Pichon, Helmet, Link and me standing outside a red barn-like butcher shop at the end of a dead end road in Chatham Township, NJ, on a chilly early autumn morning with a sixty-seven pound pig on a stick and four bags of charcoal, discussing constant rotation or focused heat with a man in a bloodied white jacket is the picture of this day.
The first plan was to cook a proper ghetto pig. One day I happened across Link and Helmet talking about pig cooking methods and joined the conversation. They were discussing whether to bury it with coal and banana leaves, or to roast it rotisserie style. I told the story of when I first got involved in pig roasting through Cuz, and that the research he had done had turned up a website by a couple of Cubans in Miami who like to butterfly a whole pig, strap it to a chain link fence and grill it, something I had always wanted to try. At this point Cuz and I have rotisseried many pigs and have strong beliefs on the proper way to do it, but I have always thought it would be fun to do the ghetto pig version of the guys down in Miami. So Helmet, Link and I started discussing approaches and methods and decided the pig would be done lashed to fencing and set on cinderblocks over charcoal.
About the time we figured out that un-galvanized aluminum fencing is almost impossible to get in the metropolitan New York area (I assume the weather changes of the northeast make it impractical to use unprotected steel, or aluminum) Helmet found this butcher in NJ that rents fire pits and rotisseries and gives you the entire pig already lashed to the spit.
The story as we believed it was that this place was a working farm and we would be involved in the killing of the pig, something I felt obliged to participate in because of the amount of trepidation it caused me. As it turned out, after having steeled myself to face the discomfort of taking part in an intimate task of involving myself in the moment of death of my food that society has so removed us from it seems foreign, I had actually taken an extra step away from being involved because the second most intimate thing about roasting a whole pig is the actual hands-on step of securing the beast to the spit and the folks of Green Village Packing, had already done this for us.
So we gave up a little involvement in the interest of convenience, which tears me. I hate convenience in food prep as a general principal. Wife and I long ago threw out our microwave believing that the little extra time taken in making things like mashed potatoes from scratch makes a far bigger difference in flavor. However, when preparing food for fifty folks, a little help is great.
When Cuz and I roast a pig we have come to a pretty stripped down method. We simply and liberally salt the inside of the carcass and fasten it on the rod. We then salt it again on the outside, and set it over the heat. Now, to be honest, leaving well enough alone is the hardest part from here on out. In order to give ourselves something to do, we’ve picked up the little nervous device of dipping long branches of rosemary in olive oil and smacking them against the skin of the pig while it cooks. I know that the skin of a pig is tough enough to make footballs from so I don’t believe we are doing any flavor adding with our little exercise, but it is still fun and dissipates the energy of hours of staring.
What the folks at Green Village Packing do besides giving you the fire pit, the charcoal, the rotisserie, and the spit, as well as affixing the pig, is to season its interior. They use a blend of garlic, herbs, adobo, black pepper and oil, all good and all sensible and all much appreciated. I clearly am a purist and find the flavor of slow-roasted pork best unadorned while cooking. I do like accoutrements like mojo, or vinegary slaw, or even hot barbeque sauce when it is done, but for cooking I keep it simple. That being said, nothing could be simpler than this.
Literally all you have to do is go home, light a fire, set the spit in the rotisserie and cook until the ham and shoulder achieve 165 degrees in the center. And that’s almost what we did. My belief is the pig should be belly side down over low heat for about 45% of the estimated cooking time (about an hour for every 10-12 pounds). Then 20% on each side, 10% with the back facing down, and the remaining 5% spent spinning over much higher heat to crisp and brown the skin. The logic here is that the concentration of the meat is on the pig’s underside, so time spent spinning it leaves ¾ of each minute with the densest concentration of the meat being off the flame, making the leaner meat toward the pigs back overcook. So without a calculator I guessed our sixty-seven pound pig would spend two and a half hours stomach down, an hour or so on its left side followed by another hour or so on its right, half an hour with its feet in the air, and the remaining time spinning with periodic temperature checks.
The reality is, as will always happen when men gather around a fire with raw meat, a committee formed with votes on how best to do it. Ultimately, we went with one hour belly down, one hour spinning, half an hour on each side (while a rosemary, garlic olive oil wet rub was applied to the off-fire side) and then spinning till it was finished (people like to watch things spin). There is also the truth that meat + fire = happy eaters.
About 90% of the pig was consumed within half an hour of it coming off the spit. I was proud to have been a part of it’s making (even though the back was a little tougher then I like ;-) and, as often happens when I cook, I had little interest in eating it beyond the taste that confirmed I was proud of the job we had done. Instead, I went inside to eat the sofritto that Nettasdad had made of our pig’s heart and liver. Now that’s the way food should taste; once I figure out how to make it I’ll tell ya.