In the summer of 2008, I signed up with the Southern Foodways Alliance to study and document the history of West Tennessee’s barbecue scene. Headquartered in Memphis, I ate my fill of ‘cue, interviewed restaurant owners, and hung around pithouses. The city enjoys its fair share of barbecue oddities and outliers—barbecue spaghetti, barbecue bologna sandwiches, barbecue Cornish game hens, and dry-rubbed ribs—but most of what the city offered was a meaty monoculture of meat: smoked pork shoulders, pulled, slathered in spicy-ketchup sauce, topped with coleslaw, and sandwiched between a plain white bun.
On weekends, I’d point my car east, toward the pastoral provinces that lie between Memphis and Nashville. In the towns of Lexington and Henderson I encountered a small handful of pitmasters who smoke-roasted whole hogs using nothing but a shovel and the coals forged from a wood-fueled fire. Working with the most rudimentary of concrete-block pits, laboring in cramped quarters while immersed in smoke and live flame, these pitmasters stubbornly endeavored to keep this dying tradition—arguably the oldest of American culinary cultures—alive: cooking the whole damn hog.
I liked what I ate, but loved what I witnessed behind the scenes, in those pithouses: the brutal intensity of the labor, the tales of dedication and struggle, the biographies that reminded me of timeworn fables. I was hooked. And over the next several years I tracked down the pitmasters in the hog hotbed that is the eastern Carolinas. Here is a guide to understanding the allure of America’s most unique culinary tradition.
Whole hog is the slowest of slow foods.
Time, along with smoke and heat, is imperative to cooking barbecue in all its varied forms, no matter the meat or method. But in a handful of towns scattered throughout the eastern Carolinas and west Tennessee, where barbecue implies the whole hog, time is the most essential of ingredients. Here, the most traditional-minded of pitmasters insist on cooking their two-hundred-plus pound porcine vessels of fat and flesh over freshly made hardwood coals for anywhere between twelve and twenty-four hours.
Most whole-hog restaurants get their wood delivered by the many cordful, but at Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, South Carolina, owner and pitmaster Rodney Scott does his whole-hog brethren one better. His workweek begins with a chainsaw in hand and a visit to the bucolic woodlands that ring the surrounding area. Oak, hickory, pecan: Rodney, like many whole-hog pitmasters, will take most any bit of timber to heat his pits. From there, he returns to the sweltering environment of the pithouse, where he and his men shovel bright-burning coals under the hogs every twenty minutes or so, like a stoker constantly feeding a locomotive’s steam engine, throughout the twilight hours, dusk to dawn. The work is constant and merciless; the clock sluggishly trickles onward. Rodney likes to describe this method of cooking as “Hurry up and wait.” And that’s what whole-hog pitmasters do best: they wait and wait and wait, struggling against the slowness of time while honoring its ability to turn flesh and fat into beautiful barbecue. (Photo courtesy Denny Culbert)
Whole hog is the most personal of pit-based products.
Sitting up all night with the hog, waiting for it to render and surrender its meat, can establish a different sort of relationship between man and beast. Simplicity is the norm in the whole-hog smokehouse. There are no on and off switches on these pits, which are usually brick walls and sand floor affairs. No whole-hog pitmaster uses a thermometer. Most cooks can tell the doneness of a hog by lightly rapping on the leathery skin that covers the hams. Chalmon Smalls, a legendary barbecue man who once manned the pithouse at Sweatman’s Bar-B-Que in Holly Hill, South Carolina, could discern a hog’s readiness by sniffing the air. For Smalls and his fellow whole-hog pitmasters, sleep is never an option. A constant and mindful eye is required, because once the fatty tissues begin to break down, the hog’s liquified lard will begin to drip, drip, drip on the hot coals, increasing the likelihood of a grease fire. Every single whole-hog restaurant has lost its pithouse due to a hog-fat inferno. So the pitmaster is left, often alone, with their hogs, lungs seized with smoke, bodies bronzed from working close to fire, always ready to greet the morning sun. (Photo courtesy Denny Culbert)
Whole hog offers the choicest of cuts.
The whole hog offers up its every bite: snout to tail, dark and white meat, and every rib bone for gnawing in between. At Scott’s-Parker’s Barbecue in Lexington, Tennessee, a whole-hog emporium at its finest (and smokiest), customers line up to select their preferred parts from the pig: a few pulls from the shoulder, a chunk of ham, a bit from the underbelly (topped with a choice of mild, medium, and hot sauces). Some prefer middlin’, the local nickname for the bacon meat, which comes pulled from the carcass in long strings of fatty white meat. But most everyone craves a bite of catfish: vernacular for the thin strap of meat that lies under the tenderloin. Named for its resemblance to the fleshy filets that come from those denizens of the muddy deep, the catfish is the rarest and most prized piece of meat on the hog. Some Scott’s-Parker’s patrons will leave empty-handed if they can’t sate their catfish fix.
The Skylight Inn, the pride and joy of Ayden, North Carolina and the most famed of whole-hog restaurants, handles the hog in a different manner. Here they cleaver-chop a hog quarter at a time, mixing fatty and dry meat with shards of crisped skin, before being spiced with handfuls of salt and black pepper, splashes of apple cider vinegar, and great dashes of Texas Pete hot sauce. Cleaved to a fine-cut uniformity, the barbecue at the Skylight allows you to eat the whole hog whole. (Photo courtesy Denny Culbert)