The dying art of whole-hog barbecuing

It’s a little before 10 in the morning on a summer day in Lexington, Tennessee, a not so big, not so small town midway between Nashville and Memphis. Already thermometers are nearing 90. Overworked air-conditioners sweat and wheeze, coughing cold air into rooms where workers wait impatiently for quitting time and for the hot sun to sink lower in the sky. And then there’s Ricky Parker, a half-smoked cigar hanging from his mouth, ashes clinging to the stubble around his wide grin.

Parker, owner of Scott’s Bar-B-Que, tosses the hickory on the few coals left from the fire he built just an hour ago, and the logs catch, forming a wall of flame. When the fire burns down to coals, he’ll scoop them up a shovel full at a time and place them beneath the cooking carcasses of five whole hogs, which are now entering hour four of a 24-hour transformation from symbols of filth and greed to the edible embodiment of two of the greatest human virtues, patience and hard work.

When people in Texas talk about barbecue and when people who talk about barbecue talk about Texas, they’re generally talking about beef brisket. In some parts of Kentucky, barbecue means mutton, or slow-cooked sheep. Here and there in north Mississippi people have been known to barbecue a goat now and again. For the most part, when people in the South talk about barbecue, they’re talking about pig, or at least parts of the pig—ribs, butts and shoulders.

But in and around the towns of Lexington, Henderson and Jacks Creek, Tennessee, a small but persistent group carries on a much different kind of tradition: cooking the hog whole. And for those who cut their teeth on barbecue pulled from the steaming skin of a pig painstakingly smoked over hickory coals, the whole hog will always be much more than the sum of its parts.

“Right around here there’s several places that have come in and went to selling shoulders. In four or five months they’re closed and gone,” says Dennis Hays, the 53-year-old owner of Hays Smokehouse, a whole hog barbecue restaurant on the opposite end of Lexington from Parker’s restaurant. “People around here, when they come into a barbecue place the first thing they say is ‘I want some tenderloin. I want some shoulder. I want some middlin’. I want some ham. I want something.’ They don’t come in and say, ‘Give me a pound of barbecue.’ These people know what they want, and if you’re just cooking shoulders, you don’t have it. A shoulder business just don’t go around here. It sure don’t.”

Hays ought to know. He also owns Hays Meat Company, a slaughterhouse that processes hogs for every pit within an 80-mile radius of Lexington.

Dale Robins, a hog farmer from Darden, about 15 miles east of Lexington, raises hogs specifically for barbecue pits. He says pieces of a hog can never taste as good as the hog that’s left whole. “When that hog is on its final cooking,” he says, over the oinks coming from a nearby barn, “it’s laying on its back with the skin down and it cooks in its own grease and its own oil and that blends through and through and you get a mix of flavors that you can not get just cooking a shoulder or a ham.”

But aside from the taste and a clientele that demands it, to really understand the persistence of whole hog barbecuing, you’ve got to look at the persistence of the pig itself. “The pig was a survival animal for the South’s rural poor,” says John Egerton, author of Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, In History. “It didn’t cost much to raise, you could feed it on table scraps that other animals wouldn’t eat, they grew fast and were prolific breeders. When the weather got cold enough to keep the meat from spoiling, there would be hog killings and all the meat from the hog would be processed, cured or smoked, providing a year-round supply of food. That versatility and usefulness led most Southerners to think of the pig as the king of the barnyard.”

In the whole hog barbecue restaurants of western Tennessee—Scott’s Bar-B-Que, Hays Smokehouse, Old Time Bar-B-Que in Jacks Creek, My Three Sons in Henderson—the pig is still king. And if you ever end up at the counter of one of these hallowed halls of hickory and hog, biting into a sandwich made up of a little dark meat from the shoulder, a little white meat from the tenderloin, a little greasy goodness from the middlin’ (what would have been bacon if it had been cut out and cured), you’ll taste more than a mingling of these parts.

“You could consider Ricky Parker’s whole hog barbecue to be a kind of gastronomic history lesson,” says John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, and author of Southern Belly: The Ultimate Food Lover’s Guide to the American South. “It’s an entree to the old ways, to the days when you cooked a whole hog because that’s what you had, a pig scratching around in the pen out back. It links the modern South with its rural roots.”

The easiest task a barbecue cook like Parker will do all week is drive across town to get his hogs from Hays. He’ll do this two or three times a week, always in the morning so that when he returns to his restaurant, he’ll be ready to take off the pigs he put on the pit the day before and fill the pit anew. He picks up between six and 10 hogs at a time, or about a half-ton of pork.

While the raw hogs lie in the bed of the truck, the 42-year-old Parker and his help remove the cardboard refrigerator boxes that cover and insulate the cinder block pit where the hogs have slowly cooked for the last 24 hours. A monument to amateur masonry, the pit itself is basically a concrete box, three-feet tall by five-feet wide by about 50-feet long. Besides concrete and mortar the only other structural feature is a series of steel bars that span the width of the pit. These bars support the steel racks, which hold the pigs as they cook.

Aside from holding the hogs, the racks facilitate the flipping of the hogs. It’s a two-man job, carried out by sandwiching a cooking hog between two racks, wiring them together, and then quickly lifting and flipping the hog. (Hogs begin cooking with their skin up and insides nearest the coals. Fifteen or so hours later, they are flipped and finished skin down.)

Once they are flipped the hogs cook for several more hours, are salted heavily and then drowned in a gallon or so of spicy vinegar-based sauce, which puddles inside the browned butterflied carcass before slowly soaking in.

