By now you’ve probably spent the summer putting perfect grill marks on skirt steaks and even smoked an entire pork shoulder.
Perhaps you have even made your own barbecue sauce and realized it's better than anything you could buy in a jar. Or maybe they know you by name when you walk into your local grill supply store and you count the days until the weekend when you can get up before dawn to start cooking barbecue that wont be ready until sundown.
But deep down you know that until you cook a whole pig you just have been playing it safe.
Justin is never without a barbecue thermometer. I tend to use "the poke it with your finger" technique to determine doneness. He cooks with liquid nitrogen and recently shelled out for a sous vide machine. I on the other hand am a firm believer that a cold beverage is your most important cooking accessory.
But if we were going to cook a whole pig for fifty of our friends and family without having to order a lot of pizzas at the end of the night, we’d have to combine our different approaches.
With about a month to go before the big day we began scouring our favorite cooking blogs and BBQ sauce splattered recipes for inspiration. Would we go North Carolina-style? Hawaiian? Bury it underground the way they cook pigs in Mexico. Putting it in a “Caja China” box covered with charcoal like I have seen done in Panama?
In “Mastering the Grill,” one of my favorite BBQ books, I was a little intimidated to read their description of cooking a whole pig as an advanced, "grill project." And this from the same authors who call for a leaf blower in one recipe.
An e-mail from my brother laying out our “pig plan” put me at ease. The one page, single-spaced cooking itinerary called for a ton of ingredients and a 48-hour strategy for brining and slow cooking the pig. It would be plenty of work but at the end we would have delicious barbecued pork to serve.
On the day of the big event we had 60 lbs of organic pig, 20 bags of hard wood charcoal and one rented spit roaster. The pig rested in a large cooler, bathing in the brine we had mixed up. Our Mom had nixed our idea of brining it in a bathtub.
Before we started cooking, we stuffed the pig’s inside with frozen heads of lettuce, stitched it shut with steel wire and tied the whole animal to the spit. Then we stabbed the pig all over with flavor injector syringes to keep the pork from drying out during the slow and low cooking process.
Prior to getting messy with the pig, Justin and I donned thick plastic gloves and heavy garbage bags. Our family decided we looked more like serial killers than grill masters.
“You guys should be in an episode of Dexter,” my sister Alexandra wisecracked.
As soon as we got the pig on the spit, we hit our first snag. The pig’s weight was causing the spit to lurch as the 60 lbs of swine rotated over the coals. I had seen a similar issue develop on a pig cooking video on YouTube. That video and dinner party ended with the pig enveloped in a towering grease fire.
My brother and I took the pig off the coals and tightened the spit until we thought it might break. Back over the heat, the pig still flopped precariously. Luckily, my Dad, Harvey, who has jerry-rigged everything from boat engines to electric circuit breakers, stepped in.
Using thick rope he tied the spit’s loose motor to its legs. The pig still wobbled, but now at least rotated somewhat more steadily.
Having lost an hour fixing the spit, we then discovered another problem. It takes a small mountain of charcoal to cook a whole pig. And getting all that charcoal lit quickly becomes a relay race with a chimney starter in place of the baton. As soon as we had one bag lit and under the pig it was time to get the next one going.
Still, we were falling behind. About three hours into our cooking time, a local chef named Mark stopped by to see how we were doing. He had cooked plenty of whole pigs and as he watched our efforts Mark looked doubtful. “How long until dinner?” He asked. Five more hours to go, we replied. “Get more coals on it,” he advised us.
As our guests arrived, the pig was still turning slowly over the coals. By now we had hoped to have the pig off the spit and resting. But sorting out the spit’s motor and lighting all the charcoal altered that plan.
As our guests sat down, we were still in Dexter outfits, just beginning to slice into the now tender pork.
A quick shower later, I joined the party hoping I wouldn’t have 60 lbs of inedible pig leftovers to eat through. I shouldn’t have worried: by that point most of our guests were lining up for seconds and thirds. The barbecued pork was incredibly juicy with only a faint smokiness to its rich flavor. At the party’s end, Justin and I were already scheming on how to improve upon the next one.
Of course for the price of a whole pig, spit rental and enough charcoal to fill a Prius we could have just taken everyone out to dinner. But then we there are not too many places you can find this kind of delicious barbecue. Or a story like this to go with it.
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