Next week we celebrate the 4th of July at Red Gum BBQ or as we call it, our ‘Not so Fourth July Whole Hog Party’ as the fourth never lands on a day where it is a good idea to hold an event on. This is an ironic day for me to celebrate, being British and all and the day celebrates American independence from British Colonial rule, but I digress.. each year on this day I get to cook a pig! I am not sure why I am drawn to cooking whole hogs. Pork has always been a favourite meat of mine much more so than beef, lamb and chicken so when I first discovered that in the Carolinas they cooked whole pigs, I became fascinated. I dig the tradition of whole hog BBQ. The process of burning firewood down to coals and shovelling them under the hog seems to capture the essence of BBQ, cooking over direct heat using only wood is pure.
I had my first crack at cooking a hog many years ago. I was living in our small rented house in Mornington, Red Gum was in its infancy and I decided to cook a pig for a fourth of July party. I made a call to my pork supplier and requested a whole pig (free range, of course) head off as Melissa didn’t want to look this pig in the eye. I quickly realised that I couldn’t put it in the fridge as it was way too big so I went online to figure out how other people had overcome this problem. In the bathtub! Right, here we go. I set to work cleaning the tub, laying down plastic sheets and carrying this beast into its tub-bed for the night. I popped across the road to the bottle shop, grabbed some bags of ice and covered Mr Pig. It hadn’t occurred to me that I hadn’t introduced pig and Melissa until she came out of the bathroom with the strangest look on her face, ‘um, did you know there’s a whole pig in our bathtub?’ Anyway – pig had a good rest and was nice and cold for the party the next day.
In the weeks and days leading up to the event I researched how to build a besser block pit. Fingers crossed this all came together! I found a chap who was offloading a bunch down the road from me and took them down to Commonfolk Coffee in Mornington – the site of our first ‘Not so 4th’ party. I took with me the reinforced steel mesh I purchased to act as grill grate and some ply to act as lid. At this point I had never cooked a whole hog but had been researching for months so was pretty excited about cooking this thing. And also, hoping I could get it cooked in time for the party that evening. It wasn’t the type of thing I could practice for so just had to hope my BBQ knowledge and research would pull it through.
BBQ enthusiasts this next section is for you, everyone else, see you in a few paragraphs: I prepped the hog by removing the spine and short ribs that sit in the shoulders. This just makes for the heat penetrating the shoulders easier. I washed the cavity with white vinegar and salted both the cavity and the rind. I placed the hog rind side up over the coals and covered the pit with the ply board and set about tending to the fire.
I built a burn barrel out of a 40-gallon drum which I cut the lid off, drilled a bunch of holes to insert reinforcing steel in and cut an opening in the bottom to shovels coals out from (have I lost you?). I lit a fire on top of the steel bar so that the coals would fall into the bottom of the barrel. This process is hard work and consumes a lot of firewood to produce very few coals, now I have multiple burn barrels going at one time to produce enough coals to cook a hog. Phew.
What you do when you cook a hog is build a dumbbell shaped fire to cook the hams and the shoulders, the belly will cook from the radiant heat of the fire so doesn’t need to have direct heat. I can cook a pig in about 8 to 10 hrs.
My first hog was a huge success, I flipped it only once during the cook, I had chap named Stuart who had been following us on Facebook come down to check it out. Lucky he was around, he helped me flip the beast. We had never met before this and we are still friends all these years later – just another example of BBQ bringing people together. You need two people to flip a hog – at least. At around 7pm, we went outside to take the pig off the coals, the ‘Not so 4th’ party in full swing, our guests gather around to watch us take piggy off. It felt like such a celebration, there were pictures and videos, cheering and excitement.
We put piggy on a board and chopped for everyone to see (check out the video below).
I started with a 75kg pig and by the time I had finished cooking, removing all the bones and chopping all the flesh and crackle I ended up with about 30kg of servable real Carolina style chopped pork. There is a lot of bone and moisture loss in a whole pig cook, thankfully I’d figured this out in advance so had more than enough for my event.
The interesting thing about whole hog BBQ it doesn’t have that Smokey BBQ taste that you get from an offset smoker it is more like a direct heat BBQ taste that you would get from grilling. There is very little smoke involved in the process. When the firewood is burnt to glowing embers in the burn barrel all the smoke from the initial stages of combustion are lost in this process.
I am a super-fan of cooking whole hogs and any time when the occasion calls for it, I’m on it! So much so that I had a custom hog cooker built here in Australia. I only bust this bad boy out on special occasions and it has become a tradition to cook a hog on the Fourth of July.
Since my first cook I have had a mixed bag of success with cooking hogs. Once, I thought it would be a good idea to cook a big fat heritage breed pig. I bought a pure Berkshire which are known for being fatty beasts. If you’ve ever BBQ’d you’ll know that fat dripping on coals creates fire. FYI – crackling is cool but avoid setting your whole pig on fire. I now just cook white pigs as they are much leaner than heritage breeds. I have also struggled to get them cooked in time due to miscalculating the amount of firewood I would need to burn down to get the pig cooker hot enough to cook. Another note for the enthusiasts: cooking a pig takes A LOT of wood. I’ve now got my whole pig rhythm. But as any BBQ’er knows, there is always more to learn.
Now as the Fourth of July slowly creeps up, I begin dreaming of my pig and what this whole pig cook may bring. The pig, the cook and the event never fail to bring all kinds of fun and adventure. I look forward to cooking the whole hog, to seeing the looks on people’s faces as we bring it out the BBQ love from all those happy punters tucking in to some real Carolina style chopped hog. Delicious.