Published in Carolina Country Magazine November 2018
Growing up here in North Carolina, I’ve been going to pig pick’ns as long as I can remember.
Pork is a staple in our lives.
Particularly pork cooking over fire. Preferably wood fire.
Every year on Christmas Eve, my daddy and his buddies would gather at “the cabin” and cook pork shoulders… I have no idea just how many of them. Dozens, if not hundreds at the time! He had some special customers at the banks he worked at over the years and special folks in our community, like our preacher, he’d cook some for and deliver for their Christmas present. And of course, he’d bring us one home!
The smell was as delicious as the pork. From my days as a little girl on up til grown, I have fond memories of running to the kitchen when daddy would get home with that big hunk of pork, then standing by that glistening meat in a tin foil lined cardboard box he’d sit on the kitchen counter… picking off the crispy parts of near’bout burnt skin with my little fingers… savoring every crunchy greasy bite. That was like a little mini pig pick’n right there in our avocado green kitchen. And mama couldn’t be more pleased. She detested cooking. Didn’t do much of it. Would have probably built our new house way back then without a kitchen if was up to her.
(And folks ask me why I love to cook? Because I wanted to EAT.)
Starting with Christmas Eve supper, we ate on that pork for days… best sliced… a bit pink in the center… placed on pieces of the softest white bread… probably Wonder Bread back then… smeared with a good bit of Duke’s mayonnaise. And a shake of Daddy’s Saturday Sauce. (Coming soon to a bottle near you!)
If you live in the south, it’s highly likely you’ve been to your share of pig pick’ns. If not, you need to find a way to do this! Although we think nothing of having them 12 months of the year, I personally enjoy them the best in cooler months. Too much pig grease on hot spring or summer day just doesn’t sit well in my belly. The time to lard up is when there’s a nip in the air… on cool fall days or crisp chilly winter ones. Preferably with a crackling fire to warm one’s butt by… while gathered with friends and family waiting for the pitmaster to announce the pig is done and ready to chop and be pulled!
Helpful hint… make buddies with this person and they’ll likely let you know when the coveted ribs are ready… the prize o’the pig (along with just the right pieces of skin)… and you know, there’s only a few of those ribs to be had!
A couple of years ago, the editor at Carolina Country asked me to write about hosting a pig pick’n. So I did just that! Here are my Top 10 tips for having a pig pick’n of your own.
First, a fact that is imperative to establish at this point: Barbecue is a noun, not a verb. At least for most of us. We eat barbecue. We don’t “have” a barbecue. We grill or cook out, or in this case, have a pig pick’n.
So… just what does it take to host a pig pick’n?
Don’t be overwhelmed — I’ve broken it down here in 10 steps:
1. A reason isn’t really required to cook a pig, although there often may be one. Being that food is a focal point for most all celebrations, and since hogs can be had in all sorts of sizes and are relatively inexpensive, a pig pick’n is budget-friendly and suitable for all sorts of affairs. From hauling one in its cooker to a college football parking lot to wedding celebrations, you can’t go wrong with pick’n pork.
2. Next, you’ll need to jot down your guest list to decide just what size hog is needed. It is at this point you will want to bring your friend, the local pitmaster, to the party. He or she is the most vital ingredient of your gathering (aside from the pig of honor, of course). We all know who these folks are, but if you are new to this, ask your local friends for recommendations. Let the pitmaster take on the piggy prep while you focus on the hosting and fix’ns. They will be the providers of the all-important sauce, too, typically their own special “secret” recipe.
A few years ago, I attended “BBQ Camp” at NC State University and have this… but I’d no more cook a pig than most folks I know! Gosh I learned SO much and had a great time too. Awesome Culinary Adventure!!!
3. So now that the pig is off your plate, so to speak, it’s time to dress it up. When we dress up our pigs, we’re not talking fancy frou-frou sorts of stuff. This is when you call up those friends who love to cook or those who have said “let me know if I can help with anything” or “can I bring something?” (although they probably didn’t actually mean that, and were just being gracious).
