Something Really Old V: Adventures in Pig Roasting

From the AOL years (1996 – 98).


Last week I mentioned to a co-worker of mine at America Online that I was going to attend a pig roast that weekend. This being the first time I had been invited to one, I was unsure of what exactly was going to happen. My co-worker, apparently a veteran of the pig roasting genre, was only too happy to fill in the details.

“It’s the only way to cook a pig,” he declared, negating thousands of years of bacon, pork chops, Spam and potted meat food product with one imperious sweep. “What you do is you take a pig, stick a rod in it from mouth to tail, and cook it in an open pit for several hours.”

“So you even cook the head?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” he said. “In fact, you can tear a chunk right off the pig’s forehead and eat it while it’s still cooking.”

“That sounds sort of disgusting,” I said.

“Disgusting?” he appeared shocked. “Man, that’s the best part!”

I came away from this discussion with two thoughts. The first was simply the observation that there’s a certain class of folk who seem drawn to eat the most disturbing parts of an animal (“Pig forehead/orangutan lips/fish genitals? Man, that’s the best part!”).

While one can appreciate this in that sort of Native American, “use all parts of the animal” sense, it’s still unsettling. If God had truly meant man to think about the fact he was eating pig forehead/orangutan lips/fish genitals, He wouldn’t have invented the hot dog. My second thought was that this pig roast thing might be more complicated than I originally suspected.

Indeed, it is. The flame-broiling of an entire mammal is not something to take lightly. You don’t approach the task of cooking a whole pig like you would approach a hamburger. You can’t just slap it on the grill, flip it over a couple of times, lay some cheese on top, and then accidentally drop it into the flaming briquettes and end up trying to fill up on potato salad. There’s some serious planning involved.

Here’s what you need to cook an entire pig:

1. The Pig. This no doubt to the great displeasure of the pig itself. Our pig was neither one of those polyploidal monstrosities that show up at county fairs, looking horrifying like the farmer that brought it, nor one of those toupeed piglets that were so darn cute in “Babe”. It was medium-sized, which in human terms is about the size of Macaulay Culkin or Labor Secretary Robert Reich, take your pick.

Our pig came without the head, which meant we had to forgo the forehead-gnawing portion of the day, but which also made it easier for most of us to get through the food preparation process without thinking of Wilbur from “Charlotte’s Web.” Our pig was also spared the indignity of having a metal rod pinioning it through its anterior and posterior orifices. On the other hand, it was split right down the middle and halved like a red banana, so I wouldn’t suppose from the pig’s point of view that that was any better.

2. The Cooking Apparatus. Entire pigs are generally cooked over a pit, which is dug in the ground, filled with some sort of long-burning flammable object (charcoal briquettes, mesquite logs, Kenny G compact discs) and set ablaze. For our pig roast, digging a hole in the ground wasn’t practical, so we had a huge, industrial-strength grill, large enough to grill a Ford Explorer, if one were in the mood (“The alternator? Man, that’s the best part!”).

3. The Pig Roastin’ Guy. Unless you’re itchin’ for a Family Fun Pak of trichinosis, you want the guy who’s roasting your pig to have some experience, a Pig Roastin’ Guy who comes from a long and proud line of Pig Roasters. Our Pig Roastin’ Guy was “J.D.”, whose pig roastin’ skills were not in dispute: Every July 4th, J.D. would roast three entire pigs over a pit and invite most of the county for a party. Pigs were known to run squealing if he came within 30 yards.

J.D. came complete with seasonings, barbeque sauce, and a dazzling array of electric utensils, but the most interesting things about J.D. were his gloves — thick, black galvanized rubber monsters, glistening with grease, just the sort of thing you’d want to wear if you were handling live high voltage wires or planning to strangle the mailman.

For the life of me I couldn’t figure out what they were for until J.D. put them on, hopped over to the grill, grabbed the pig with both hands and flipped the entire thing over in one disturbingly graceful motion. This was the Greg Louganis of the pig roastin’ world.

Once you have all these things in one place, the pig roasting pretty much takes care of itself — all you have to do is stand around with the other guys, drink beer, and every now and then nibble on the steaming hot chunk of flesh your Pig Roastin’ Guy offers you in advance of the formal pig devouring.

Each time you get an advance pig chunk, you should chew appreciatively, gazing out into the distance, as if lost in thought, then turn to your Pig Roastin’ Guy and say “now, that’s damn fine pig!” It’s the standard response. Any deviation from the norm will cause your Pig Roastin’ Guy to look at you with suspicion; the next time he offers you a pig chunk, it’ll probably have come from some part of the pig you’d’ve rather not known about.

