feel free to put a Tennessee hat on it’s head and a Bama hat on it’s tail. It will cook much happier that way.

•The pig will be finished in 24 hours. So if you want to eat the pig at 5pm on a Saturday, pick the pig up (packed in ice, but not frozen!) and deliver it to the cooking site by at least 4pm on Friday. If you have all your supplies together and the pit built, you should be able to get the cooking started by 4:30 or 5:00pm on Friday.

7. Start cooking...SLOW.

• Build a fire to make coals to cook with. If at all possible use dry hickory firewood. Just campfire sized is good. After 30 minutes of burning, some red-hot coals should be available for use.

• Use a shovel to place 2 to 3 golf ball-sized coals (or equivalent in smaller or larger coals) under each ham and each shoulder, and if the pig weighs over 100 lbs., put some right in the middle. Do not put more coals on it than this. The key to cooking pigs is to START SLOW and don't get much faster. Just be persistent. It is a low-temperature, long-duration cooking process. The most common mistake rookies make is to cook too fast and ruin the pig. Be ready, because at this point you will start receiving verbal abuse from others about how the pig won't cook, it will be raw, any fool would know better, bla bla bla. Tell them that they don't have to eat any of it tomorrow, and stand firm.

•After starting the pig, continue cooking him by adding 2 or 3 more hot coals to the same four or five piles of coals underneath the pig about every 30 minutes until the pig is done. This is done by pulling out one of the concrete blocks and then replacing it when you’ve put in more coals. After placing the coals under the pig, always add wood to your coal-making fire. You don’t want to run out of cooking coals.

•You can leave the pig uncovered on the pit for viewing for five or six hours. Then you need to cover it. We cover the pig with one large piece of cardboard that does not touch the pig anywhere except the feet and ears. Sometimes we build brick “towers” around the waist of the pig to prevent touching. Over the cardboard place a tarp that will cover the whole pit. This rig works better than a $15,000.00 cooker. And the tarp will forever smell awesome.

8. The pig is to be turned over only once, about 16 hours from start time. To turn, scoot the pig over to one side on the grate and just flip him all at once (but watch out for breaking a well-cooked leg). After the pig is turned over, grease will drip, or even run at times, so one should not put the coals where the grease drips. (Actually it will begin dripping long before it's turned but the greatest danger of significant grease fires occurs after turning.) To reduce fire risk, you can place the coals more around the edges after turning if necessary. This will not hurt the cooking rate because the cardboard and tarp will be like an oven. I like to keep as much smoke as possible under the tarp with the pig.

9. When the pig is done (according to our previous scenario, around 5pm, and at this time the pig will bite the apple in two), move it (grate and all) to the food line on saw horses. Have two servers (pullers), on either side of the pig to help people get meat. The best thing to do if the pig is cooked properly is for these pullers to put on the rubber gloves (thicker gloves are better because the meat will be hot) and simply pull the meat off and pull it apart. Yes, it will be that tender. Be careful not to break the skin, or the grease will waterproof their boots for them.

10. Enjoy some of the best and most tender BBQ you’ve ever had!

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