This little piggie…

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.

Photo Credit:
Photo Credit:

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.

Pork Roast Whole1

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.

Pork Roast Whole2

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.

Pork Roast Whole3

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.

Pork Roast Whole

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.

Summertime Musings

Saturday morning: Farmers market. Sunny, light breeze. My wife insists on beets. My children get churros from a Mexican bakery stand. Cucumbers, squash, greens, mixed sprouts, red onions, baby potatoes, the early harvest of summer. Oh, and sauerkraut. Jeff Ziebelman called me over and suggested I try a bit of their “Zauerkraut”, delicious. Red cabbage with the green cabbage, bit of carrots, fennel seed, let it ferment. You get this.



The cabbage retains a nice crunch and has developed a pleasant tang. Not over-salted, not over processed. So naturally the next thought – pairing. Roasted pork, with garlic and oregano, on the grill with apple wood chips. Low and slow, 3 hours. You get this.

Pork roast

Rich, sweet smoke flavors. Need a few sides. Throw beets on the grill, wrapped in foil. Slice the beet greens in half inch strips, toss with mixed sprouts. After the beets have cooled, cut to bite-sized pieces, toss them on the greens and top with blue cheese. You get this.

Beet salad

The baby potatoes. Let’s boil them until just tender, not mushy. Dress them with white wine, honey mustard, mayo, apple cider vinegar. My sister gave me some green onions from her garden. Perfect. Dice and toss it all together. You get this.

Potato Salad

Ooh, the cucumbers.


Two cups vinegar, one cup sugar, 2 tablespoons pickling spices from Penzey’s. Boil, then chill. Slice the cukes thin, toss into the brine, wait a few hours. You get this.


Put it all together. Summer bliss.

Summer dinner Great Lakes Cuisine plays with seasonality in many ways. Feature the fruits of the season. Preserve the bounty for out-of-season, fermentation, salting, vinegar, canning. But try take a moment to enjoy the perfect evenings, the flavors, the conversations shared with family and friends. The experience, over time, becomes culture. Enjoy.


Of Festivals and Fun

We will not often highlight current events, as the ambition of this website is to promote a larger understanding of an emergent culinary movement, not simply what is currently popular.  Yet a number of events occurring the next few weeks are great opportunities to get out and experience the ethno-culinary inspiration that underpins Great Lakes Cuisine. The passion of those who organize these type of events and the experience of the thousands that attend, help build the common experience, the common touchstone, for culinary expectations and innovations.

September 18th – 20th at Daley Plaza in Chicago – The Wurst Festival

The City of Chicago is sponsoring a festival dedicated to the appreciation of the humble sausage.  The European-influenced sausage making tradition in Chicago is not only incredibly strong, it is also deeply tied to the identity of the city itself. Of course, I cannot connect Chicago and the the sausage making tradition without recalling this classic scene from Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, but I was struck upon watching the movie again recently with my children that the restaurant they so cleverly lie their way into is French.  How I long for the day when a French child has to lie to get into a classic Great Lakes Cuisine restaurant in Paris.  Hey, a man can dream.  *Hat tip to our new contributor, Jason Halm, who brought this festival to my attention.

Every weekend in September at Bavarian Soccer Park – Oktoberfest

The Oktoberfest put on by the Bavarian Soccer Club in Milwaukee is about as authentic as it gets outside of Germany.  A classic beer-hall setting with 8 different imported German beers (and a classic version from Lakefront Brewing in Milwaukee), the full polka band experience and guests in lederhosen dancing. For me, this type of experience is all about understanding the traditions and then using those traditions as a launching point for innovation.  Of course, there is little in the world more inspirational than a spit of roasting pigs.  I’ve worked side-by-side with Gunther, the club’s pit boss, in stoking the fires with hardwood charcoal, testing the pigs for succulent completion, and hauling the roasted product into the onsite butchering room, before it goes out to waiting patrons.  A pig’s head is often available for sale later in the evening for those that are familiar with such wonders.  A wonderful experience, not to be missed.



September 22nd-28th – Milwaukee Cocktail Week

A new event in Milwaukee, centered around meals offered at local restaurants featuring pairings with cocktails.  A number of the restaurants have presented great pairings, including one which features my personal vice – bourbon, but the one most relevant to our concept is the intriguing dinner to be put on by one of my favorite local restaurants – Honeypie. Two aspects of this dinner resonate with our concept of Great Lakes Cuisine.  First, Honeypie has been doing an amazing job of playing with local offerings, while making all the components for the dishes in-house.  So the buns for their stunning hamburgers are made in-house, and glisten with the egg wash finish.  The flavors for each dish are clear and full, and innovation is at the service of taste.  What makes this a must attend event is a second component of Great Lakes Cuisine, pairing the dishes with cocktails featuring AeppelTreow Winery offerings.  AeppelTreow features apple and pear wines and brandies grown, picked, and fermented onsite at their farm in Burlington, WI. They are constantly innovating new offerings, while at the same time featuring the use of Heirloom varietals that they grow. Local ingredients, local craft, culinary traditions, and innovative ideas – the essence of Great Lakes Cuisine.

Go forth and festival.  Have fun and be inspired.