A Tale with No Tail

Both Barnes & Nobles and the internet are replete with expert advice. Me, I’ve never pretended to be an expert on any subject. As a lifelong learner and veteran reporter, I prefer to think of myself as someone who’s constantly exploring new frontiers and peeling away their own ignorance about this and that as if stripping the skin from an onion. And unlike so many other people, I’ve always been eager to share my journey from “duh” to “uh-huh” with anyone. Best of all, I’ve had someone who not only put up with my various misadventures, but encouraged them.beautybeast
So, in keeping with my former post about how NOT to buy a pig, here’s a primer on how NOT to cook a whole hog. Don’t think of it as Cooking for Dummies, but more as Cooking with an Companionable Idiot. (Idiot, by the way, comes from the Greek “idiotes,” meaning “layman.”)

It’s not as if I didn’t have lots of expert advice, most of which I really did mean to follow. Take the advice from my friend Walter, an expert on drinking beer, who long ago observed that you have to be downright determined to get drunk drinking Coors Light. Knowing I’d need my wits about me, I heeded his sage wisdom when I saw Coors on sale at Harris-Teeter for $11.75 a case. With a case of Coors Light, I figured I wouldn’t be tempted to drink anything stronger, such as stout or, God forbid, India Pale Ale—especially if I didn’t have any. After all, I was man with a plan and a pig, which I’d be serving to 70 or more guests coming to my home Saturday to celebrate the acceptance of my youngest daughter, Alice, into grad school (Carnegie-Mellon and SUNY-Buffalo, where she’s headed next fall), plus the homecoming from Madrid of my eldest child., Sarah, accompanied by her Spanish boyfriend, Sergio, who took all the photos you see here.

For anyone who doesn’t follow my blog breathlessly, for some reason I decided it would be a good idea to buy a pig from a farmer in Snow Camp. Having bought, so to speak, a pig in a poke, there was the question of how to convert it from squeal to meal. After much negotiation, including his suggestion that I transport the live pig in a rottweiler cage in the back of my wife’s CRV, the farmer finally agreed to take my little feeder pig to Matkins Meat Processing . The plan was for him to drop it off on Monday. Matkins would do what they do so very well—”Cows, Pigs, Sheep, Goat, Buffalo, Beefalo, Water Buffalo, Ostrich, Emu, & Deer are our specialty . . . no appointment needed.”—and I’d pick it up on Friday, for cooking that night—and into Saturday morning. Guests were to arrive around noon. Thursday I checked my voice messages and heard the somewhat gruff voice of Jerry Matkins: “Come get your pig today. We’re going to be closed on Easter Friday.” I decided arguing with a man who kills things for a living might be fruitless, and on the way to Matkins, I gave a lot of thought to what to do with a dead pig for two days. Amazingly, putting him into a bathtub packed with ice did not actually occur to me. Instead, I decided I’d hang him from the ceiling of our garage apartment, crank up the air conditioner, buy lots of ice and pack his chest cavity with bags of it.
So it was that my daughter returned to the bosom of her family to find a dead pig hanging from the rafters of the little cottage that she called home while attending high school. God bless her (and the dad who raised her), she thought it was hilarious.
My nephew Alex, probably at the urging of my sister who loves barbecue but has little faith in any of my practical skills, came over Friday to help me out. The trick would be to either stay up all night or sleep in shifts because rule No. 1 is to never leave a cooking pig unattended. My brother in law, Bernie, had generously cut up and split a Jeep load of oak for me. The only worry Alex and I identified was the design of the pull-behind cooker I’d rented, the only one large enough for a whole hog that I could find. It was designed expressly for charcoal, not for wood. And once the grate was in place and the pig atop the grate, there simply was no provision for adding coals or redestributing them. But Alex and I decided that we’d lay down a bed of burning charcoal, heap the split oak on top of it and end up with a bed of coals that would last the eight to 10 hours we figured it would take to cook the pig—which we’re guessing weighed in at something like 80-90 pounds. After a few hours of stoking the fire, this was looking like a good plan. Only Alex began to wonder if a case of Coors would be enough to last me the night. That’s when Sarah and Sergio came back from the grocery store with a cooler full of Pilsner-Urquell, Bass Ale, Stout, and, yes, IPA. At that point, staying up all night seemed to me like a snap.