For smaller gatherings, it’s fun to turn it into a potluck and ask others to bring their special slaw, tater salad, baked beans, or whatever other barbecue-centric recipes are dear to them. It’s like the good old days of country church homecomings, when long rows of sawhorses topped with plywood were filled with such a bounty, and chickens were fried that morning in lard and cast iron skillets before going to church, not picked up and put out in golden yellow or red and white boxes!
Just be sure to keep a list so you don’t end up with a trough-full of one or the other, and so you will know what to fix yourself to fill in the gaps.
For larger gatherings, you will want to dial up your local country cook’n restaurant and let them help you be “hostess with the mostess” and make up big pans of sides, usually presented in tin foil pans. By hiding these and dishing out into your own serving vessels (and shaking a bit of paprika here and there) you can accept the accolades, except from the inevitable few who patronize said restaurants and recognize their dishes by looks alone.
4. At this point, I must stress food safety! My friends know me as the Food Safety Police. This is the most important element of your food and presentation. You do not want your party to be remembered for being that one that made dozens sick because hot foods weren’t hot and cold foods were … warm! UGH. (Did you know even baked beans can wreak havoc?)
Please keep cold foods on ice, put out in small batches kept in proper refrigeration. I beg of you. And if you have a big crowd and lots to keep chilled, an easy way to do that is with a small kid’s swimming pool, or things like big galvanized tubs lined with burlap. Fill with ice and sit your bowls into the pool/ice at serving time. Borrow or rent chafers for your hot foods, and chat with your pig cooker about his food safety plans also.
5. To round out your meal, white bread or rolls are standard and help with grease absorption. Some like to add hushpuppies. You’ll probably want to pick those up somewhere, or for those a bit more adventurous, try my award-winning recipe for Oinkers with BBQ Gravy Dip (see page 12).
If you’re lucky, you’ll have your own “hushpuppy master” cook fresh and hot on site!
6. To wash it all down, sweet tea (and unsweet) must be invited to the party. A tub of ice and pitchers of lemonade will be appreciated. Just resist the urge to serve your lemonade in a cute tin bucket or tub, as a resulting acidic chemical reaction may leave your refreshment tasting metallic (and can cause a special and dangerous kind of food poisoning!). And don’t forget to have plenty of cold water! A recommended added treat here in NC: plenty of iced-down Cheerwine.
7. Little else is needed, except fun disposables. And tables and chairs. Adorn your tables with flower vases (aka jars pulled from the back of your cabinets). Nothing fancy is required — whimsical flowers and greenery are often available growing wild around the neighborhood and road ditches (variety… “Roadsideia!” LOL). Inexpensive sheets of burlap can be had from farm container supply businesses.
8. Finally, desserts are a must. “A little something sweet” to balance out the pig fat, you know. Typically, this will be banana pudding and pig pick’n cake. I created this really simple dessert for you, the best of both thrown together into one… Pig Pick’n Banana Pudding — a no-cook crowd pleaser that you can fix in no time (or farm out to one of those who asked to “do something”).
9. A few last tips: Be sure to have plenty of containers or zippered bags to pack up the leftover pig, as there will usually be some. Ask your pitmaster to take care of this final pick’n for you. Have some of those “can I help with anything” folks lined up to pitch in with post-pick’n clean-up (and reward them with leftover pig).
Even the bones are good… throw in your freezer until ready for a slow cooked crock pot of navy beans… these bones make the best stock for beans and soups!
10. Last, but not least, have fun! Don’t work yourself silly. The beauty of hosting a pig pick’n is its simplicity … so even the host can kick back and enjoy it. And even the pig is left with a smile on its face.
So… now that it’s fall, and you have all the instructions needed, plan yourself a pig pick’n! Get a pig a little bigger than you’ll need so you can fill your freezer for the winter, like squirrels stock up on acorns. Unless, of course, you want to have need to have another one during or post holidaZe! Your friends will take mighty kindly to you when you gift them with a few pounds of tasty North Carolina picked pig! It will be hard to top THAT Christmas present…