Take it anyway. Because, man, that’s the best part.

30 Comments on “Something Really Old V: Adventures in Pig Roasting”

  1. Here in North Carolina we call that a “Pig Pickin”. Calling it a “Pig Roast” would mark you clearly as a yankee, possibly even a carpet bagger!

    It is, truly, the ONLY way to cook a whole pig. From your description It sounds like you had a great Pig Pickin! I look forward to spring because they randomly pop up in cul-de-sacs throughout the season. If you’re lucky you’ll see a fight break out over the correct type of sauce to use. For the record it’s vinegar base; Unless you like your tomato based sauce on a knuckle sandwich…

    The best part of the pig is actually the skin. “Craklins” or “pork rind” as it’s called. mmm, love me some skin.

  2. You have a real treat in store for you. Roasted pig is excellent and you don’t have to eat the forehead. Traditional parts are right tasty. Oh, and I believe it’s customary to contribute a side.

  3. Some of us cheat and use a rebar frame to hold the pig. With two people and a rebar frame flippin’ the pig is SO much easier.

    Aside from the obvious, you also need at least two people to watch the pit, to flip the pig. They should be armed with a) beer, or other beverage; b) squirt bottles with water to smother any flareups and prevent charring; and c0 a pot of thin vinegar sauce and a big brush, for basting the pig.

  4. In regards to using the whole of the pig, I have two points.

    1. France is really, really good at this. I’ve worked and my husband works in the local meat factory dealing with pigs day in, day out. I’ve seen the evidence for myself.

    2. There’s an episode in the most recent series of QI (the J series) that discusses the many, many uses for pig. It’s the episode with Jo Brand, Liza Tarbuck and Sue Perkins for those that are interested. It really is astounding just where some bits of pig end up that aren’t food.

  5. @MikeT: It’s also called a Pig Cookin’ in NC. When I lived there, we would go to the Newport Pig Cookin’ every spring. Good times! I’m a vegetarian now, but I still have fond memories of the deep fried pork rinds, served up right out of the vat. Bacon is weak tea, in comparison.

  6. Every culture has its folkways. In Hawai’i it’s Kalua pig, cooked in a pit lined with rocks wrapped in banana or similar leaves. Wrap your pig in ti leaves. Cook till you can’t wait any longer (six or seven hours).

  7. A friend used to do a pig roast every Memorial Day. He’d do it Hawaiian style. Dig a pit, line it with rocks,build a fire in it, add charcoal, wrap pig in banana leaves or several layers of foil, toss it in, bury it. Dig it up several hours later.

  8. It’s “Vulcanized” rubber, not “galvanized”… but I like the visual on the latter.

  9. Our polynesian friends have the *only* way to cook a whole pig. You bury it in the ground with hot rocks and banana leaves and leave it there for six or seven hours. Kalua pig. It’s the only way.

  10. I’ve only ever been present for one pig roast. It took place in Dresden, Germany. The pigs were delivered to my American friends’ home by what was, as far as I know, the only Cuban restaurant in the state of Saxony. The guests included other American expats, Germans, a couple of Russians, and a Spaniard. When we lifted the cover off of the two pigs, we saw that one of them had a foreleg draped over the back of the other’s neck. We instantly dubbed them “Romeo” and “Juliet.”

    They were delicious. ; )

  11. The guy who said the best was on the head had something, okay not the forehead, but the cheeks are one of the tastiest cuts on the pig. Well, the tastiest cut that no one has ever taped to a cat anyway.

  12. That is pretty much the only way to cook a pig yeah. Pig roasts are incredible.

    Cheek is considered the best part of most animals, and consequently the most expensive xD

  13. Apparently there’s something to the “forehead’s the best part” business. In my neighborhood (which has a heavy Mexican population), you can buy whole pig heads at the grocery store. Even the neighborhood Wal-Mart has them, all plastic-wrapped and smiling. Apparently it’s quite popular to grill one during the holidays or for big parties. Like a turkey. Only more, er, expressive.

  14. Now, I’ve ever been to a pig roast, but I once went to an SCA event where they were roasting a sheep over a fire like this. A sheep carcass looks disturbingly like a dog, which led to several wags exclaiming, “Oh, no, not dog again!” *shakes head*

  15. I have to agree with Crypticmirror, the cheeks are incredibly tasty. As for splitting it, that was to let it cook faster and more evenly. If they didn’t split it, then they might place rocket-hot rocks inside the abdominal cavity instead along with damp banana leaves and other herbs. And the sauce was vinegar-based, right? Pork is a rather sweet meat anyway, so it’s best served/cooked with something acidic to cut through all that fatty goodness.

