If, like me, you are from eastern North Carolina, then just reading the terms “pig-picking” and “oyster roast” will start your mouth watering in a Pavlovian response to powerful competing good-time memories: On the one hand, using fingers to pull slender slices of succulent pork off a hefty hog’s carcass slow-cooked and smoked all day to flawlessness on a large grill to be drenched in peppery, tart vinegar-based barbecue sauce and then eaten with gusto, and, on the other hand, prizing open steaming hot oysters following six or seven minutes of heating on the backyard grill to devour the briny, luscious shellfish inside after plunging the juicy morsel into a cocktail concoction of Atomic Horseradish, catsup, Texas Pete hot sauce (made only in North Carolina), and freshly squeezed lemon juice. Mmm, mmm, mmm! Gourmand dreams just don’t get any better than that!
Pig-pickings and oyster roasts are traditional—very nearly holy—social occasions in eastern North Carolina. Perhaps it’s the proximity to the coast and North Carolina’s almost infinite network of brackish sounds and inlets where oysters thrive, and certainly where swine left to forage in the fields flourish and fatten on the leftovers of bounteous peanut and corn harvests grown in the rich black topsoil of the low and wide eastern NC river valleys. Feeding, too, on acorns and other natural fodder, piggies left to sate their own instinctive palates before slaughter yield some mighty fine flavors when roasted in an open pit (the old-fashioned method) or grilled on a great steel pig cooker. Either way—pit or big grill—the cooking process is sloooow, lasting from dawn until mid-afternoon to achieve righteous perfection evidenced in the tender, moist, subtly smoky, and highly complex savors of the meat.
Such old-time happenings are all too rare these days in Raleigh, perched as it is on the edge of North Carolina’s rolling Piedmont and overlooking the vast flatness of the coastal plain that characterizes the topography of the eastern third of the state, a wee bit too far removed from the old ways of the east. Or maybe it’s Raleigh’s bigness these days and its increasing diversity of denizens. So many newcomers from the globe’s and the nation’s far corners tend to dilute the old customs.
But the old ways are alive and well east of Interstate 95, and I was happy to bring the magic to Raleigh last weekend by putting on a pig-picking and oyster roast as a thank-you celebration for the many elected officials, private sector businesses, and public sector professionals who have collaborated so well to craft a good transit plan for Wake County in which Raleigh sits. I am myself proud to have played a modest role in that effort.
You may be wondering what cooking pigs and oysters has to do with business travel. Well, absolutely nothing in a direct way. But public transit provided by buses and rail vehicles is a critically important component of overall mobility, together with private rubber-tired vehicles, bicycles, walking, and, of course, flying. In Wake County we haven’t kept up with public transit services to meet the burgeoning demand of this vibrant region. That is, until now. We have a half cent sales tax referendum exclusively for public transportation on the ballot, a plan that has been two years in the making and is thirty years overdue. Win or lose, it’s been a long slog to get to this point, and I wanted to celebrate the effort with the key players who made it possible. Hence the pig-picking and oyster roast.
Every master pig chef has her or his secrets—especially around the homemade sauce recipe, and while I cannot divulge the fine details of either roasting or sauce prep, I can describe the process from start to finish, thanks to my friend and neighbor, John Lytton, who cooked this hog for the party last week. Speaking from a lifetime of experience, I can certify that it requires a good deal of care and attention to get just right, being more art than science, and my friend John is a genuine expert.
Steaming or roasting oysters is easy by comparison; anyone can do it.
First, though, the pig. You gotta get a good pig—a whole hog, not the parts—and it has to be cut correctly: trimmed of most fat and bisected evenly down the spine with head removed and absent. Don’t need the head for a pig-picking, but it’s good to have the tail, as some folks like to gnaw on it once cooked up. Also the legs and feet, including the toes, as some go for the knuckles and connective tissue there.
Whole pigs are not available just anywhere, not even in North Carolina. This one, a jumbo 130 pounds once cleaned and with the head gone, was ordered special through the area’s best pork barbecue joint. Places like Nahunta Pork Center can acquire an entire hog carcass, but they don’t always butcher it in the proper manner without close instruction and follow-on scrutiny.
The pig should be freshly killed and still dripping blood when loaded onto the truck, as mine was. Hog-killing is an ancient and noble ritual in its own right, and I won’t go into the long details here except to say that just collecting up the two halves of a pig ready for cooking from a local walk-in cooler says nothing about the honorable work ceremony preceding that moment that made it possible.
On arrival home, the two mirror image pig body halves were removed to the large grill, which is called a pig cooker. This essential piece of equipment normally takes the form of a very large grill on wheels with an enormous lid, all made of heavy-duty steel. Pig cookers are invariably black.
