THE PIG matters. It determines the taste. It also anchors the stories that will fuel the 24-hour culinary marathon that, hopefully, has background music provided by a friend with a fiddle. Hunt your own hog, and share the tale about vanquishing of one of North America’s most destructive invasive species as it smokes. Barring that, order a pig thatran around on a farm gobbling grass and natural grains. Chef Nick Pihakis guarantees it will taste better.
He would know. In 1985, he opened his first Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Que. More than 28 years and 31 restaurants later, he bought a slaughterhouse. In five years, he plans to provide his restaurants with 400 million pounds of free-running hogs raised by 50 Southern farmers. That coalition, called the Fatback Project, evolved after Pihakis joined a motley crew of award-winning chefs and pitmasters to cook a whole hog the old-fashioned way at the Memphis in May barbecue competition. They took third, by avoiding fancy injections and store-bought charcoal and letting the true flavor of the meat stand out by cooking over hickory coals. “From there, we grew, and over the years we’ve added several people,” says Pihakis. “Our mission is to learn from each other, teach each other, and teacher other people.”
We joined Pihakis, pitmaster Drew Robinson, and local Jim ‘N Nick’s owner John Haire as they cooked a whole hog in the alley during Charleston Wine + Food Festival. They sweated the technique, but never let it get in the way of the number-one rule of a Southern swinefest. “It’s as much about the ceremony of the event as it is about the end result,” says Robinson. “It’s a bonding experience.”
Here’s Robinson’s advice on how to do it yourself…
WHAT YOU NEED
A DEEP FRY TEMPERATURE GAGE: A 200 lb. pig should cook at roughly 210 degrees for 20-24 hours, depending on airflow within the pit. That will feed 100 people, with a good possibility of leftovers.
HICKORY: About a half cord will burn over 20 to 24 hours, depending on the wind. Stack a full cord to be safe.
BURN BARREL: To fire the hickory into charcoal. A homemade device can be made out of an old 55-gallon barrel, rebar, and a pipe for chimney. (Check out Robinson’s barrel in the video above.)
SHOVEL: To move the coals to the grill as you cook
RUB: A store-bought or homemade seasoning (recipe below).
HOW TO COOK
MAKE: the rub. Whisk these base ingredients together in a large mixing bowl, and feel free to tweak with your favorite spices.
Kosher Salt 1 cup
Granulated Sugar ½ cup
Brown Sugar ½ cup
Paprika ½ cup
Black Pepper 2 Tablespoons
Cayenne Pepper 1 teaspoon
LIGHT: the hickory in the burn barrel, which is really just a big chimney to turn the wood into charcoal. The wood sits on top of a grate. Embers fall through the grate to the bottom of the barrel. The coals won’t have the harsh taste of wood, but will have that beautiful hickory smoke that you won’t get from just opening a bag of charcoal from the grocery store. It will take an hour of burning to get coals.
TRIM: any excess fat around the belly of the hog and remove any organs that may be left in the pig. Trim a little skin around the hams and the shoulders and expose a little more meat that will become the bark—the crispy outside meat coated in rub that caramelizes over time.
RUB: seasoning over all exposed meat and skin. Be generous.
BUILD: two beds of hickory coals under each end of the grill where the shoulder and ham will lay. Don’t spread the coals underneath the entire animal. The belly and tenderloin meat in the middle, which is thinner, will cook faster, and dry out or burn if you do. The temperature should reach and stay at 210 degrees.
PLACE: the the hog on the grill, skin side up. Place the cover over the top.
STAY: tend the fire for the next 20 to 24 hours. Shovel the coals as needed every 30 minutes to an hour to keep the temperature at 210 degrees. Typically, flip the hog once at after six to eight hours. The meat should turn a deep, smoky brown while cooking. Don't wait until the outside is fully caramelized into a dark crust before turning. Play cards. Build a fire. Request a song from that camp fiddle player, but don’t pine for “Islands in the Stream” until at least 4 A.M. Crack open beers as needed.
TEST: the bones and meat after roughly 20 hours. Grab the ham bone and shoulder bone and lightly turn. If they move easily, the pig is ready. If not, cook longer. The rub should be caramelized, with juices dripping into the belly. All of the bones should separate easily from the meat, which should be tender and pull with a pinch. Ask someone to take a close-up picture of the pull, and try to restrain yourself from a money shot joke.
PULL: the hog off the fire. Place on a counter. Pull meat from the ham, the shoulder, the tenderloin, the belly, and some skin. Chop. Mix.
SERVE: it up immediately on a white bun with your favorite barbecue sauce— Jim ‘N Nick’s works well here —and pickles. Leave the carcass to be picked by the ravenous masses. Crack open another beer. Soak everything in.