Sunday, September 19, 2010

Conducting a Pig Roast

On Saturday, September 11, 2010, we put on a pig roast. God totally blessed it, and without a doubt, it was fabulous. I thought it might be a good idea to assemble some thoughts, a sort of debriefing, if you will.

First, the disclaimer.

The Disclaimer

Everything you read here is purely a recounting of how we conducted a pig roast. This not to be taken as instruction or advice on how you should conduct a pig roast. What you choose to do with the information here is entirely your decision, and is done You agree that using any information here is done entirely at your own risk.

Next, the photos. Everybody wants to look at photos, right? Right.

Okay, I'll guess you took a look at the photos, and want more information. Here we go. Pastor Dwight and I have toyed with the idea of doing a big ol' barbecue for years. The previous month, Don McClure of came up and spent a few days with us, passing along his wisdom to us. Don is great brother in the Lord, and I'd highly recommend him for encouraging your fellowship.

Anyhow, one of the things Don McClure suggested was hosting a barbecue. That was the catalyst for us. His version included beef, as they had a rancher friend who could supply it as a donation. We didn't have any rancher buddies, but did have a longtime love for pork ribs. The idea of a whole pig roast quickly flew together, and as things with God's blessing do, the idea took on a life of it's own and pretty much exploded into reality.

So here starts the lessons learned. Get people praying! That's lesson #1. Get the folks in your fellowship praying for your event. If you do this and ignore the rest, you'll be better off than if you do everything but pray. Okay, so let's move on.

We started the real work about 2 weeks prior. Researching the cooking method took us straight to 3 Guys From Miami, where we obtained the knowledge to construct our pig pit and cooking racks. We did modify the design a bit, which I'll expound on later.

The Pit

If you go over the 3 Guys from Miami site, you'll see in their commentary that they say not to construct the pit over asphalt. We had no choice as we had to work with an asphalt driveway. Our modification to their 48-block design was to lay down a 60-lb. bag of pea gravel on the asphalt, then arrange a 30-block (5x6) foundation stacked so the air could flow through the openings in the blocks. The thought was that the pea gravel would keep the blocks from making intimate contact with the asphalt, and the air flowing through the blocks would keep them from getting too hot. In the end, this system worked so well, I'm wondering if the gravel was needed. It was cheap insurance at what, $7 for a bag of gravel? Oh yeah, on top of that foundation of blocks, we added sheets of aluminum foil for additional thermal protection, and to block any stray grease drips. We didn't spill a drop of grease on the ground, so it worked quite well.

The 3 Guys from Miami say to line the first two rows of blocks with foil, and that's what we did. We also poured in a bag of sand into the bottom, for more insulation and grease capture protection. We placed a row of foil pans on top of the sand. In retrospect, we might have not needed the foil pans, but they worked out well.

I should note, also, we did not pay retail for the cinder blocks. We contacted Anchorage Sand & Gravel, where the blocks were made. They sell "blowout block", which are overruns from custom orders. Our nice sand-colored blocks cost $1.25 each. We also obtained the 10-foot lengths of rebar and sand and gravel from them, too. Funny, their name is "Anchorage Sand & Gravel" and that's exactly what we bought from them. 100 blocks, 4 10-foot lengths of 5/8" rebar, 1 bag of pea gravel, 1 bag of sand.

We had to store the blocks in my garage, and now that the barbecue is done, we have left them there at church for now. Coming up with a storage location for materials is something you should keep in mind.

The Grill

We initially were using a pure rebar grill, but decided on changing the design. We used 1o-foot rebar for the lengths, and on top of those, tied on four wire racks which started out life as a two 4-piece shelf kits from Costco. This grill configuration gave us a nice chromed cooking surface which would also accommodate smaller items such as chicken or even hamburgers. The assembly was done using rebar wire, which one can obtain from Home Depot. When we were done with the event, I cut apart all the rebar wire, cleaned off the grills, and stored everything. If you check out the 3 Guys From Miami, you'll find they have plenty of info on constructing a grill. Anyhow, using shelving worked great, and I've cleaned the shelving off and stored it, so come next time, it's ready to go.

While at Home Depot, buy a set of those bright orange rebar protective caps. They keep people from getting hurt from the rebar ends, and also serve as a visual cue as to where the bars are at. Safety first, you know.

So looking at the photo, you can see there are two grills total. You put the pig on one, place the remaining grill over the pig, and use rebar wire to wire 'em both together tightly. This is done so that they survive the pig flip.

The Fire

As described earlier, we had placed foil pans in the bottom of the pit. We filled the four corner pans with charcoal and lit them up. We proceeded with pig prep while the fire was burning down.

Each hour I would add four armloads of coal into each corner pan, along with a big handful of damp hickory wood chips for that nice smoke aroma. This was accomplished by carefully removing a corner brick and dropping in the coal and wood into the corner. I didn't need to see exactly where they fell, it worked out fine.

The Pig

So obtaining a pig, how does one do this? I went to Red Apple, my favorite grocery store here in Anchorage, AK, and talked to the butcher lady there. They sell whole pigs for $140, which gets you a 50-60 lb. pig, already prepped. You pay on a Monday, and pick it up Saturday . This is what we did. I indicated we would be coming early Saturday, and was told the staff would know what to do. During the week, I called the butcher lady up and asked if they could butterfly the pig. She said they would try but if necessary, they would saw it down the middle. In the end, they did indeed saw the pig in two, and I'm glad they did. This proved to make the pig much easier to handle, and I'll request it be sawn down the middle from now on.

When we showed up Saturday morning, the staff absolutely did not know what to do. They told me to come back later. No way. We needed that pig, we paid for that pig. I asked for the manager, and he totally knew what was going on. He had us get our cooler and walk to the back, into their walk-in fridge. There was our pig, sawed down the middle, and nicely cleaned. They did a really good prep job, and I would heartily recommend obtaining pigs from Red Apple. Just be prepared to ask for the manager if the regular staff give you the brush-off.