Powered by propane tanks, the precise design and layout of the cooker’s gas burners are customized by the chef according to personal preference based on long experience. Like the sauce recipe, burner position is a closely-guarded secret.
Once our pig was positioned on the grill, the burners were lit. Good quality charcoal (never the self-lighting variety) and seasoned hardwood chips and pieces were positioned along the burner edges beneath the grill to smolder and smoke the meat slowly over time. More of both can be added during the cook as necessary, depending upon the level of smokiness desired in the end product. I prefer hints of smoke evenly infused into the pig so that the natural pork flavors are not overpowered. Swine meat essences are subtle and mouth-watering, so why stomp all over those complexities with a lot of harsh smoke?
It’s important to start early for a 4:00 PM event as mine was last weekend. I was loading the pig from the cooler at around 5:45 AM, and we lit off the cooker just past 6:00 AM. The burner heat was adjusted carefully all morning and required constant attention to cook slowly but thoroughly. This ensures safe cooking and preserves the natural juiciness.
The homemade barbecue sauce, prepared weeks in advance and stored in gallon jugs, is doused upon the pig carcass at regular intervals to seep into the meat. The two halves are placed skin-side up to start with to get the heat into every nook and cranny. After about four to five hours, determined by internal muscle temperatures, we turned the two sides over to skin-side down and continued the dousing with sauce in earnest onto the meat now upward exposed. That, of course, is always its final position so as to be accessible for the “picking” of the savory meat, with the skin on the bottom of the grill holding the succulent, well-cooked flesh in place, thus keeping it from falling between the grill bars onto the burners below. This position also allows the chef to crisp up the skin for “crackling,” which is a delicious crunchy delicacy in its own right and a favorite side dish for many pickers as they pull the hot, moist hog meat from the bones.
By 2:30 PM our pig was perfectly done, as moist as a Christmas turkey but far more flavorful, and with just the right notes of smoke and BBQ sauce. The heat was reduced to a bare minimum to keep it warm until 4:00 PM when guests would arrive.
Meantime, I cooked up two big pots of pork and beans chock full of cooked bacon (LOTS of bacon, cut into short one inch lengths), chopped Vidalia onion (again, LOTS of onion), brown sugar, molasses, honey, copious quantities of cayenne pepper, lots of Tabasco and Texas Pete hot sauces (never smoky sauces in beans), and ground hot red peppers. Finely ground coleslaw was also on hand, as was Mexican corn bread. To top it off, that mainstay dessert of all pig-pickings, homemade banana pudding.
Back to the pig: We usually chop up the meat pulled from one of the two halves, mixing dark and light muscles together once shopped to distribute the flavors, and then liberally douse the piles of chopped pork with the secret barbecue sauce as the chopped pork portions are transferred to large serving pans. Some prefer to come to the grill to use forks, knives, and their hands to pull and pick the meat from the bones (hence the term “pig-picking”). We left the other half of the carcass on the grill for the hardened traditionalists.
By the end of last Saturday evening, my scores of guests had done serious damage to the very big hog on the grill.
Oh, about the oysters: The hardest part of oysters is washing them. I don’t know a seafood dealer that prewashes oysters, and good oysters are always covered in mud and slime from the sea. It helps to keep them alive while in transport and awaiting a customer. I recommend a powerwasher to clean the shells in advance and to adorn your dirtiest clothes for the job. Obviously this is very hard work and needs to be done well in advance of guests arriving, but must be done the same day, because oysters have to remain alive to be cooked and eaten. Eating dead shellfish, whether cooked or raw, is a prescription for serious and sometimes fatal food poisoning.
Now devoid of mud, the oysters are ready for cooking. The easiest method, which I use, is to spread a bunch of oysters on a hot grill and close the cover for 6-8 minutes. That steams them in their own juices. Once dead, the oysters relax their powerful muscles, and the shells will all have a gap showing, making the shells easy to open with an oyster knife.
Oyster knives are usually blunt, but holding an oyster in one hand while using the knife to pry it open with the other can cause even a blunt blade to bruise of cut a hand. I always use a heavy glove. I provided a lot of gloves and oyster knives for my guests last weekend, and the shells were flying!
Once the knife has opened the shell completely, the top half is discarded and the muscle that attaches the oyster body to the bottom shell should be cut to allow the oyster to be removed and eaten. I like them in their own salty juices, but having a favorite cocktail sauces like the one I described above can make the eating experience even more divine!
The event was billed as a “transit-oriented pig-picking and oyster roast,” a tongue-in-cheek takeoff of the well-known “transit-oriented development” (TOD) concept of compact development that often springs up around light rail transit stops. Feedback was universally good after the party, and what a relief it was to get our minds off this wretched national election for a few hours.