  16. On the “it’s the best part”, my dad goes for the rabbit’s eyes.

    Of course he eats the entire head, but for the eyes, it’s really “it’s the best part”.

    He has no competition for those best parts at any family dinner.

  17. Here in Blighty, it’s called a Hog Roast and is popular at weddings. I agree completely with the person who says that the skin is the best bit (‘crackling’ here), although you never get enough of it when served by Hog Roastin’ Guy. You can also buy pork scratchings in packets in most pubs: a single packet will supply you with your grease and salt portion for a week, or if you’re on the Atkins, you can live on them.

    I have been served a sheep’s head (not in the UK) and they are tricky to dissect. I am sticking with he hog roast.

  18. Whole dead pigs are a Chinese New Year tradition too. And I do mean WHOLE. Hello faces (There are a lot of animal faces in CNY banquets, come to think of it — seafood, fish, pigs).

    The skin is absolutely the best bit, and always gets eaten first. I eat as much of it as I can, but since that’s only once a year, it’s not too bad for me, right? Plum sauce on the meat, nothing at all on the skin but glorious crunchy pig grease taste.

  19. For the record, while I am a veteran of many a pig pickin’, and have on occasion had the honor to serve in the capacity of Assistant Pig Roastin’ Guy, I am not the J.D. referenced. And no, J.D. is not the traditional honorific for the PRG.

    Many folks have pig cookers made of large oil drums cut in half, hinged so you can open and close them and fitted with grills inside. Most are on wheels. This saves you from having to dig the pit, although there are some who swear by the traditional pit. I’ve have plenty of both, and I believe the sauce makes more difference that pit vs. cooker.

    There is a schism, by the way, among devotees of the Holy Grub (aka barbecue or sometimes BBQ). here in North Carolina. Followers of the True Eastern Way cook and eat their pig with many and glorious variations of vinegar based sauce, whereas the vile heretics of the West (A line running through Lexington is generally agreed to be the border between the light and the Dark) use some sort of nasty ketchup based concoction that is a Foul Reek in the Nostrils of God.

  20. Ooh, pig roast! We had one at my 35 yr high school reunion last summer, which may possibly have been the main reason I flew back to Wisconsin from Oregon to attend. My classmate Dave is a welder, and built his own roasting rig out of stainless steel. Oh, and we had fire balloons. And eleven different kinds of home-brewed beer.

    I have some of the best classmates…

  21. Sounds like you needed Anthony Bourdain, Pig-Eater Extraordinaire, to come with you and give you the ins and outs, Scalzi….

  22. There used to be a nice restaurant in NYC’s Chinatown called Nice Restaurant, where the signature item was a whole pig that they roasted every day. You had to get there before the pig ran out, though. Delicious.

  23. I once went to a tailgate party that had whole roasted pigs. They were amazing.

    (Yes, multiple roasted pigs. It was an Army/Navy football game, they take their tailgates seriously.)

  24. I’ve been to 3 pig pickin’s here in NC. Don’t tell my wife this: despite the fact that I proposed to her at the 2nd one (it’s a long story), the 3rd one was the best, simply because of the impressive setup the Pig Roastin’ Guy had.

    Picture 2 hand-built pits, each constructed of concrete blocks and facing each other. One pit was the actual roasting pit, with a large metal sheet on top including a hole for a temperature probe, and a rotisserie spit running through it. The other pit was the fire pit. There the PRG would burn some kind of smoky wood and keep it burning just right to have lots of hot ashes. If the roasting pit got too cool he’d scoop a shovel-full or two of ashes from the fire pit and bring them to the roasting pit, which had two special blocks on pivots so he could shovel in the coals, move ash around, etc. The pivoting blocks also allowed him to regulate the temperature of the roasting pit by letting in more or less air as needed.

    Between the two pits was a wide gravel walkway with solidly-planted paving stones in the center so the ashes could be safely transported without fire hazard.

    I probably should mention, the guy who designed and built this designs and implements laboratory test systems for a living. He knows from details and safety.

  25. Am I the only omnivore who detests pork?

    Hey, wait, put away those metal poles…I was just kidding…mmm, bacon. *squeal*

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