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The Southern Foodie's Guide to the Pig
A Culinary Tour of the South's Best Restaurants and the Recipes That Made Them Famous
By Chris Chamberlain
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2014 Chris Chamberlain and Bryan Curtis
All rights reserved.
AN ANATOMICAL SURVEY OF THE HOG FROM NOSE TO TAIL
THE WHOLE HOG
For an animal that doesn't provide milk to humans, can't pull a plow, and isn't particularly easy to ride, the pig is actually an extremely useful beast. From bacon to chitlins to trotters to lard to sausage, there's really not any part of the pig that somebody doesn't eat somewhere.
In Louisiana's Cajun country, whole towns come together for daylong festivals where they slaughter a hog and split up the parts into teams to make soups, roasts, ribs, and sausages to feed everyone at the party. Under the knife of a talented butcher, the pig can contribute a variety of different cuts to cook in many ways, and just about everything left over can be utilized to make any number of cured and smoked sausage products.
There's a good reason why the phrase "go whole hog" means to do something to the utmost extent. Cooking a whole hog is both a wonderful way to provide enough meat to feed a small army of friends, and a reverential way to ensure that almost the entire animal is utilized after its ultimate sacrifice.
It takes a special sort of cook to take on a whole hog. This is not a "set it and forget it" operation. Whole hog cookery requires constant attention over the course of a cook time that can take more than twenty-four hours. Whichever method you choose, it is critical to monitor and maintain the proper cooking temperature, and fiery flame-ups from dripping grease are an omnipresent danger that must be dealt with to keep your pit from burning up. That's why old-time barbecue joints always built their pits separate from the rest of their operation. It was often only a matter of time before the smokehouse burned down, so why rebuild the dining room too?
But don't let the difficulty of the process deter you. While whole hog barbecue is becoming more difficult to find in restaurants, there are still places in West Tennessee and the Carolinas that smoke eight to ten hogs a day, so you can handle just one, right?
A hog cookin' is a group activity, anyway. It requires friends to help construct the pit, load the hog onto the grill, flip the hog, take turns stoking the fire and watching the temperature of the pit and the pig, and most importantly, keep the head cook fed and "watered" throughout the process.
A pig-pickin' party is probably second only to a good crawfish boil when it comes to sociable eating activities. Once your friends and family get to choose their own pieces of pork from a pig that you spent hours preparing for them, you will forever be raised in their eyes into the pantheon of great chefs. You'll also be asked to cook another hog again soon. Follow along and learn!
THE PIT MASTER—PAT
Pat Martin is building a barbecue empire with three restaurants in Tennessee and one in West Virginia under the Martin's Bar-B-Que Joint umbrella. His restaurants are decked out with comfortable, fun, and funky dining rooms decorated with country music and sports paraphernalia, and each is equipped with a custom-designed pit large enough to cook a whole hog in full view of the diners. The spectacle is mesmerizing as employees literally crawl on top of the grill to haul a two-hundred-pound hog into position at the start of the smoking process, flip it midway through, and remove huge chunks of succulent meat a day after the cooking began.
Martin is also a member of the Fatback Collective, a group of pit masters, gourmet chefs, writers, farmers, and restaurateurs who have banded together to raise awareness of heritage breeds of hogs that have largely been forgotten by consumers and restaurants in favor of commodity pigs. The Fatback Collective cooks whole hogs at events all over the country to feed people and show them the difference in flavor between these old-breed pigs and the typical factory hogs that have had so much of their fat and character bred out of them.
Despite this estimable pork pedigree, Martin learned his craft in the humblest of situations. As a college student in West Tennessee, he discovered the tradition of whole hog cooking that was still alive in small pockets of the region. West Tennessee barbecue operations couldn't be more basic, with pits built from cinderblocks covered with sheets of corrugated metal to hold in the heat and smoke from a wood fire while pigs cooked low and slow inside.
Martin discovered the difference between the meat pulled from a shoulder and the long, stringy, delicious belly meat, which is affectionately referred to as "redneck spaghetti." He found out that his favorite meat came from the cheek of the hog, a delicacy that you would never discover in your typical "ribs and shoulder" barbecue hut.
Martin began to hang around the smokehouse of Harold Thompson in Henderson, Tennessee, where his new mentor passed on the lore and procedures of whole hog cookery. Even after taking a position as a bonds trader at a large financial firm in Memphis, Martin couldn't shake the barbecue bug and eventually quit his job to open his first restaurant.
He still loves to build a pit in a field and put a pig in the ground to feed a group and keep the traditions of whole hog cooking alive. It's hard work, but definitely worth it!
The phrase "sweating like a pig" is really untrue. Pigs do not have working sweat glands, so they roll around to cool themselves. so "dirty pig" is probably a fair description, but it's not their fault.
