This past weekend (Saturday, May 23, 2009) I was bestowed the great honor of being asked to cook pork barbecue for the wedding reception of Jeff and Lesslie, two very special friends. Several months before the event, Jeff approached me one evening at The Esso Club, our local watering hole, and rather tentatively asked if I would mind cooking a pig for their reception. As usual, things became more complicated than either of us imagined.
This certainly would not be my first pig cooking, but cooking for this couple demanded that I produce the best results possible. I wanted to do my best to honor my friends, of course, but there was also the added incentive that I would be serving some people who I knew were top notch barbecuers, and others who considered themselves connoisseurs of this southeastern US tradition. Jeff is no slouch himself as a pit master, and Lesslie's father Tom has whipped up many an excellent meal during football and baseball tailgate parties. I knew my results would be judged by people who "knew their 'cue."
When the RSVP's started coming in, we arrived at a tentative head count of about 250 people. That's not a huge party for a wedding reception, but it is way too many to feed with one pig. Jeff and I decided to buy a 140 pound animal. That's somewhat larger than my preferred range of 100 to 120 pounds, but still manageable. We would buy Boston butts to round out the quantity of meat. With my usual guesses for yield of 33% for whole pigs and 50% for butts, and guessing on a heavy eating crowd (one pound to three people instead of my usual one to four) I calculated we would need about 75 pounds of Boston butts. Jeff started getting nervous that the head count was going to be higher than expected, so we decided to up it to 100 lbs.
Two weeks before the event I began preparations. I made a large batch of my dry rub and about two gallons of Blackville Pork Barbecue Sauce. Since the crowd would be diverse, I decided to add a second sauce. The main types of barbecue sauce are mustard based, tomato based, and vinegar based. My Blackville sauce is a blend of all three. The largest contrast would be a sweet/spicy vinegar-pepper based sauce but I don't like sweet sauces, so I started experimenting and came up with Spicy apple-vinegar barbecue sauce.
Thursday morning I went to the local Sam's Club and bought the butts. My friend Mitch has a large smoker that he had offered to cook the butts, so I took them to his house to prep them for cooking on Friday. With most cuts of meat, the preparation of the meat for cooking is the most labor intensive part, and good prep is essential to a good finished product. With butts, the prep consists of trimming off the exterior fat and silver skin, which may be as much as 15% of the weight. After trimming the butts I thoroughly rubbed them with Enoch's Dry Rub, wrapped them in plastic wrap and put them on ice for the night.
Mitch's smoker is just about the perfect barbecue pit for doing this kind of cooking. It is made by Traeger and consists of an insulated cooking chamber with four racks. Indirect heat is produced in a small combustion chamber below. The fuel is tiny pellets available in many types of hardwood. We used pecan. A blower provides combustion air, and an adjustable internal thermostat controls the auger that feeds the pellets to the combustion chamber, giving very precise temperature control. My fourteen butts just about filled it up. The butts were cooked at 225F to an internal temperature of 160F, then pulled out, wrapped in aluminum foil, and returned to the cooker until they hit 190F. I check temperatures with probes that have a shielded cable that is fed to the outside of the cooker and attached to a digital readout to minimize opening the cooker. This process took about eight hours. After hitting 190F, the butts were transferred, still wrapped in foil, to an insulated "hot box" to hold until serving time.
While the butts were cooking, Jeff called to say he had picked up the pig. The processors had misjudged the weight. We now had a 167 pound pig to cook. This is a very large pig. The larger size means more difficulty in controlling the uniformity of the cooking, as well as a possibility of tougher meat. Jeff was getting ready to go to the wedding rehearsal dinner and under enough stress, so I just said, "fine, don't worry about it. I'll take care of everything." As soon as the butts were boxed I headed over to the reception site at The Esso Club. The trailer mounted pig cooker had been delivered as promised. I got some help from the door guys and we went to the walk-in cooler to get the plastic wrapped pig. That sucker was big. As I supervised the four young men carrying it across the parking lot to the cooker, more than one person was sure we were carrying a dead human body out. Through the rest of the weekend there were many repetitions of the saying that "a friend will help you move, but a true friend will help you move a body." Once we got the pig arranged on the cooker, I liberally applied rub to the cavity, closed it up and went home to get a few hours sleep.
