So Kyle says, “We should cook a pig.”
What are you thinking – like a pork shoulder?
“No, a whole pig.”
How would we get one?
“Don’t know yet.”
How would we cook it? Even a small pig wouldn’t fit on the gas grill.
“We make a roaster.”
And that is how it started.
This all happened over a recent spring break vacation down in Florida, with three of our families visiting my parents there. Dad was on board, so all that remained was figuring out how to do it. I’ve actually had some experience roasting whole pigs. The local soccer club has a long German heritage and puts on a wonderfully authentic Oktoberfest each fall as the major fund raising activity. I’ve volunteered several autumns nights to help the older generation of Milwaukee Germans to roast brats, whole chickens, and whole pigs which accompany the imported German beers. They have a permanent set-up including shallow pits for the hardwood charcoal and metal brackets to hold the large wooden shafts that are used to rotate the pigs. The charcoal can be shifted and the pigs can be move up or down to control heat.
So I had an idea how to skewer and tie the pig, but we didn’t have an Oktoberfest roasting shed. I’ve seen the pig done traditional spanferkel-style as well by the folks at Bunzel’s Old Fashioned Meat Market in Milwaukee. Going on four generations, they have roasted pigs in the traditional German style with all the appropriate fixings. They have these beautiful mobile roasting units which look like large iron barrels rigged with a rotisserie unit to keep the pig rotating. Heavenly food. But we didn’t have one of those either.
So Kyle starts talking to folks locally, starts calling around. He finds a place with a whole suckling pig ready to go in Tallahassee. That will work. Now we have to figure out how to cook this thing. A 55 gallon drum should be big enough. So that started a scavenger hunt. After a number of fruitless stops, we found a barrel and some grills that had been old oven racks. Now it was up to Kyle to engineer this thing.
He had it done in less than an hour. Hinged top, handle to open it, air holes, holes through the side to allow the spit to rotate. I’m telling you, less than an hour. Then we had to burn the barrel out at high heat to prepare it for the next day’s smoking.
See that big iron pulley on the side? Our wheel for manually rotating the pig. While he built the roaster, I put together a brine for the suckling pig. I used my standard brine approach, but the quantities are a bit fluid. Hey, I was on vacation and the beers were flowing.
Basically it was a giant pot of water (about 2 gallons) brought to a boil, salted until it was about twice the saltiness of ocean water. I added a bottle of apple cider vinegar, two bottles of beer, a hand full of bay leaves, two heaping tablespoons of crushed garlic, three sliced onions, a whole mess of dried herbs, and then liquid cane sugar in place of the more traditional honey. Liquid cane sugar is used in the south like maple sugar, thick and caramel like molasses, but less bitter. When the whole mix came to a boil, I killed the heat and then added an equal volume of ice to dilute the brine. Poured the whole mix over the pig, weighed it down, and then let it sit for 24 hours.
The next morning we fired up the grill about 9 AM to get the coals just about perfect an hour later. Then pig on the spit and onto the grill. We used hardwood charcoal supplemented with soaked oak to get a bit of extra smoke and washed the pig every half hour with the brine.
Ain’t she a beauty? We are only about an hour in at this point. The temperature gauge visible in the upper left corner was our one major expenditure in building the roaster. Think it was like four bucks. We tried to keep our temp in the 250 degree range, but found the small space was a little tricky to hold at a constant temp. It kept wanting to climb on us. Turns out the lower racks might not have been necessary. It also turns out that drinking all day may not make you the most diligent cook. After six plus hours it came out a bit darker than I expected, but the meat was just done.
We served our spanferkel with whipped, spiced sweet potatoes, a corn cheddar pudding, sauerkraut baked for an hour topped with smoked bacon, and more beer! Though we were definitely in the German tradition with our meal, our beer of choice for this feast was Tatra, a pale lager brewed by Zywiec Brewery from Poland.
Our pig was meltingly tender, moist, and just a hint of smoke. This wasn’t the fall-apart tenderness of a long roast over higher heat, but the more unctuous tenderness of a suckling pig, where the higher gelatin content creates a lovely creamy texture. To play up our Southern locale, my sister made three great barbecue sauces each in different southern styles, but I elected to go au naturel.
About three hours into our roasting adventure, I stopped for a moment, turned to my three grilling partners. We were playing a game of Bags, drinking beer, looking out at the ocean, with a 30 pound pig on a home-made roaster. “Gentlemen, there is simply no other place I rather be right now. This is good as it gets.”
Of course, Kyle knew that all along.