I can roast a pig? I can roast a pig. I can roast a pig!

After a morning of morel hunting and asparagus planting at Stasia’s house, she and I indulged in some fantasies for the future. I started it by saying something like ‘you have such an amazing place here; let me know if you ever want to have a kick-ass dinner party featuring local food…’. She answered, ‘really? because I’m having a group of my high school friends here over Memorial Day weekend, and I am just starting to wonder how I am going to feed them…’. To her credit, she does a magnificent job of growing food for her family, raising chickens, making yogurt, baking bread, and is entertaining the idea of growing oats ‘…because we eat the hell out of some oatmeal.’. There is a special place in my heart for Brave Mothers; those women who manage to refine their sense of healthy food (and their sense of obligation to find it, make it, provide it) while juggling the unending challenges of family life. Dads are probably brave, too, but maybe they don’t talk to me about it.

Did she say roast a pig, or did I? I think Stasia and Fred had already started talking about it before I entered the picture; I fell in love with the idea. I have been around roasting pigs; I can think of three, the third of which was and is an integral part of my ‘return from vegetarianism’ story. It was a farm-raised and slaughtered pig in northeastern CT; it was roasted whole with the skin on, and was so perfectly cooked and seasoned that there was simply no way I was not going to eat it. Not only did I eat it, I pulled it all off the bone and served it to a large group of hungry people, feeling at once proud of the product and humbled by my own (former) abstinence. Back to the present…

I called a certain farmer named Richard and spoke to him about a pig; size, shape, weight, cooking method, butchering specifics, delivery details. Richard helped me over the hurdles and rubberstamped my proposed cooking method. I later spoke to Fred about the project, figuring that he would be my partner in crime on the actual day of the event. Since they were planning a bonfire the night before, we figured that the pig could be roasted on the site of the bonfire the following day to take advantage of a mature fire. Fred used the tractor (or some sort of farm machine) to clear a spot on a gentle hilltop within view of the house and (conveniently) the kitchen sink window; he also mowed several undulating trails through the tall grass and brought large tree trunks to serve as benches. He dug down into the dirt a couple of feet, and followed my rather vague instructions by building a three-sided brick ‘oven’ to serve as a pit for the pig roasting. I also described a type of double-grill that we could use to sandwich the butterflied pig; reinforced with rebar, I reasoned (can you hear the question marks?) and we could flip the whole thing without actually moving the pig.

The only problem? We had no idea how big the pig would be. I was getting updates from Richard, messages like ‘the little pigs are too little; your pig’s gonna be a little bigger’ and ‘I’ll have to cut his feet off to fit him in the cooler. That OK?’ and ‘I don’t want to stick you on the price, but I have to charge you by the pound’ which I translated to ‘I think the pig is going to be a little bigger than our dogs…but thicker, you know, because it’s a pig and not a dog’ and ‘make the pit 3 by 4 by 3, or 4 by 3 by 4…or just get the grills so that they can rest on the pit…or make the re-bar longer if the grill is littler…I’m sure whatever you will get will be perfect, don’t worry’. I know Fred was worried, but as it turned out everything was perfect.

I picked up the pig on Saturday morning at the market, along with 5# of fresh English peas, cabbage for coleslaw, cucumbers and eggplant and chard and eggs and bacon and sausage and more sausage…Richard helped me load the pig into my car, and when I had parked I casually glanced inside. I had been entertaining irrational fears all morning (since first waking at 4:30), most notably that I would get spooked by the pig and simply feel like I couldn’t do it. I’ll admit that the sight of the pig was a bit jarring as its belly side was up: He had been neatly split up the middle with the backbone cut out and entrails removed (except the kidneys); the snowy white fat lay in alternating layers with the pink flesh to give the ‘bacon effect’; everything about the carcass was symmetrical and tidy with just a little bit of blood, but the skill and the experience were evident at every angle. Indeed, the hind trotters had been lopped off, but the head was intact (although split like a melon) and the ears were still attached. Richard had provided me with a bunch of frozen booze bottles to keep the carcass cold; I wished I had my camera.

After storing the pig in a walk-in cooler overnight, I hauled it out to the scene along with some equipment, most notably tongs, rubber gloves (regular and heavy duty), headlamp, knives, TJ’s delicious apple cider vinegar spiked with red pepper, sugar and salt, and a couple of old towels. It was then that the hero emerged: Not the pig, not Fred, but Stasia’s friend John who I could tell knew what to do; he was wearing heavy pants and boots, and immediately took charge of the situation (to my eternal delight). I had figured that, in a group of fifteen, someone would emerge as a chief helper or (I had dared to hope) I could be the helper and hand over the reigns to someone with more experience. I explained our plan (such as it was) to John, and he approved it with a few adjustments. We loaded the grill onto the back of the Gator, hoisted the pig on to it, pressed the second grill in place and the boys cinched it down with heavy gauge wire. Someone rustled around in the garage and emerged with a prayer flag from Stasia and Fred’s wedding several years before; we craved a spiritual element to this roast, and the combination of prayer flag, processional with photos, and tilting a beer onto the pig seemed to satisfy the group.

John seemed to have the situation well in hand (auxiliary fire behind the pit so new coals could be introduced, several metal rakes and shovels, cold beer, and an umbrella for shade) so I headed inside to prepared the rest of the meal. I made coleslaw from Savoy cabbage, carrots, green onion, Caromont goat cheese, mayonnaise, TJ’s apple cider vinegar, and honey; I built it in a bag so as to knead and mash it thoroughly. Using a base of Grandma’s brand BBQ sauce and ketchup, I made a tangy barbecue sauce to dress the meat with after cooking. Using canned beans and a whole panoply of condiments (including some leftover BBQ sauce that wouldn’t fit back in the jar), I made baked beans and then managed to burn them and save them (all in one afternoon!). Stasia harvested spinach from her garden, and we washed and dried it and dressed it with a fresh Caesar dressing and fresh croutons. The morning before, the crew had gone strawberry picking, and I had sliced a bunch and tossed them with a bit of honey and sugar so as to macerate them; I baked some scones using raw cream and buttermilk, and later made whipped cream to round out the strawberry shortcake. We had discussed making ice cream, but talked ourselves out of it amid feeding the kids, washing the dishes and watching the smoke curl off of the pig pit out the window. The weather was beautiful and sunny, perfect really, and folks were in and out of the pool, the sun, the shade, and the kitchen.

I wondered how interested the children would be in this whole process; as it turns out they were full of questions and didn’t seem at all alarmed by the carcass nor the process. As the afternoon progressed and the time came to pull the pig off the fire and the top grill off the pig, I asked Asher to help me pick the piece that the kids would eat, and I heard him say ‘Yum, I’m gonna eat that pig. The feet look meaty. Mmm.’ Stasia later explained that he is a true meat eater, even asking for raw pieces of venison.

John finished off cooking the pig and pulling it to bits; we sliced the tenderloin pieces and lightly dressed the other chopped and pulled pieces with salt and pepper, leaving the BBQ sauce to be administered by each diner.  Wine was poured, toasts were made, plates assembled, and we ate as dusk fell.  Considering all the variables in the process, and how much I had left to luck and to others, the meal was perfect and a great time was had by all.  Thank you, pig.  Thank you, Richard.  Thank you, John.  Thank you, Stasia and Fred.  Goodnight.

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~ by a local notion on May 30, 2008.

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