“Alcohol – the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems.”
– Homer Simpson
Quest For Pig
Most men believe they can do three things better than anyone else. Coach a team, drive a car and build a fire. Fire is hardwired into our souls, as documented by Quest for Fire, the 1981 caveman epic in which Rae Dawn Chong teaches a tribe of cavemen how to cook meat, as well as explore their inner sexual beings.
Zen and the art of slow-cooking meat. The fire. The smoke. The beer. The guys sitting around, chatting about lawn mowers. It’s tribal. It should last for hours. Maybe the entire weekend. The mechanics of grilling and smoking meat is as inspiring as that first adrenaline rush that comes with lifting the hood of a 1965 GTO. I’ve seen guys rig smokers out of old natural-gas tanks, the kind you find behind a farm house, with a lid cut in the top and threaded plugs that can be removed to regulate the air flow. Ten racks of ribs will fit on one of those. Then go low and slow. Holding the temperature at about 225 degrees, I’ll babysit a salmon for three hours. Pork ribs for six hours. A 20-pound turkey for seven. Beef brisket for eight.
Or 5 ½ hours for roasting a 48-pound pig. My neighbor Pat had taken the useable pieces from my rusting, 20-year-old New Braunfels Double Diamond smoker — the offset firebox, the smokestack, the prep shelf and the wheels — and welded them onto a 55-gallon drum reinforced with a few strategically placed pieces of iron. As a final touch, he stenciled its new name on the lid, in silver paint: HOGZILLA.
After a few trial runs of ribs and salmon (Barely a wisp of smoke escaped from the lid Pat had cut into the top of the drum), Hogzilla went to work on the true reason for its existence: A whole pig, bathed overnight in a marinade of vinegar and chili powder.
As the pig was slightly longer than the grill, I had to cut off the head — a brutal but mercifully quick operation. And when I rolled the pig off the grill and onto the cutting table 5½ hours later, as Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” blasted from the outdoor speakers, a dingo-like crowd gathered, picking meat from the still-warm carcass. We quickly broke it down into about 20 pounds of pulled pork, with the charred head as a centerpiece:
Appalachian vinegar sauce
Cooked up that morning and applied liberally to the pig, post-roast, this condiment was absolutely killer. Grown men cried:
1/2 gallon of cider vinegar.
4 cups of ketchup (I ran out of ketchup, a generally useless foodstuff anyway, and rounded out the recipe by emptying the refrigerator of several old bottles of barbecue sauce; this extra spice kick was met with howls of approval from the pig consumers).
1 1/2 cups of dark brown sugar.
1/2 cup granulated sugar.
1/4 cup of salt.
1/4 cup of freshly ground black pepper.
1/4 cup of crushed red pepper (I went with a tastier cousin, smoked chipotle peppers, for yet more of a kick.
1/2 quart of water.
Dump it all into a non-reactive pot over medium-high heat and bring it to a boil. reduce the heat until the sauce is simmering, and hold it there for 20 minutes. You’ll want it more watery than barbecue sauce, about the consistency of light cream. If your eyes start tearing up when you hold your head over the pot, you’re getting close. Served at room temperature, it’s plenty for 40 guests, with enough left over for a week’s work of chicken dinners and pork breakfast sandwiches.
Fear of pig
Some tips for getting through your first experience roasting a West Virginia style, 40-pound hog:
1, Do not look Homer in the eyes.
2, Let him sleep overnight in a marinade of 2 quarts distilled white vinegar, 1/3 cup of salt, 1/3 cup of chili powder, 1/3 cup of cayenne pepper, 2 tablespoons of black pepper, 2 tablespoons of sugar, 2 teaspoons of vegetable oil.
3, Build two fires at either end of the grill; that’s where the most meat is, Homer’s butt and his shoulders. Toss some smoking wood on for the first two hours or so.
4, Just before flipping Homer onto the grill, massage this pig paste into the cavity and all over his body: one cup of peeled and coarsely chopped garlic cloves, one quart of fresh herbs such as rosemary, thyme, parsley and sage, two cups vegetable oil, 1/2 cup sweet paprika, 1/4 cup sugar, 1/4 quarter cup fresh-ground black pepper, 1/4 cup hot pepper flakes, 1 tablespoon ground mace, all churned through the food processor.
5, Bind him up nice and tight with wire, tucking the legs against the body (you’ll have to cut into the joints with a knife). Remember, he’ll shrink as he cooks, and get a little loose in there.
6, Keep the temperature as close to 225 degrees as you can, flip Homer every 20 minutes, getting all sides equal heat. After about five hours, poke him deep in the butt and shoulder with an instant-read thermometer. Get it as close to 190 degrees as you can.
7, The head has nice meat on the cheeks, and I hear some folks like to gnaw on the snout. I have more dignity than that. Save the ears for your dog.
Questions and Answers with Jeff
Q: Jeff, you’re a pretty culinary guy, what’s your favorite food?
A: Sometimes, when I’m dousing food in a particularly virulent hot sauce, one that I can smell the moment I open the bottle, I get this exotic crackling feeling – I can almost hear it – on the inside of my cranium.