When 11:30 p.m. rolled around, we had a beautiful and deep bed of coals, but among them were several whole logs we’d unwisely put on along with the split wood. Not wanting to lose the heat from our bed of coals, we raked the big logs to each end, put on the grate, and then laid out the hog on top of it. We then damped down the two doors of the cooker and put tin foil on top of the two smokestacks to further arrest the fire. Soon we’d brought the internal temperature down to 300 degrees or so. Our goal was to bring it down to 250 degrees and keep it there. In an hour or so, that’s exactly what we’d done, and we were feeling pretty self satisfied. At that point, Alex hit the hay and I hit the IPA and other exotic drinkables.

beerAn hour later—or maybe it was two hours later—I rechecked the temperature and it held steady at 250. This hog cooking wasn’t that hard, I remember thinking, but sitting in a lawn chair was uncomfortable, and I knew that the further I was from the cooler of beer, the better off I’d be, so I decided to grab a cat nap. I set the timer on our microwave oven, which beeps insistently, and lay down on the couch. At 5 a.m., I awoke to insistent beeping and rushed outside. The temperature had plummeted to 190, although the quickest glimpse showed a beautifully browned exterior. However, I was sure that five hours hadn’t been long enough to cook a whole hog.
Mornings are not my thing and after opening the vents and taking the tin foil off the smoke stacks and not seeing any consequent rise in temperature, I decided to try to shovel some charcoal into the side door of the cooker. They came tumbling back out because something was blocking the door on the inside. With my shovel, I cleared the way and remember hearing a shifting, a rolling sound, but seeing a clearing, I congratulated myself on saving the day and heaped in 30 or 40 pounds of charcoal. I stayed up long enough to see the temperature begin to rise and then went back in, setting the timer once again. I promptly fell into one of the deepest sleeps I’ve enjoyed in months.
I was aroused by Anne’s and Alex’s troubled voices. “It’s on fire,” my wife said. And so it was, crackling and hissing and making jet-like noises.  The flame obscured everything until we hosed down the coals. And the first glimpse suggested we’d be having hot dogs for lunch.

burntpig The entire hindquarters was aflame and you could see blackened bones sticking out of the hams. The phrase “flaming asshole” came to mind.

rearview1

Oddly, on further inspection, the front half, starting about halfway up the ribs, was intact, though the skin was beyond mahogany-hued. A quick taste test indicated the pork was moist, smoky without a burnt taste and perfectly cooked. As my guests will attest, it turned out to be marvelous barbecue. And every scrap of it was consumed.

headshot

But back to deconstructing what happened and what I learned from it: After the autopsy of the hindquarters and an investigation into the scene of the disaster, Alex wondered how in the world the log we’d put at the end of the cooker got under the back of the hog. I explained, and it became clear that when making room for charcoal, I’d rolled a super-hot log right under the pig’s hams. Then I’d heaped on coals to make sure that we’d have full ignition and left the door open so there would be plenty of oxygen to fan the flames. Alex and Anne went through all the woulda and shoulda and coulda scenarios. But the big lesson I learned is to use tag teams for sleeping. Drink coffee instead of beer, and if there’s a problem, to wake the other guy.
In the end, though, I learned a lot and had lots of fun, and people did go on and on about what a great barbecue chef I was.

dhead

And although I’m sure there’s not a half-hog category on the competition-barbecue-cooking circuit, maybe there is a half-wit category.

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4 Responses to “A Tale with No Tail”

  1. Richard Gilbert Says:

    This is hilarious. And it proves barbeque is a forgiving craft. I laughed out loud.

  2. anabailey Says:

    Next time we’ll try the rotisserie method, eh?

  3. JoAnn Says:

    There’s book here David!
    cheers,
    JoAnn

  4. Kathleen Scott Says:

    I didn’t have time to read more of your blog yesterday so I thought I’d just hit it a lick before breakfast…and you made me laugh out loud before I’d even had coffee. I could just see the pig fiasco unfolding. Not sure if my favorite part was the pig hanging in the daughter’s room or the charred hams. Thanks for posting the story. I’m sending it on to a friend who does pig roasts. He’ll probably thank you too.

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