The food tents at major music festivals are always a hit-or-miss proposition since the focus is usually on the jamming bands, instead of plates of jamon Iberico. (With a couple of major exceptions.) At this year’s Bonnaroo, the 12th annual gathering of 80,000+ music lovers, peace lovers and love lovers in Manchster, TN, the usual suspects were manning the food booths to help attendees recharge their batteries and refill the dervish dance fuel tanks.
There were plenty of pneumatic young ladies in bikini tops working mobile carts selling corn pancakes covered with mozzarella cheese which were nominally referred to as arepas. Rows of stands offered pizza by the slice until 3 am and any variety of fried dough, waffle-cut potatoes, Oreos and funnel cakes for concert-goers too young to worry about their LDL numbers. The granola set was well-provided for with some excellent tabouli bowls, tempeh dishes, seitan stir fries, fruits, nuts, and many other health food options. A food truck oasis brought regional favorites off the road and onto the field to work long hours in infernally hot metal tubes so that they could serve up breakfast, lunch, dinner and munchies to the hungry masses.
But Tennessee is pig country, so you know there had to be some great barbecue. The organizers (who are also behind the food-centric festivals The Great Googamooga and Outside Lands) really upped the ante this year by inviting the culinary rock stars of the Fatback Collective to introduce the Bonnaroonies to the wonders of whole hog cookery. Many of the members of this band of barbecue brothers (and a sister) came to Bonnaroo fresh from this year’s Big Apple Barbecue Block Party, where they had cooked individually or as members of other barbecue teams.
Sam Jones of Skylight Inn in Ayden, NC built a brand new traveling whole hog smoker rig for his inaugural trip as a featured pitmaster at Big Apple. This monstrous device was capable of cooking eight 200-lb. hogs at one time and was worked hard during its maiden voyage in Manhattan. By the time it made the slow trip down the eastern seaboard to Bonnaroo, the smoker was nicely seasoned and Jones was very comfortable with its cooking characteristics. At the festival, the Collective cooked four hogs at a time in rotation to feed long lines of hungry patrons thousands of whole hog sandwiches at $7 a pop. The proceeds from the Fatback sales will be distributed among the favorite charities of the individual members.
Even with this efficient system in place, the Fatback stand regularly ran out of whole hog before sunset (“We’re already in the short rows,” noted Jones at 4 on Saturday) and had to supplement their pork supply with shoulders provided by Jim `N Nick’s Bar-B-Que, who were also cooking on site and provided support and staffing for the Fatback crew.
Jim N` Nick’s was represented on the Fatback cook team by their executive chef Drew Robinson, who marshaled the forces of almost 50 staff members from JNN locations in Middle Tennessee and Charleston. Ostensibly, each Fatback Collective member was supposed to be responsible for one evening’s whole hog cooking and one dish for the VIP artist dinner that they prepared on Saturday night, but the entire weekend was an all hands on deck team effort. They’re a “collective,” remember?
John Currence may have banned pork specials from his empire of Mississippi restaurants, which include City Grocery and Bouré in Oxford, but he clearly has nothing against special pork. He held court at the cooking area as VIPs dropped by before the midnight supper to answer questions about the Collective, cooking process and how he creatively worked Ole Smokey Moonshine into two of the delicious side dishes.
One of the VIPs who spent quite a lot of time at the pit was barbecue-loving Georgia native and Bonnaroo Comedy Tent headliner David Cross. He was genuinely interested in the whole undertaking and his eyes rolled back like Tobias Fünke at a Hot Cops call back when Fatback Collective member Ashley Christensen snuck him an early sample of the crispy fatty belly meat an hour before service was due to begin.
Cross said that he looked forward to being reminded of that hot pork the next day when the welt would raise up in the middle of his palm from the sizzling meat which Christensen had dropped there. To which the other full-time barbecue proprietor of the Bonaroo Fatback Collective team, Rodney Scott from Hemingway, SC, showed off burns and scars all the way up both arms from wrist to elbow. “We call those pitmaster tattoos,” he said.
Cross was obviously impressed by Scott’s dedication and the pig he had prepared since he moved almost immediately to the front of the line to be fed. In fact, Cross actually started the line, which queued up behind him for almost an hour to wait for plate-loads of Jim N’ Nick’s smoked chicken wings, whole hog sandwiches with Sam Jones’ Skylight sauce and haute versions of traditional down home side items including cole slaw, potato salad and baked beans. Even as the explosions from fireworks announcing (celebrating?) the end of Jack Johnson’s set at Bonnaroo’s What Stage, very few of the VIPs in the artist hospitality area looked up from their plates. The artists that those diners were interested in were the talented pitmasters of the Fatback Collective — and the real VIP was some Very Impressive Pork.