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“Well, that’s not good.” The words escaped my mouth as I flipped over 80 pounds of pig, only to find one side blackened and cracked by fire. My first foray into southern barbecue was only three hours old and failure was now a real possibility.

I glanced at the time, it was 8 a.m., more than 50 guests were scheduled to arrive at 4 p.m., which meant I had eight hours to recover. I wiped my soot-covered hands on my apron and examined the smoking carcass; this was going to be interesting.

“I can do that,” is a phrase I use more often than I should. Those who know me react accordingly with eye rolls or flat-out protest of, “No you can’t.” Fortunately, no one I knew was around the last time I said those words.

It was a hot August afternoon outside of Los Olivos. I was covering a barbecue showdown hosted at the Margerum Wine Company. A team from Memphis served up a whole hog in challenge to a local team’s Santa Maria-style tri-tip. Their pig was perfect, crispy skin, juicy meat and a whole heap of southern sides to go along.

I took one look at that pig, and I knew I wanted to cook my own. After all, how hard could it be? A few weeks later, I was having dinner at my parent’s house when the subject of birthdays came up. In our family, three of us, including me, have October birthdays. Throw in my father in-law and a few family friends and the October birthdays expand to seven.

Because there are so many people to celebrate, big parties are often on everyone’s fall schedule. As we sat around the table discussing what this year held, the thought of a pig roast came back to me. It took a few weeks to make the final decision, but eventually we agreed that a southern barbecue would be this October’s party of choice.

Next came the logistical planning. Who would cook the pig, how would they cook it and where, in the eviscerated sense, did pigs come from? I volunteered for the position of pit master. My qualifications included writing a food column, eating a whole lot of barbecue and on occasion pausing from channel surfing to watch one of those “world’s best barbecue” shows. Never mind that I’ve never cooked anything for longer than an hour in my life and that my consistency when it comes to doneness is — how to put it — lacking.

As far as method, in my mind, only one would do. If we were going to have a real southern barbecue, we were going to cook low and slow over hardwood coals. I was scared of in-the-ground styles of preparation because of fears about undercooking and horror stories about slimy pork. More complicated cooking approaches like China boxes and full-blown smokers weren’t in my budget. We would cook with what we had: a pit barbecue with a grill that adjusted in height.

Pork procurement could have been a daunting task, but I got a hot tip that a certain market in Santa Maria had whole pigs in stock. Two days before the barbecue, we went to the market to finally meet our meal. Earlier that week, we pre-ordered an 80 pound half-pig. It wasn’t until I saw the carcass, split along the backbone from shoulder to tail, that I realized just how much meat that was.

I sidled up to the butcher’s counter at Vallarta Supermarket and handed over a yellow carbon copy of our order form. A man behind the counter took it from me and stared at it for a moment. “Do you want me to split it up for you?” he asked. “No, I want it whole,” was my reply. He paused briefly and smiled. I watched as he walked into a refrigerated room and then to a window where great slabs of beef and pork hung. My half-pig was in the middle of three others, hanging from a hook that rolled on a track attached to the roof.

When he unhooked the pig, his whole body strained under the weight. In a few minutes, he emerged from the refrigerated room, flopped the now-bagged pig onto a counter and picked up a phone.

My Spanish isn’t great, but I did catch a little snippet of the announcement he made on the market’s loudspeaker. “Mitad de puerco,” he said. Half a pig. He then hefted the beast into our cart and proceeded to lead us to the exit. It was like walking in a little parade, every eye in the store was on us as he led the way.

Each time he passed a co-worker, he would say something in Spanish and point at our basket. This would elicit big smiles and nods. I couldn’t help but feel like some sort of culinary hero. When we got to the exit, a security guard and manager met us with wide grins. They finalized the transaction and we were off. When we got to my family’s van, I came to terms with how deeply I had jumped off the deep end on this one.

It took the combined effort of my father and me to lift the pig out of the cart and into the back of the van. We had to be careful not to slice our hands on the sharp rib bones that stuck out of the meat. With a “one, two, three lift,” we landed it squarely on a sheet of plywood on the van floor. With the legs dangling out of the bag, I felt almost criminal, like I was moving a murder victim.

As soon as we arrived home, I raced off to the kitchen to get two big pots of water warmed for making a brine. We transitioned the pig from the van onto a plastic table in the garage. It was huge, almost 4 feet long, and it didn’t even have a head.

To brine the pig, we had found a large cooler but when it sat alongside the carcass, I wasn’t sure the pig would fit. There is no requirement that the brining process be complicated, so I opted for a simple recipe. I added 100 ounces of coarse salt and 80 ounces of brown sugar to hot water until the ingredients were completely dissolved in the cooler. Next came the pig, which had to be twisted up like a contortionist to fit inside the ice chest. Finally, water and ice were added until nothing but a single hoof was protruding from the solution.

The next day of waiting passed uneventfully, save for one incident of trying to stir the brine. I decided the most effective way to stir would be with my hands.

