In celebration of spring, warmer weather, and the end of classes, for the past three years the Yale Sustainable Food Project has hosted the Jack Hitt Annual Last Day of Classes Pig Roast at the Yale Farm. It all started in 2008, when a group of students who wanted to put the "farm-to-table" movement in action proposed the idea. Magazine and radio journalist Jack Hitt, a native South Carolinian, generously lent both his knowledge of pig roasting and his name to the event. In full Southern barbecue style, the event has grown to include traditional side dishes such as cornbread, collard greens, coleslaw, black-eyed peas, and pecan pie in addition to pulled pork, all cooked by YSFP student interns and their friends.
The Pig Roast has become a popular tradition on campus—this year we served over 500 people! Here's a breakdown of the event from two of us who were there:
Though the sustainable food movement often encourages folks to eat less meat, when we do indulge, we make sure to purchase from a local farmer we believe in and eat the whole animal. In that light, our annual Pig Roast is as much about the benefits of snout-to-tail eating as it is about coming together to celebrate the end of classes.
For the first time, this year we roasted two pigs! Both pigs, one weighing 60 pounds and the other 120 pounds, came from Four Mile River Farm in nearby Old Lyme, Connecticut, where they were fed on grain and raised organically. Have you ever seen a whole pig, split from neck to tail? It's impressive.
With everything set up under the Yale Farm's pavilion, I started a fire in the pizza oven to get a few logs ready, and the pigs were in the smoker and ready to go at about 8:00 pm. We added charcoal and logs from the oven to the pigs, lying on their backs side by side, and waited for the temperature in the smoker to reach about 220 F. The pigs were regularly marinated with a "mop" of apple cider vinegar, sugar, cayenne pepper, and lemon juice at the recommendation of Jack Hitt. (It's called a mop that because of the tool traditionally used to apply it, but we just used a rag!)
We maintained that 220 F temperature all night, adding logs to the pizza oven to incinerate them into coals before dropping them into the smoker. Steamy aluminum pans of water in the bottom of the smoker kept the meat from drying out. It was a long and cold night—adding wood to the smoker would drop its temperature, but we had to open it to add in the wood that would maintain its temperature. Taking turns, we napped while the other watched the pigs. Two friends visited in the wee hours of the night.
Eventually the sun rose, and ever so kindly, Jack brought us much-needed coffee at 6:00 am. The pigs had been smoking for 10 hours at this point. Around 10:00 am or so the meat reached the desired "done" temperature of about 165 F, and all we had to do was keep it warm and smoky until we pulled the pork. Other food preparations kept us busy, but finally at about 2:30 pm—over 16 hours after we started—three of us hauled the heavier pig from the smoker to a table, where we preceded to pull every last bit of meat from every bone.
I couldn't help but nibble as I pulled the pork. It was incredible. Aside from knowing that the meat was ethically raised, and aside from all those hours of hard work, it was still the best meat I'd ever tasted. Real tears came to my eyes when I got a big bite of the amazing fatty meat from the cheek of the animal—it was that tender and flavorful.
It took three of us almost two hours to transform two pigs into a pile of bones and a crowd of happy eaters. The savory, crisp skin was an unexpected favorite with our guests, and every last bite of our pork was eaten. In the days after the Pig Roast, the bones were used to make stocks and stews, proving that you can (and should!) use the resources of a whole animal. The night I stayed up with the pigs will always be special to me—but next year, can we fit three pigs into a smoker?
It's 6:00 pm, I have 21 hours until the official start of the Pig Roast, and I am the black-eyed pea queen. Here's my to-do list: pick up extra pasta pots, maple syrup, and mustard for the black-eyed peas on my way to my off-campus kitchen station, finish up any prep work, and start cooking! I've been stressed for the last four hours because a helper has had to pull out, but at the last minute I recruit two of my do-or-die best friends to accompany me for my first hour in the kitchen. Luckily, one of them is both very kitchen-savvy and has arms that are 10 times stronger than mine. I say luckily because when I get on site, I am immediately confronted by a huge plastic storage vat of soaking black-eyed peas, plus a silver catering tray full of them. Those 20 pounds of dried beans have fattened to a hefty 60 pounds, and I have no idea what to do with them. I've only eaten black-eyed peas twice in my life!
In the kitchen I also find a neatly packed kit of aluminum pans for the cooked beans, canned organic tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, salt, and 10 pounds of carrots, each the size of a sweet potato. Fortunately, in the fridge are 10 pounds of onions that have already been diced, thanks to the work of other interns. I devise a game plan: one of my friends helps me peel the carrots while the other chops them into medium dice. I mince the garlic. Then I arrange four pasta pots on the stove, drizzle olive oil into each, and start caramelizing the onions and carrots. The tub of soaking beans is too heavy to lift, so we make do with a tricky combination of straining the beans with a colander while using cups to empty out the liquid from the tub. Into each pot goes half a can of organic tomatoes, a teaspoon of salt, around two tablespoons of mustard, two tablespoons of maple syrup, some cayenne pepper for kick, as many beans as will fit, and water to cover.
Sadly, my friends have to leave, but a couple more come along just as the first batch of beans are finishing up. I want to save the extra liquid from each pot to serve as a stock for the next batch of beans, so together we strain each pot of beans into a colander sitting in an aluminum pan, put the beans in one of the final serving pans, and dump the liquid back into the pot along with all the ingredients for a new batch. We repeat this 10 times—all in all it takes only about five hours to cook it all! And I have to say, the black-eyed peas end up being amazing.
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