Photo by Sean Fraga
At five o'clock on Thursday afternoon, the 144-pound pig arrived, wrapped in a black plastic trash bag. The grill had also arrived, looking equally suspect: a big rusted tube with a tiny door at one end, which I worried wouldn't be quite big enough for distributing the necessary 20 hours' worth of hot coals evenly across the bottom. Equipment be damned--we had a big uncooked pig and a widely broadcast promise of pork the next day, so there wasn't much to do but go for it.
Thus began last week's adventure, our Second Annual Jack Hitt Last Day of Classes Pig Roast at the Yale Farm. (Last year, This American Life contributor Jack Hitt turned out to be the only person who could teach me how to roast a pig at nine in the evening, and so we named the event for him.)
The thing about roasting a pig is that it does involve technique, and it does involve skill, but mostly it requires patience. A good book, a couple of friends, and a steady supply of coffee are as important to the process as 30 pounds of apple charcoal. Slow is the key: The distinctive pulled pork flavor comes from the fat around the skin rendering and dripping through the meat, and there's a lot of fat on an adult hog. An animal that big won't be rushed. He has all the time in the world, being dead.
Slow is the key: Pulled pork's flavor comes from the fat around the skin rendering and dripping through the meat, and there's a lot of fat on an adult hog. An animal that big won't be rushed.
There are tricks you can try: Some caterers will use a grill with propane tanks and set them to 220°F overnight, then finish the pig the next day with some wood coals for a few hours. That, however, is for those that want roast pig, not for those that want to roast a pig.
Photo by Sean Fraga
We started working at six at night, and at four in the morning, I hit my stride. To roast the pig, we kept three applewood logs burning in our wood-fired brick oven at all times, adding a log along with a handful of coals to the grill every twenty minutes or so. This kept the temperature around 220 degrees throughout the night. Sometimes there would be too much smoke to see the thermometers hanging inside the grill, so a little faith was required.
We kept it going all night and through the day, and at five in the afternoon we took knives and gloves, sliced the skin open, and started pulling giant chunks of pork off the bones and around the skin. It was all there--bacon, ham, ribs, chops, loin--all falling apart at the touch and steaming so hard we could keep our hands in only for a few seconds at a time. There were a few parts I never would have encountered if I didn't have the whole animal: the fatty backstrap and cheek were stand-outs.
We hold our pig roast on the last day of classes, and it's not a coincidence. In pig-roasting as in academic work, you pour yourself into an long, arduous, draining experience to come out on the other end, with a little smile of satisfaction. On the night I spent roasting a pig, my housemate stayed awake to write about third-party military intervention as a means of conflict resolution. Come morning, he had a paper and I had pork.