Mastering Whole Hog Cookery At The Southern Foodways Symposium

The theme of the 15th Annual Southern Foodways Symposium was Barbecue: An Exploration of Pitmaster, Places, Smoke, and Sauces, so it's no surprise that whole hog was on the menu. Noted smoker chefs from around the South were in attendance to show off their pit prowess, including Rodney Scott of Scott's Pit Cook Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, SC and Sam Jones from the Skylight Inn in Ayden, NC, who both took on whole animals. Cooking for an assemblage of almost 400 foodies from across the country is always an intimidating task; tackling a whole hog takes a big ol' set of mountain oysters.

The pigs that Scott and Jones cooked were huge specimens from the Jim n' Nick's Fatback Pig Project, an initiative that seeks to preserve heritage hogs. Scott was assisted by Nick and Nicholas Pihakis of Jim n' Nick's while they cooked their hog Wednesday night and Thursday for a small group of lucky diners at Dockery Farms, despite the fact that tornadic weather swept across the Delta during the night and left them scrambling for shelter and working in ankle-deep mud. The results of their hard efforts were truly spectacular, and the opportunity to stand around the pig with just a few people while Scott selected his specific favorite hunks of meat from the bacon under the ribs and the jowl for individual diners was a rare treat. The moans from the crowd as they devoured long strands of "redneck spaghetti" from the belly almost overshadowed the pumping electric blues music coming from the stage at Dockery.

The hog that Jones took on was truly a Mangalitsa monster, weighing in at over 280 lbs. dressed out. Working on an unfamiliar cinder block raised pit that had been constructed specifically for him on Thursday morning at Woodson Ridge Farm on the outskirts of Oxford, Jones knew he had a hard deadline to get this pig cooked. Four hundred hungry Symposium attendees would descend on the farm Saturday night at 8:00, and if the barbecue wasn't ready, a bourbon-fueled riot was extremely likely.

As always, Jones handled the situation with calm aplomb. He put the pig on the pit late Friday night and tended it for most of the 22 hours that it took to turn it into perfect barbecue. Those who witnessed the single flipping of the behemoth in the wee hours of Saturday morning said it was quite a spectacle of greased pig wrestling.

At the dinner, Jones pulled the hog apart into quarters and chopped the meat for individual portions for each diner, flashing double cleavers on a six-inch thick wooden block that had so much use that deep scallops had formed on both sides.

He said that Skylight goes through a couple of these massive boards per year due to the volume of meat that passes across to them and the vigor with which he chops. When someone asked if that meant that there were a lot of wood chips in his meat, he quoted his grandfather who said "Our wood chips taste better than most folks' barbecue."

The featured speaker at the Symposium, Alton Brown, was much more academic as he presented his method of whole hog cookery in his speech "Goin' Whole Hog – Scientifically Speaking." Brown's speech was intended to be the basis of what he hoped to be the final episode of his long run of Good Eats series on Food Network. After doing all the research and the testing phase in preparation for shooting what he hoped would be his mic drop of a magnum opus, the episode was vetoed by the suits in New York who were apparently squeamish about showing America any food that still had eyeballs.

Brown's thesis is that a whole hog is basically a cauldron of boiling water, since the meat that makes up 70% of the carcass (another word that the Food Network execs prefer to avoid) is three quarters water and only one quarter actual protein and delicious, delicious connective tissue. The over 600 muscles of a pig are very different in size and composition, so even cooking requires a delicate compromise during the process, which is essentially boiling and simmering water.

The skin of a pig serves as the vessel that contains all this water during a low, slow smoking. Brown prefers a smaller hog in the 90-100 lb. range to maximize tenderness and ease of handling. He also likes his pigs to be finished on roots and acorns instead of grain, because otherwise your barbecue will taste like...well...grain. The goal is to maximize tastiness, tenderness and juiciness, which Brown referred to as the "Three T's" since nobody has yet called him out on the fact that it's not "tuiciness." Far be it from me to question one of my favorite cooking gurus.

In addition to the natural flavor of pork, Brown advocates that the primary essence of great barbecue comes from the 500 flavor compounds found in smoldering hardwood. Don't let fire touch your hog, because that introduces a whole new set of undesirable flavors in addition to soot and carcinogens. That is assuredly not good eats. The goal is to "cook through doneness to tenderness." In lay speak, that means that while your pig may be done, meaning safe to eat and palatable at 140°, it won't start to get really delicious until the temperature rises above 160° where the collagen in the connective tissues begins to denature and form a gel which traps moisture in the meat and contributes the unctuous consistency and flavors which characterize great barbecue.

However, if you allow a pig to get too hot, the moisture in the meat begins to literally boil off. Remember, it's just a big tasty pot of water. Instead, home smokers should seek to maintain the temperature of the hog in the 175°-180° range for as long as possible while this gelatinization of the collagen takes place. Brown tries to keep a hundred pound pig in the sweet zone for at least five hours.

Brown is a big fan of using a mop on his pig, both to add flavor and moisture, but also to moderate the temperature of the meat. Like stepping out of a shower without toweling off, evaporating water lowers the surface temperature of the hog, allowing Brown to keep it in the magic temperature range and even cool specific smaller parts of the pig which might be cooking faster than the dense hams. Brown flips his pig at least 3-4 times during the process to ensure more even cooking and to redistribute the rendering fat throughout the animal. He showed a slide of an ingenious contraption he had constructed to allow for easier flipping of the pig, even by just one person. Made with materials from your local big box hardware store for less than $100, this set-up could have revolutionized home whole hog cooking, had the show actually aired. Hopefully, Brown will someday put those plans online or in his next book.

While Rodney Scott fries his addictive pig skin cracklings separate from his whole hogs to keep up with the clamoring demand for these meat snacks and Sam Jones juliennes crispy strips of skin to incorporate into his chopped pork to add a delightful crunch to the Skylight Inn's sandwiches, Alton refers to pork skin as "God's only true cracker." To that end, he makes sure to end his rotation of cooking the two sides of a hog with the skin side up. Is there a scientific rationale behind this? No, he just wants to make sure that diners can get to the cracklin's ASAP.

Brown, Scott and Jones may certainly have some notable differences in their whole hog cooking methods, but they do agree on one important point. As Brown concluded, "You can cook a pig over gas. You'll certainly go to hell, but you can do it."

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