Pat Martin's Whole Hog Procedure
Cooking a hog isn't so scary if you basically think of the pig as a pot of water that needs to gradually be brought up to a boil and simmered slowly for hours. Since 70 percent of a pig (or most animals, for that matter) is water, this makes sense. Martin's method requires cooking the split hog skin side up over the fire for 6 hours to crisp up the skin to hold in the moisture. After flipping the hog, the tough skin serves as the cauldron to hold in all that water while you slowly bring the temperature of the meat up to 190 degrees, when all the tasty connective tissues and fats render out and add so much flavor to the meat.
In his own words, here's Martin's step-by-step method for cooking a perfect pig in your own backyard.
Buying Your Pig
You can order a whole hog from many butchers and specialty stores, or directly from a pig farmer. There's no reason to try to cook the biggest pig you can find. Smaller hogs are easier to handle, easier to cook, and taste just as delicious. Don't worry about trying to impress your friends. Anybody who can cook an entire animal is worthy of admiration.
Ask for a 150- to 165-pound dressed hog. "Dressed" means that it has been split, the organs removed, and the skin scalded and shaved. Go ahead and leave the head on for effect, and it is absolutely critical that the skin be left on and not perforated in any way. Figure that you'll get about a 40 percent yield of meat from the original weight and that the average guest will eat ½ to 1 pound of meat.
Building the pit is just like playing with Legos. In fact, you might want to make a model with Legos first before you start laying down blocks. Lay out the first layer of blocks to create a rectangle with interior dimensions of about 5 feet x 4 feet. Use a level to make sure that each layer is level. Mix up some mortar according to the directions on the bag and apply to the top of each layer as you stack more blocks on top, overlapping each level by half a block. Leave a hole in one of the long sides of the pit that is big enough to shovel coals through.
When you reach the fourth layer of blocks, lay your rebars long ways across the top of the pit, then mortar them in place. Finally, build the top layer of cinder blocks on top of the rods.
If you intend to keep the pit permanently, it's a good idea to fill the center of each block with sand before you add another layer. This will insulate the pit and reduce your wood usage by 30 percent.
Just about any hardwood will work as a fuel source for pit cooking. Hickory, oak, and fruitwoods like apple, peach, and cherry are popular, as well as nut trees like pecan. Do not use any softwood like pine or cedar!
Note: Don't ever use lighter fluid! In my opinion, it's un-American! Only amateurs use lighter fluid, and if you're cooking a whole hog, that automatically makes you a professional. Plus, lighter fluid is bad for the environment and will make your food taste awful.
Starting Your Fire and Building Your Coals
Ideally, you want to use dry, seasoned wood. Make sure to clear yourself a safe area where you can start a huge fire—the kind that could probably get you a hefty fine. Burn the logs down to a huge pile of coals. You will need to begin the fire at least 6 hours prior to putting the hog on the fire to give yourself ample enough time to build up enough coals to begin cooking. Do not underestimate the amount of time needed to prepare your coals before you begin.
You will need to continue feeding this fire until the hog is done, so plan to keep adding wood to your burn pile for at least 18 hours to keep making enough coals to finish the cooking process.
Make up a prep rub from the fantastic recipe on page 8. These are the "core" ingredients you need to obtain a great "bark," or crust, on your finished product. Use this as a base to start with and then add your own flavors to it—cayenne, nutmeg, whatever! Please note, though, that any ingredients you decide to add to this need to be added in small amounts until you get it tasting like you want it, 'cause once it's in, it ain't coming out!
Find a recipe from this restaurant on page 244.
PAT MARTIN'S WHOLE HOG RUB
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 cup salt
1 cup garlic salt
¼ cup paprika
¼ cup lemon pepper
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon black pepper
In a large bowl mix the brown sugar, salt, garlic salt, paprika, lemon pepper, chili powder, and black pepper. Whisk the mixture until it is completely mixed and add in batches to a large shaker bottle to apply the rub to the hog.
Next, make up a mop that you will use to keep the hog moist throughout the cook time. Buy a 5-gallon bucket with a lid at the hardware store to keep the flies out of your mop!
PAT MARTIN'S WHOLE HOG MOP/BASTE
1 ¼ gallons cider vinegar
7 cups crushed red pepper flakes (about 20 ounces)
7 ½ pounds sugar
Mix the vinegar, red pepper flakes, and sugar in a large bucket.
Lay the hog on its back on the expanded metal grate or cattle fence on the ground. Place the tip of the hatchet under the neck where the top of the spine begins. Using the mallet, carefully tap the tip of the hatchet into the spine to get started. Begin tapping the hatchet with the mallet all the way down the spine. It is very important that you do not go too deep. You're just trying to get the hog to lay flat. The spine must not be split all the way in half in order to protect the hog and keep the skin intact as it cooks in the later hours of the process.
Using a chef's knife, cut away any organs and excess fat left inside the hog. Sprinkle all the exposed meat liberally with rub. Don't worry about applying any to the skin. You won't be eating that anyway. Flip the hog over on the grate, facedown, and lift it into the pit on top of the rebar. The hog should be spread out flat.
