Lowcountry Pig Pickin'

Cooking a whole pig is time-consuming, but the results are unforgettable.
Donna Florio

Smoke rising over the marsh near Jim and Weezie Gibson's home means one thing to their neighbors--Jim's cooking a whole pig. The Beaufort, South Carolina, couple has been entertaining this way for at least 30 years. "We usually do about one pig roast a year," Jim says in his lush Lowcountry drawl. "The kids started having them for their friends at Christmas, and we've continued."

Jim has friends who regularly assist him, as well as others who drop by. He finds the camaraderie developed during these events sweeter than smoked pork.

"As soon as you start cooking, someone will show up," he says. "Everyone likes to visit and tell stories. And everyone always enjoys being around the fire--you know how Southerners are." They also are notoriously opinionated about how they like their barbecue. "It's like religion," Jim says with a laugh.

A whole hog cooks slowly, one succulent drip at a time, leaving plenty of time for the pit watchers to make hash. This stewlike dish, served over rice, is a favorite South Carolina accompaniment to smoked pork. Traditional versions include the pigs' liver and head meat, but liver hash is rarely seen anymore. Jim's recipe, made with a mixture of ground pork and beef, has a chili-like consistency. "When you're making hash," Jim advises, "it's a great time to have company--no one wants to cut up that many onions by themselves!" Because the mixture needs stirring to prevent it from sticking to the pot, Jim has a standing rule for his barbecue buddies: "Don't pass the pot without stirring it."

Some people like to serve the cooked pig intact, allowing guests to choose the tidbits they want--a pig pickin' in the true sense of the word. Others, like Jim, prefer to remove the skin, bones, and gristle, then chop or pull the meat for easier handling. "A 100-pound hog will feed about 100 people if you serve it yourself, so if we're having a fair number of guests, I always arrange to serve it."

At the end of the day, a larger crowd of friends joins the cooking crew for the serious job of eating. A mountain of chopped smoked pork, hash and rice, coleslaw, and plenty of peppery sauce greet the guests. For Jim, who has been tending the fire since 5:30 a.m., it is time to enjoy his friends and the fruits of his labor. His and Weezie's hospitality envelops the group like a blanket of pork-scented smoke. The party continues into the night, everyone savoring the last bit of fun and food as they anticipate coming together again to roast another pig.

Cooking a Whole Pig
Jim Gibson, a Beaufort, South Carolina, lawyer with a long family tradition of barbecue, and Chris Lilly, pit master at Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q (no relation to Jim Gibson) in Decatur, Alabama, offer these basics.

A cinder block pit is easy to build; simply stack the blocks on top of one another, four rows high. We built a 60- x 46- x 27-inch pit. You can have a grate made at a sheet metal company. Edge the grate with cap blocks standing on their sides. Leave one side of the pit open so you can access the fire, using corrugated tin as a removable door. Start the fire on bare ground or on lava rocks. While Jim prefers to cook with charcoal, using indirect heat, Chris adds a small amount of seasoned wood and keeps a low fire directly under the hog.

Start with a split, eviscerated pig from which the head and feet have been removed. Remove the membrane lining the ribs. Slice into it with a sharp knife, then grab it with a paper towel and pull it off. Sprinkle 1/2 to 3/4 cup kosher salt on the inside of each half, and rub the skin with olive oil. Put the meat on the grate skin side up, then cover it with heavy cardboard (flattened refrigerator boxes work well).

Stick a barbecue thermometer through the cardboard to make sure the temperature of the pit stays at 250°; check every hour. Use an instant-read thermometer to check the temperature of the hams and shoulders. Once the hams reach about 145° (ours took five hours), it's time to turn. Pierce the skin in a few places before turning to let the excess fat run out. After turning, pour plenty of sauce into the rib cage, and mop the rest of the pig well with a barbecue mop. Cook until the hams are about 180° and the shoulders are about 190°, basting occasionally. Jim's sauce is included in this story. The cooking process will take eight or nine hours for a 100-pound hog.