The removal of the cardboard and the salting and saucing marks the first good look anyone has had at these hogs since the previous morning. They must stay covered to keep the hot coals from flaming up, catching the grease on fire and burning the pigs. The barbecue is cooked with a smothering blanket of heat and smoke, almost never exceeding 170 degrees.

The sauced and salted hogs are carried from the outdoor pit to a smaller indoor pit, located just a few feet from the counter. As the orders come across, Parker reaches into the hog and pulls the meat from whatever part the customer wants.

In the eastern end of Lexington, Hays climbs behind the controls of a front-end loader at his restaurant. His hands work the knobs, the bucket drops and then disappears into a mound of what looks to be giant matchsticks. They are actually drumsticks—yes, the kind used for drumming—and he dumps them into an eight-foot tall metal cylinder, where they’ll cook down to coals.

“There’s a drumstick mill over here about five miles down the road,” Hays explains. “They were a hammer-handle mill before the fiberglass handles come in and they did away with that and then they got into the drumstick business. They cut drumstick blanks and they sell several million drumstick blanks a year and a lot of us barbecue people go over there and buy [the ones that don’t make the grade] a truckload at a time and burn them down to make coals to cook with.”

And the big cylinder does more than burn down wood for his hogs; it bellows smoke signals to his customers. “If you ain’t got a lot of smoke going, people don’t stop and buy a whole lot of barbecue,” says Hays. “It’s just a fact of life that people want it cooked over wood in this area.”

Back at Scott’s Bar-B-Q, the lunch rush is over and Parker is cooking tomorrow’s hogs. He slides the shovel into the pile of glowing coals burned down from would-be barrel staves—the wooden ribs of a barrel—bought from another sawmill under the same kind of arrangement Hays has with the drumstick people. As he carries the coals toward the pit, some of them fall from the shovel to the concrete below making a noise like Christmas tree balls banging together. He guides the shovel into the pit and twists the handle with his wrists.

The dark mystery of the pit is illuminated by a swarm of sparkling coals and in them I see what Early Scott, the 84-year-old founder of Scott’s Bar-B-Que and Parker’s mentor, was talking about when he told me of the other things a man takes up when he takes up the shovel.

“It’s as hard a work as a man can possibly get,” he said. “It’s hot, it’s hard and it’s long hours. Most of the time I put in 120 hours a week. I stayed day and night.” These days he takes care of his ailing wife at their home, which is not more than 50 yards from the front door of Scott’s. But before he built that house and then took Ricky in and eventually handed over the cooking to him, he didn’t see too much of her. “Well, you was a married man single because you was living by yourself [at the restaurant, minding the pit all night]. I had a little bed up there in the restaurant and an alarm clock that got me up every hour to check on the hogs. When I got them almost done, I’d get up every two hours.”

At the age of 13, Parker and his dad had a falling out. Scott, who never had any children of his own, gave him a home and a job and taught him that there is more than one way a hog can feed a family. For better or worse, Parker works as hard now as Scott ever did. The elder pitmaster recently signed the restaurant over to him. But Parker’s inheritance is much more than bricks and mortar.

“This place is a part of me,” he says, leaning on a shovel that’s about three feet taller than he is. “When you give your vows when you get married it says ’til death do us part, and you and your wife are supposed to be as one. Well, now, this place and me is as one.” 

The most popular styles

Beef brisket is considered the most traditional Texas-style barbecue, often served as chopped beef sandwiches. Ribs, sausage and, especially in South Texas, cabrito (barbecued kid) are also popular. Sauces in Texas are generally not as sweet as Kansas City-style sauces. Some are thin and made primarily from vinegar and spices, especially chilies and pepper, while others are somewhat thicker. Barbecue sauce may be optional; some consider it appropriate to serve the sauce as a condiment, rather than brushing it on the meat as it cooks.

Kansas City
Although pork is commonly associated with Kansas City-style barbecue, there is also a strong tradition of barbecuing other meats, including beef. The thick, tomatoey style sauce has become the prototype for commercial sauces sold nationwide.

Pulled pork is a common presentation. Ribs, however, remain the most well-known meat in Memphis barbecue. Sauces are typically tomato-based and sweet, often from the addition of molasses. They may also include mustard, making this sauce a mixture of all the major components of barbecue sauce.

Pork is the typical meat in a Carolina-style barbecue, including the whole hog—the only other area outside Tennessee to cook the pigs whole—and pork shoulder. Meat is often cooked until tender enough to shred, then chopped or sliced and served as a sandwich. Sauces vary depending on the part of the Carolinas: in the east, sauce is traditionally based upon vinegar and seasoned with salt, black pepper, crushed or ground cayenne and other spices—nothing else. This is a very thin, acidic sauce that penetrates deeply into the meat. In the west, small amounts of ketchup, molasses or Worcestershire sauce and, perhaps, some spices are added to the same basic vinegar sauce. The area around Columbia, South Carolina, favors a mustard-based sauce.

Because barbecuing is such a good way to handle tougher cuts of meat, it has been practiced under different names throughout the world. Luaus, common in Hawaii, are also a form of long, slow roasting that can resemble other types of barbecue. In South America, especially Argentina and Peru, meats prepared by gauchos (cowboys) are a type of barbecue known as asada, cooked over a grill known as a parilla. Large cuts of beef are cooked very slowly, while more tender cuts as well as sweetbreads, kidneys and other organ meats are cooked very quickly. Jerk is common in the Caribbean, especially Jamaica. A variety of approaches can be taken. A wet or dry rub that contains scallions, chilies, allspice and a number of other seasonings is applied to the meat before it is cooked in a drum or pit cooker.


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