Place the roofing tin or sheet metal on top of the pit as a lid to hold in the heat and smoke.
Using the shovel, begin putting coals under the hog through the hole in the side of the pit. Lay an initial uniform 2-inch-deep bed under the hog from end to end, and then throw extra coals under the hams and shoulders, being careful not to put much fire at all under the middle or belly of the hog. I like to put a seasoned piece of wood on some of the coals for additional smoke, but you have to be very careful to avoid flare-ups, so manage your oxygen intake to the pit. Put the wood in the corner where it can't breathe air so it will smolder instead. If you don't want to risk flames, just skip that step because you're still gonna get plenty of smoke flavor.
Put your hand on the lid. If you can hold it there for two "Mississippi's," you are pretty spot-on, temperature-wise. Any less than two Mississippi's and your fire is too hot, any more and it's too cool. If you want to get technical about it and use thermometers, then manage your coals to a temperature of 225 degrees to 250 degrees. No higher!
After about 6 hours, it's time to flip the hog. This will be a two-man job, so find a buddy. One of you needs to get on one shoulder (front) leg and the other needs to get on a ham (back) leg (from the same side of course). Using paper towels to grab the legs (paper towels are awesome for getting a great grip on meat), count to three and flip the hog. You will need to go in a motion of "up and then over" with it to ensure that the other two legs don't get caught on the grate and rip or tear the other half of the hog. That would be bad.
Pour your basting liquid into the rib cavities until they are filled up. This is very important because this liquid is what's going to protect the belly meat—we call it the "middlin" meat—from overcooking while you are trying to get your shoulders and hams finished. While you're at it, splash some around the rest of the hog for good measure. This really doesn't do a dang thing, but it makes you feel good about things and makes for good drama.
Now build your fire to where you can hold your hand on the lid for 3 seconds, or 200 degrees if you are using the thermometer. This might require slowing down on the shoveling for a while until the temperature drops, but don't let your coals go out! At this point you're cooking what I call "clean." What I mean is steady, blue wispy smoke. NOT WHITE SMOKE! White smoke is heavy and choking, bitter and acrid. Blue smoke sweetens your meat, and that is what makes it BBQ!
Continue to cook until the hog is done. The total process should take you about 22 to 24 hours. A really good general rule of thumb is 1 hour per 8 pounds of meat. Your hams will be the last things to finish, so be careful not to overcook your shoulders while getting your hams done. You're looking for a temperature of 200 degrees in the hams and shoulders. During the last couple of hours of cooking you may want to put coals only under the hams so as not to overcook the thinner middle section of the pig.
When you think you are within an hour or so of it being done, quit putting coals under the pig. It's time to let it "glide." The residual heat in the blocks is your heat source now.
Note: Weather can play heck with the cook times. Humidity and cooler temps are a couple of things that can affect you, but nothing messes with you more than wind! Wind is tough on you and can extend the process by hours. That's tough to explain to a picnic full of hungry folks expecting some whole hog sandwiches! If it's windy, use an old quilt or movers blanket or even a tarp to lay over the lid of the pit—anything to keep the wind off of it.
When the pig is done, baste the heck out of it with your small mop and let it sit for 30 minutes to an hour or so. You may need to crack the lid some to let additional heat out of it if you think it's still hot enough to continue the cooking process.
Get three friends and some heavy gloves and lift the entire grate off the pit and place the pig on a table you're not worried about messing up. Pull the meat from all parts of the pig and serve it. (Feel free to save the belly meat for yourself.) The only thing that should be left when you are done is bones and skin. Don't get in there and start trying to pick the fat out of the meat. First of all, most of the fat has rendered out anyway. Second, if you find yourself worrying about doing that, then you shouldn't be cooking a hog in the first place. Mix it all together and serve.
The squeal of a pig can reach an ear-splitting 115 decibels, as loud as a jet plane.
BELLY AND BACON
Without a doubt, when it comes to America's favorite portion of the pig, the bottom is tops! The belly of a hog runs from stem to stern between the shoulders and the hams, and is a lovely cut of meat, full of flavorful fat and available either skin on or off from many butchers.
Belly meat can be salted and smoked and then cut into strips to make bacon or it can be cured Italian-style to create delicate pancetta. As much as home cooks (and basically everyone else) love bacon, restaurant chefs really enjoy showing off their prowess with either pieces or the entire length of the belly.
A complete belly can weigh as much as 12 to 14 pounds and is so rich and fatty that it is best served in small bites. But crisped under a broiler or slow-braised until some of the fat renders out, the belly can be a luxurious treat that can be enjoyed at home or out to dinner.
Excerpted from The Southern Foodie's Guide to the Pig by Chris Chamberlain. Copyright © 2014 Chris Chamberlain and Bryan Curtis. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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