Wide is the range of talk--from politics to the cotton crop--and all differences are made as nothing by the benign influence of the barbecue. At this great summer function in central North Carolina all men have become equal, whether rich or poor, and townsmen and countrymen vie in their exploits as trenchermen.
--Forest and Stream magazine, August 1901
If Carolina Piedmont cuisine is famous for anything, it's for pit barbecue, and specifically for the roasting of whole pigs over charcoal and wood fires.
Though restaurants serving barbecue abound in the Triangle, and the product itself ranges from wretched to the sublime, there's nothing like pickin' your own pig at home.
There are two ways to throw a pig pickin'. You can hire a caterer to cook the pig and bring it to you ready for pickin', but if you're fearless and you have lots of time, you can roast one yourself.
First, the professional option: Many local barbecue joints cater pig pickin's. Allen & Son in Chapel Hill, Ole Time Barbecue in Raleigh, and Bullock's in Durham, among others, can help.
Dave Sparrow, of Pig in the Pen, in Pittsboro, has been in the pig pickin' business for 35 years. Nowadays family members help out on a part-time basis, but mostly it's a one-man show.
Sparrow says it used to be that there were plenty of local farmers who would sell pigs individually for barbecue. But with the advent of "vertically integrated" factory farms, the small family farmer has been virtually eliminated from the economy. As a result, whole pigs for roasting have become scarce. Sparrow has to drive all the way to the town of Bailey, near Wilson, to buy pigs from Bailey Foods.
The reason barbecue pigs are so rare is that the first step most modern slaughterhouses take, after slaughtering and before cutting into parts, is to remove the skin. But you can't roast a skinned pig. "The fat would drip down and flare up in the coals," Sparrow explains. Bailey Foods is one of the few processing plants remaining in North Carolina that supply pigs suitable for barbecueing.
Sparrow does the cooking at his place in Pittsboro. Depending on how far he has to drive to get to your party, he'll charge between $525-575 to serve 50 guests. Arriving an hour before serving time with a fully-cooked pig, he removes the ribs and bony parts first, setting them aside "as a sampler." While folks nibble on the bones, Sparrow chops up the meat--fine or course, however you prefer. He also provides all the sandwich buns, cole slaw, baked beans, potato salad, hush puppies, and sweet tea you care to eat. And, of course, his homemade eastern-style barbecue sauce.
Traditionally, every barbecue master has a "secret sauce," a closely-guarded formula that makes his or her barbecue superior to all others.
Sparrow's having none of it. He'll tell anyone who asks what he puts in his sauce--namely cider vinegar, cayenne, season salt, brown sugar, mustard, black pepper and water. What makes his sauce special is the boiling-down process, and the fact that he ages it for at least a month, and usually much more, to let the flavors mellow and deepen. He learned the trick from Thad Garner, founder of Texas Pete.
"My sauce isn't secret," Sparrow says. "The secret of my business is hard work."
An adventurous chef, Sparrow also offers barbecued marinated chickens, chilled poached salmon, and various other trimmings. But pig pickin's are his specialty.
"Some people are afraid of cooking," says Sparrow. "But if you try cooking a pig, you'll have an enjoyable experience."
So you've decided to give it a try. Where do you start? Well, you really need only four things to roast your own: a cooker, some charcoal, a pig, and a whole lot of time.
First you have to obtain a cooker large enough to hold a 100-pound pig. Even the largest propane grills won't suffice.
If you're planning on doing this frequently and don't mind having an eyesore in your yard, you can build a simple smokehouse out of cinder blocks, a metal screen and a sheet-metal roof. Digging a pit is also an option. (Google "how to roast a pig" to find plans.)
But you'll probably want to spare the neighbors and your lower back and simply rent a cooker.
A towable pig cooker--basically a fuel drum sawed in half lengthways, the halves joined with a hinge and a screen placed in the middle, the whole contraption welded to a trailer hitch--can be rented from various barbecue joints or from party-rental companies. Go for the charcoal cooker, not the propane. (Propane is convenient, and the whole point of roasting your own pig is that it's not convenient.) The cooker will run you about $75 for the day.
Next, the pig. You may have noticed that your local supermarket doesn't stock whole pigs. That doesn't mean they can't get you one, if you ask a couple of weeks in advance. But if your supermarket butcher won't order one, try your favorite barbecue joint.
Cliff Collins, of Cliff's Meat Market in Carrboro, will procure a hog for you on the weekend if you give him notice by the preceding Monday. Collins's pigs, like Sparrow's, come from Bailey Foods. You'll need to specify the size of the pig. Figure on about 2 pounds per guest. At the current price of $1.39 a pound (which may go up or down slightly with the market), that's $140 to feed 50 guests.
Collins can get pigs from 40 pounds up to about 150 pounds. He recommends that size as the upper limit. "Pigs much bigger than that take too long to cook," he explains. If you're serving more than 75 people, roast multiple pigs.
Now that you have a cooker and a pig, you need to get barbecuing. Start first thing in the morning, as this is a day-long effort.
Fire up the charcoal--20 pounds to start with, spread over the floor of the cooker. Butterfly the pig by cutting the backbone lengthwise with a sharp knife or hatchet, taking care not to puncture the skin. Rub coarse salt on the surface of the cavity. Lay the pig skin side up on the grate. Close the top of the cooker. Mix yourself a pitcher of Bloody Marys or crack open a beer, and sit back.
Every hour or so, open up the cooker and poke around. There isn't much to do, but it's nice to take a look every now and then. Throw in some more charcoal if the fire is burning down, but don't overdo it. If you have some hickory chunks, you can toss those in, too. The object is to have a low fire (about 225 degrees) that burns long.
More beer, maybe a julep or two.
After about eight hours, turn the pig over so that the skin side is down.
After two more hours, the ham should have an internal temperature, as measured by a meat thermometer, of 170 degrees. Your pig is now ready to be picked.
Carefully lift the pig onto a picnic table covered with newspaper (we recommend the Indy). Carve up your smoky masterpiece. Do like Dave Sparrow and distribute the ribs and other bones to the slavering hordes. The head is said to be the daintiest piece of all. Bestow it on a special friend. Chop up the meat or shred it with a fork. Douse with sauce. Set out the Brunswick stew, slaw, buns, beans, corn on the cob and green salad. Remember to put slaw on the bun. Vie in your exploits as a trencherman. Lick your fingers.