Editor's note: The Southern Foodways Alliance delves deep in the history, tradition, heroes and plain old deliciousness of barbecue across the United States. We'll be sharing dispatches live from their 15th annual Symposium "Barbecue: An Exploration of Pitmaster, Places, Smoke, and Sauce" in Oxford, Mississippi, over the next few days. Dig in.
This year's Saturday Viking Range Luncheon was prepared by chef Ashley Christensen of Poole's Diner in Raleigh, North Carolina. Ashley prepared a "Piedmont Root-to-Stem Harvest Feast," shaking up the weekend's theme by applying barbecue-inspired techniques to an all-vegetable meal. Of course, not everything was baptized in smoke, but the lunch did include coal-roasted sweet potatoes and beets. (Ashley picked up the coal-roasting technique on a recent trip even further south, in Uruguay, where she and the Fatback Collective schooled themselves on the asado.)
The lunch - from pimento cheese and homemade crackers to pumpkin hummingbird cake with peanut custard - was served family style, fostering the sense of a common table and opening up a space for conversation around the food.
Bellies full of vegetables, we settled in for a presentation by Alton Brown about the science of whole hog cookery. In the spirit of learning where our food comes from and how it is prepared, Alton talked us through each step from the raw to the perfectly cooked. It didn't hurt that he had illustrated each step with his own, um, artwork.
Now we know that barbecuing a whole hog is about cooking past doneness to tenderness. We know that we're going for tenderness, tastiness and juiciness. We understand the chemistry behind the "low and slow" mantra, and we've learned that mopping the skin is more about cooling the pig off than adding flavor to the meat. Some of the more experienced cooks among us might have known these lessons already, but for the lay-cooks and eaters among us, now we understand what's going on behind the smoke and mirrors. Plus, it's hard to beat Brown's showmanship and enthusiasm for an afternoon crash-course in barbecue science.
And we think he's spot-on when he says that perfectly crisped pig skin is "God's true cracker."
Today's installment comes courtesy of Sara Camp Arnold, the editor of SFA's quarterly publication, "Gravy."
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