Two or three times a year, I slow-cook a whole 150-pound hog, and not just because there’s no good way to cheat your way to that exquisite flavor. Those 18 to 24 hours of fireside work can’t be done alone, which might be the best part. I learned how to cook a pig from my elders, and they learned the way we all do: getting conscripted to work overnight, staying up until dawn to keep the coals smoking, drinking liquor, and wailing on a guitar, torturing the most maudlin lyrics of the time (then, Leonard Cohen’s). That graveyard shift is practically a rite of passage.
Real barbecue slows down time and gets you back to the very origins of cooking. I’m always shocked by how many people come over in the morning to “help out,” a full six hours before the invite says: because there is no siren call quite like spending a whole day kicking embers in a fire pit while the air coils with pecan smoke.
Over the years, I’ve taught my two daughters my secret of pig prep—simple dry rub—and how to keep the temperature beneath the covered pig running around 210 to 220 degrees. The girls are heading toward college now, and they take the graveyard shift so I can fall asleep listening to far-off, maudlin lyrics (now, Bon Iver’s). I hear them laughing and carrying on, sitting beneath blankets in the dead chill after midnight, a snuck cigarette or beer here and there. I drift off, happy to transmit this tiny body of knowledge to a new generation that has been learning it just the way I did, and on back to long before the last Ice Age, when our deep ancestors worried that their kids might run off with a Neanderthal or hang out with those airhead cave painters in Lascaux. Maybe that’s why it’s impossible not to give thanks when cooking a whole animal—it’s an acknowledgement of gratitude for some really good turn that happened long before we could even put it into words, because those hadn’t been invented yet.
Correspondent Jack Hitt is the author of Bunch of Amateurs: A search for the American Character and Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim's Route into Spain.