It didn’t occur to me before I put my hands in that saltwater does not freeze at the same temperature fresh water does. What appeared to be a large container of water with a thin layer of ice on top, was in fact a large container of below-freezing water. I pulled two bright red and throbbing hands from the water and decided that was enough meddling for one day.

The morning of the actual pig roast began with the harsh beeping of my alarm at 3:30 a.m. I rolled over and debated whether I really needed to cook for 12 hours. Then the thought of undercooked pork floated up from somewhere in my foggy mind and I was quickly on my feet.

The first task was covering the whole pig in a dry rub to increase the flavor. It landed with a thud on the plastic table in the garage. I gave it a quick pat-down with paper towels and then set about mixing up the rub. I added large but equal portions of chile powder, onion powder and paprika to a bowl followed by smaller equal portions of cumin, fennel and coriander. This was liberally applied to the pork on both the skin and the inside.

With the help of a few friends, we headed toward the fire pit. I thought we must have looked like we were preparing some sort of sacrifice, walking from the light of the garage and carrying a table ladened with pork into the predawn darkness.

The fire in the barbecue pit was already glowing thanks again to another friend, who had been tending it in the cold and damp air while we worked inside. With another of the many hefts in this story, we moved the pig onto the grill.

It soon became clear that the fire was not big enough to heat the entire animal. This is where I made the first of many mistakes. Hoping to get a hotter bed of coals, I hoisted the pig and grill up to the highest position and built a roaring fire underneath. I hoped to keep the meat far enough away from the flames to prevent burning, and for a while it seemed to be working – at least it didn’t smell like anything was burning.

As night turned to dawn and I was no longer forced to rely on a dim headlamp for light, the error of my ways was seen. The big flames I used to start the fire had burned and blistered almost the entire skin side of the pig. When we flipped it over in another hour, the damage could be surveyed completely.

From shoulder to ham it was black and crisscrossed with deep grill marks. The only edible skin that remained was near the edges and on the legs. “Oh, well,” I reasoned, “only a few people really like the skin.” Fortunately, underneath the midnight exterior, tender white meat remained.

During the next few hours, my mastery over the fire grew. I had split my single fire into two — one beneath the ham and another under the shoulder. Using a mixture of oak logs and hickory charcoal, I was able to keep the fires just above a smolder. Thick smoke drifted up from the pit and enveloped the pig.

For now, it wasn’t burning but another problem was starting to gnaw at me.

Around noon, I began using a digital thermometer to test the ham’s and shoulder’s temperature. The recommended internal heat for pork is 145°, with four hours of cooking left; I was only hitting 110°. This is where I again let fear get the better of me and built a large fire while hoisting the pig to the top of the grill.

The result was an underside as equally carbonized as the skin side had been. I used a large spoon to chip away at the blackened layer. Again I found — despite my barbecue transgressions — white and tender meat under the burnt exterior.

By now, it was 3 p.m. and guests were arriving. Brandishing a hacksaw, I began the visceral process of chopping the pig into its respective cuts. When I finished cutting through the loin, a glimmer of hope appeared. There wasn’t a trace of raw meat in the cut and it was tender to the point of falling apart. Even if the rest of the pig was inedible, at least everyone could fight over this piece.

Shortly after my hacksaw butchery, help arrived in the form of my uncle Dale. He joined me at the table, where I had taken some of the cuts to be pulled apart. We went through each one, taking off burnt bits of skin and checking for doneness. Only the biggest section of the shoulder, next to the bone, required a return trip to the grill; the rest was shredded into three huge tins and set on two long tables that served as the buffet line.

My mom had worked her army-feeding magic, derived from raising five children, and laid out a massive spread. A trip down the table included deviled eggs, beans, corn bread, coleslaw, rolls, five kinds of barbecue sauce and all the pulled pork you could eat. At the end of the night, we managed to only eat half of everything we cooked. As the crowd gathered in a big circle for a prayer before dinner, I looked around and smiled. The pig was done, it was out of my hands and all that really mattered was we were together with friends and family. Wasn’t that the whole point of a pig picking?

After grace, I slipped away to take a shower and try in vain to wash the smoke out of my skin. When I returned, the line was still as long as the two tables. I loaded up a roll with pork drenched in a spicy Carolina sauce. When I collapsed into a lawn chair and took a bite, I couldn’t tell if it tasted good because it was actually good, or because I was so relieved to finish my 13-hour food marathon.

“Would you do it again?” was the question I was asked most often that night. I started by giving half-hearted maybes, but by the end of the night was answering with an emphatic “no.” Sure I got lots of compliments and even after hours of breathing pig fumes, it was a good eat, but cooking a whole pig, in the classic southern style, is an astounding amount of work.

Now that doesn’t mean I’ve given up barbecue or even cooking whole hogs. No, I might not repeat that exact process, but I’d be willing to try something new. I’m sure it will be any day now when I’ll find something so crazy, so big and so enticing that I will have no option but to say, “I can do that.”

brookshire@syvjournal.com