Pick up a pack of cheap disposable razors. Give the pig a shave once you got him laid out. While our pig was prepped very nicely, he did still have a few hairs on his chinny chin chin. This is normal. Pig shave.

Now this part is important: While the pig was prepped quite well, he wasn't entirely defrosted. This did create some trouble. Come to think of it, next time I order a pig, I'll do it a full week ahead of time and explain that he wasn't fully defrosted when I did a "Monday order, Saturday pickup".

The 3 Guys from Miami do this liquid marinade overnight thing, which I did not do, and wouldn't bother with. I'm a big fan of the dry rub, and this worked out just great. We dry rubbed the pig just prior to tossing him on the pit. We got rave reviews for the flavor, so I wouldn't bother with an overnight marinade.

Okay, with the pig rubbed down and the fire all nice, we tossed the pig on the fire, and placed the other grill over the pig. Wire it all together with rebar wire, and cover with heavy foil to keep the heat in.

A lesson learned: Next time I'll bring along some 2x4s or maybe 1" wood strips or even some rocks or whatever to hold the foil down. The smallest breeze of wind would make the foil blow, and we used wire to tie it down. This was a pain, and having some holddowns for the foil would have made things better.

Pig Flip

Halfway through the cooking process, the whole grill assembly needs to be flipped over so the other side of the pig gets some heat. We had a very successful pig flip, with only minimal shifting of contents. We had plenty of people on hand to assist with the flip, the bars where we grabbed the grill were not too hot, and the two grills were pretty well wired together so that if the pig did shift, it wouldn't have likely fallen out anyway. Well, praise God, all went without a hitch.

Pig Pull

We had two tables set up for pig pulling. The two tables were arranged so that they formed a "T". Both tables were covered in heavy plastic sheeting. One table had four bricks arranged so that we could get the grill moved directly from the pit, and onto the bricks.

So about 30-40 minutes prior to serving, we moved the pig grill off the pit, and onto the bricks at the pig pulling station. After a 15 minute wait for the pig to cool down sufficiently, the pulling began. We found it worked best with two people, on either side of the table. Our pig wasn't entirely "falling apart off the bone", so at times, we found a knife helpful for cutting a chunk off and then shredding. The shredded meat was placed into foil serving pans, which then were transferred to the serving area. We used a nice disposable chafing dish setup from Sam's Club which uses burners to keep the hot food hot. Those worked out very nicely.

During the pig pull, we had a separate pan for the pig skin. There just isn't anything better than a cracklin' juicy piece of perfectly done pig skin. We would offer the pig skin to people as an optional item, and most folks took it gladly.

People serving pig pull duty have to exercise restraint to not start chowing down on that pig there at the pull table. The temptation is so great, oh yes it is.

The Rest of the Menu

Okay, clearly the pig is the star of the food show. I would highly suggest you keep the menu simple. Unless you have the additional space and personnel to handle it, do not get caught up into preparing hamburgers, hot-dogs, chicken, or anything else not-pig for people who might not want to eat pork at a pig roast. It's a pig roast. Let them eat pig. I do not say this out of callousness, but out of a very real sense of being overwhelmed. Just getting the pig done properly is a monumental task. When you add in something as "simple" as hamburgers, you're also implying there will be cheeseburgers, there will be ketchup, mayo, lettuce, onions, mustard, buns, and so on. Not to mention, you'll get people wanting their burgers done a certain way. A hamburger barbecue is an event in and of itself. Keep the menu simple.

That being said, pre-packaged items such as individually bagged chips are a total blessing. You put out one of those 50-pack variety boxes of potato chips, and folks can pick which flavor the want. Same for stuff like cookies. Pick items that are individually wrapped, though. You don't want somebody with the flu grubbing their hand through a loose bowl of potato chips or cookies. Use pre-packaged items to supplement the menu and add variety. These items also can be left out on the table without requiring additional serving staff, thus conserving your most precious resource, people!

So just what did we serve? In the serving line, we served pulled pork on hamburger buns, cole slaw, and baked beans. After that, people could pick up individually packaged chips, soda, bottled water, and cookies. We had a large variety of barbecue sauces at the end of the line, allowing to fix up their pulled pork sandwich as they desired.

The Cole Slaw Nightmare

Just the week prior we had been to Costco and they had bags of ready-to-serve cole slaw. Our menu was planned around using this. The day of the event, when we went to buy some, it was all gone. Gone! The word was that cole slaw was a seasonal item, and I guess we were exactly one week too late. Sam's Club had none, either. We were forced at the last minute to prepare cole slaw from scratch. While the resulting slaw was very good indeed, it put a lot of unnecessary stress on our staff, and really took a bite out of our schedule. The lesson here is to not count your cole slaw chickens before they are hatched. Either plan for making cole slaw from scratch at the event, or have ready-to-serve cole slaw read. Municipal health regulations in Anchorage do not allow for preparing these items at home for consumption at a public event, so either get it ready-made, or make it there at the event. Next time we know better.

Various tips

Pray for sunshine. In fact, just pray. A lot.
Have a contingency plan for rain.
Get all the tables you can. Too many tables is not a problem. Too few tables is a problem.
If you see something at Costco or Sam's Club a few weeks prior, ask if it is a seasonal item.
Try to not overload your volunteers. Speaking of which, the more the merrier.
Don't be stingy. Serve a lot of food on each plate.
Keep the menu simple.
If you have bottled water, folks will drink it.
Have a handwashing station set up for both the volunteers, and your guests.
Get big paper plates. Don't buy wimpy paper plates.