Recently I went to brunch at a BBQ joint which advertised to be serving whole hog. Just hearing those words perked up my ears. BBQ? Brunch? Sold. Plus it’s a whole hog joint and I’m a whole hog guy. People who make it a mission to specialize in rooter to tooter cooking are a rare breed. For several reasons – #1 securing and transporting a whole pig is an exercise in hilarity & #2 most people do not have the real estate to do so.
So I sit down for my plate of “whole hog” and asked to see their PIT. There’s a certain degree of voyeurism involved in BBQ. You could almost hear my enthusiasm deflate when they told me their “pit” was the size of small dishwasher. Now unless you’re cooking miniature pot belly pigs, I’m not sure how you’d fit a whole hog in there.
I have heard that there are places that smoke the hams and shoulders of a pig and call it “whole hog”. But that just kills the fun out of it. Imagine this, you’re heading home to a huge thanksgiving dinner. The table is beautifully set. There’s a dozen or so pies freshly baked. The butter’s melting on the mash potatoes and the marshmallows on the yams are perfectly toasted. Then out comes the TURKEY, ready to be carved, and you see on the big silver platter – 2 wings and 2 thighs. 2 Wings??!!! That’s not a turkey! That’s gravy scraps! You would be upset.
If your mother came over to Thanksgiving and all you had was a few parts, expect good parental slap upside your head because you just crucified the holiday. The very act of calling 4 joints a whole turkey violates the most basic creed of Thanksgiving – abundance, generosity, and mankind’s greatest leftover sandwich the next day. Not only does it look silly, it’s down right un-American.
Whole hog cooking functions in the same fashion as Thanksgiving. Born of the annual tobacco harvest, it’s the end of the growing season, a Sabbath of labors, an over the top celebration with your fellow man. There are plenty of logical arguments that you’re not missing much when you’re only using the shoulders and hams calling Whole Hog. But that’s missing the point. It robs the plate of the romance, the unsuppressable grin that appears when people see an entire hog cooking over embers, the sheer joy of the celebration of the ridiculous.
But at the end of the day, it’s all about taste isn’t it. Whole hog cookers (who actually use the entire animal) will tell you that every part has its contribution. The ham and shoulders are obviously the stars but there’s more going on. Here are some of the parts we’re missing in our partial whole hog.
Ribs – the rib cage gets access to the most amount of exposed surface area. As the idea of chopped bbq is the mixing of the smoky outside bark with the tender interior muscle, the ribs are invaluable in adding an extra depth of flavor.
Neck/collar – Neck? That’s correct, around the collar bone lies some of the most flavorsome meat on the animal. In Thailand this is the most expensive part of the animal and treated with respect. When I was working in Budapest, I had one of the finest meals of my life consisting of the roasted neck muscle of a rare Mangalitsa hog. It has the perfect amount of marbling. Enough movement to give the muscle a depth of flavor but not so much that it gets tough.
Cheeks – These are flavor bombs off the whole hog. Crispy, fatty and brimming with collagen meat. People charge an arm & leg for these things (no pun intended).
Tail – If your pitmaster loves you, they’ll sneak you a bite of the tail. Just find yourself some privacy and dig into this messy morsel with some mustard on the side. Getting every bit of meat from the joints.
Trotters – Most people cut this off, and fair enough, not too much of pig’s feet get mixed into the general chopped BBQ. But when you’re done roasting them with the rest of the animal, all that precious melted collagen can get poured over the rest of the pig keeping the chop moist. And gnawing on the crispy crackling from the feet is a carnivore’s ice cream cone/
Loins – The loins add a bit of bland tenderness to the mix. It’s an essential portion in balancing out the fattiness of other cuts. Italians have discovered this long ago when they wrap whole pig’s bellies around loins for porchetta.
Nose bridge skin – Filipinos love their roasted pig. And within this culture that prizes roasted pigs, the skin on the forehead down to the bridge of the snot get glass-like crispy.
Ears – Crackling for you & your dog.
Bacon – This should be on the top of the list shouldn’t it? Again I’d argue for the neck but there’s no denying how much flavor bacon brings to the party. Bacon on a BBQ hog is a completely different affair. The fat is slowly rendered in the 12-15 hour cooking process and the meat get that mixture of confit and roasting both at the same time imparting unbelievable flavor. How could anyone neglect bacon?
Spine – Ok probably not the first thing that pops in your mind when you’re thinking good eats. You’re probably getting flashbacks to Predator movies and images of great bbq. But this would be a mistake. There is wealth of sticky gelatin located at this spot. The Koreans in particular love this cut and braise it in big spicy stews called “Gamjatang”. This gelatin and lean dark meat is critical for coating the lean loin and ham meat keeping everything moist and juicy.