Going Whole Hog (South Carolina Style) on Labor Day.
Slow cooking a whole pig over coals is an American holiday tradition going back more than 300 years. It is a very special delicacy which is prepared on special occasions in almost every Southern state. Labor Day is a big pig cooking day in South Carolina. There are as many different barbeque sauces and tastes as there are barbeque cooks. The following is the method favored by the great barbeque masters of the Eastern Carolinas.
Selecting the Right Pig.
The first challenge for the WHC (Whole Hog Cooker) is to select the right pig to cook. My butcher understands exactly what I need --a young pig, very lean, maybe 110 pounds on the hoof. This pig will dress out at about 60 pounds. This is an ideal dressed weight.
Preparing the Pig for the Pit.
The pig is cooked in ONE PIECE with the skin in tact. (The skin is a critical part of the cooking process.)The pig should NOT be cut in half! It should be opened along the underbelly from the neck to the tail for dressing and the head and feet should be removed. The pig should be well rubbed with fine sea salt, but not otherwise marinated in any way prior to cooking. I always harness the pig in a “wire sandwich.” That is to say, the entire pig should be encased in a wire basket so you can turn it without it falling apart. (The pig is only turned once, in the last hour!)
The Secret to Succulent Pork: Time and Distance.
Slow cooking over (hardwood) coals in a closed “PIT” is the only way to cook REAL South Carolina Barbeque. The process requires time and patience (and perhaps a small bottle of Bourbon Whiskey.) The old timers used to dig a pit in the ground for the coals and strap the pig in fence wire and lay it across the pit. Then they covered the pig with a piece of metal.
Most barbeque cooks today cook above ground in free-standing metal or brick cookers which they still call a “PIT.” My pit is made of brick and the top is constructed of tin. It holds the heat very well. My brother in South Carolina prefers an all metal pit, but to me the result is more or less the same. The most important consideration in building a pit is the distance of the pig from the floor of the pit. This must be 32 inches. If it is any closer to the coals, the ribs will be overcooked. If it is any higher, the hams won’t cook all the way through.
Coals NOT Fire!
Never, never put fire under a hog!
--Glen "Bulldog" Evans, pig-cooker, extraordinaire.
Saucing the Hog.
The heat source for the pit is critical for a great result. This is essential: Hardwood logs should be burned in a special barrel and the COALS should be placed on the floor of the pit-- a two-step process:
1. Burn the wood to create hot coals in a barrell next to your pit..
2. Place the hot coals under the hog.
Remember, folks, whatever you do, don’t burn the ribs!
It’s Ready When It’s Ready.
The salted pig should be placed skin-side-up on the pit--32 inches over the coals. You should try to keep the heat constant, adding coals every 30 minutes or so. Coals should be placed directly underneath the shoulders and hams (NOT THE RIBS—PLEASE DON”T BURN THE RIBS!!)
The hog is ready to turn only when the skin separates (bubbles up) from the carcass. It’s an easy and fool-proof testing method: If the skin moves freely back and forth and loses its attachment to the body, the pig is ready to turn. This could be anywhere from six to ten hours, depending on the efficiency of the pit and the size of the hog. But this test is infallible: If the skin separates: you can turn and sauce the hog. Easy!
After the pig is turned onto its back, the sauce is applied. This is what makes or breaks a great Whole Hog. In my neck of the woods, the ingredients for the sauce are pretty simple:
1. A gallon of Cider vinegar (apple vinegar)
2. Two ounces of ground Black Pepper
3. Four ounces of crushed red pepper (Calabresa)
The vinegar should be cooked almost to the boiling point and then turned off and allowed to cool to room temperature. Then the Black and Red pepper should be added. (NOTE: For extra hot barbeque, add the pepper when the vinegar is still hot. But fair warning, this pork will be VERY HOT! ). I like to add a bit of honey and some crushed rosemary for additional flavor, but South Carolina Barbeque purists say this is heresy.
The sauce should then be applied liberally to the whole hog. I like to create a sort of cloth swab wrapped around a large wooden or metal spoon. You can saturate the cloth with the sauce and then use the swab to gently open the ribs, hams and shoulders so the sauce can get down into the meat.
All that is left is for this Whole hog to be eaten! In South Carolina, we release the pig from his “wire sandwich” and put him/her on a big table. Then everybody is free to pull the meat right off the bones with their fingers. In South Carolina this is what we call a PIG PICKING. MMMMMMM. Delicious!!