I was up at 4:30 AM and back at the cooker by 5:00. The cooker has been a work horse for the community for a long time. It was built in the early 1970's by a welder on the construction site of a nuclear power plant. The main cooking chamber is made from an oval 250 gallon fuel tank split in half and hinged, but the hardware is all stainless steel and aluminum that was "scrap" from the plant construction. It is propane fired through three stainless steel burners and has a four by five foot grate made of woven stainless steel wire mesh. It's beginning to show its age, though. The hydraulic cylinders installed to assist with lifting the lid died long ago, and that lid is heavy. All the valves and dampers and hinges have been through a lot of cooking and don't work as smoothly as they once did, but it still gets the job done.
I put one probe in a ham as the thickest part, one in the loin as the most tender, and one through a half of a potato set on the grate to read the chamber temperature. We had put the pig on skin side down and I had no intention of trying to turn that monster during the cooking. I added some more rub and closed it down. The cooker was at 250F by 5:30 AM. I pushed it to 275F for the first hour because it was so big, then settled it down at 250F for the long haul.
Other than a brief rain shower around noon, and sporadic problems with one burner or another getting blown out by gusting winds, things went very smoothly. I opened the lid three times and basted with vinegar sauce. Since dinner was set for 7:30 PM I wanted the pig to be done by 5:00 to give it some rest time. Around 3:00 PM Candice, the Esso Club manager, came out to talk logistics. The Club was catering everything but the meat, and the plan was to set up a buffet line near the cooker and let the diners serve themselves from the cooker, with the meat on the pig about half pulled to give the feel of a "pig picking" without having to actually work at getting a serving. Meat from the butts would be added to the pig throughout the serving.
The only problem was that the weather radar showed a band of thunderstorms hitting about 7:00 PM and lasting most of the night. We made an emergency decision to move the buffet line inside. That wasn't a problem, except it meant I had to have the pig and butts all pulled and in chafing pans in time for service. I started pushing the cooking temperature up toward 265 to 270F to make sure we were ready in time. Sure enough, right at 5:00 PM my probe in the ham hit its target of 190F. I had been there for twelve hours after about five hours sleep, and it was time to go to work.
Luckily, folks were beginning to arrive from the wedding, which was held at a lakeside retreat about fifteen miles away. The ceremony was at 3:00 PM with a brief reception there before the bride and groom motored off in a boat and the guests were left to make their way back to The Esso Club where the rest of the beer and wine were.
One of the first to arrive was Dewey, who has partnered with me at various barbecue competitions as assistants to another pit master. Dewey knows his way around a pig. While we were up to our elbows in pork, Mitch showed up. Remember Mitch? He's the owner of the smoker I cooked the butts on. He knows his way around a pig, too. Pretty soon, Brett and Steve came by and asked if they could help. They didn't have much experience, but they took instructions well. One of the advantages of being on the cooking crew is that you get to taste everything. This pig was GOOD. When July the bartender came by to check on us, I give her a taste and asked her to bring me my first beer of the day. I was too greasy to hold the can, so I had to get Brett to hold it to my mouth for me. Even so, that first beer didn't last long.
While I dismantled the pig - I only had one pair of thick rubber gloves that made it possible to handle the extremely hot meat - Dewey and Mitch unwrapped and pulled the butts. They were juicy and tender, and the smoky flavor had penetrated deep. Another impressive success. In about an hour we had five pans of pork, with another pan with ribs and loin meat set aside for the couple's families. The mixture of the heavy smoke flavor in the butts really enhanced the overall flavor of the pig.
We put out servers of the two types of sauces and the crowd dug in. The compliments were many and effusive. The groom's mother compared it favorably to her favorite barbecue she had had back home in the low country. Jeff's sister claimed to not like any barbecue but Jeff's, but now mine was on her list. Several sincere discussions were held concerning the merits of different sauces. Several people declared it the best they had ever eaten. Most importantly, Jeff seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself, and Lesslie was radiant. And I knew it was the best barbecue I had ever cooked.
The final head count was probably around two hundred guests. We had one full tray of pulled meat and four whole butts left over, plus the pan of ribs and loins. I claimed a butt and a gallon Ziplok bag of pulled meat as my bounty and wondered if I would be able to make it home. I finally left about 11:45 PM and made it home nineteen hours after leaving. Boy, did I sleep!