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By Victoria Sadosky

Laid out on an iron grate, he is no longer breathing, but his presence serves as the main attraction as people begin to salivate. “His name is Christian,” says the man from Arrogant Swine, New York City’s only whole hog barbecue joint. Christian is a survivor, representing a dying art form in the realm of whole hog barbecue. And if you haven’t figured it out already, yes, I’m talking about a hog.

I was attending the launch event for Rien Fertel’s new book, The One True Barbecue: Fire, Smoke, and the Pitmasters who Cook the Whole Hog, which showcases the art of whole hog barbecue in the Carolinas and Tennessee through the lens of oral history. Intertwining barbecue with race, tradition and labor, Rien gives a voice to the pitmasters, who keep the tradition alive by passing down secrets and techniques through the generations. Rien Fertel is a writer and historian with roots in New Orleans. Even though his most recent book is named The One True Barbecue, he admits that the title is a little misleading, as he really means that it is his one true barbecue.

Although no other food has produced more feuds in American history than barbecue, one can also say that no other food has served as such a foundation for this idea of sharing the table, a disappearing ritual in our fast-paced society. This summer, when you sit down at the table for your own barbecue feast, pause for a moment before digging in, look around the table, and contemplate this rich history of American barbecue which Rien viscerally illustrates.

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A Disappearing Culture

According to Rien, tasting whole hog barbecue is akin to “tasting a culinary culture that has been slowly disappearing.” The hog’s simplistic smoking alludes to times before the mass production of meat. No spices, no seasoning, only smoked with the body intact. In Antebellum America, barbecue was plantation food and used for political and social gatherings. As opposed to the present where only part of the pig is cooked, historically, sustainability was essential, and cooking the entire hog was the perfect option to provide food on a large scale.

There is something special about whole hog barbecue that allows all that time, just waiting and being present.

Rien placed himself in the pitmasters’ lives, interviewing them while they were working or even sitting in silence throughout the night by the fire pit: “It became a question of my place in these people’s lives.” Whole hog beckons a meditative atmosphere, as it can take up to twelve hours to cook, leaving time for conversation and contemplation: “There is something special about whole hog barbecue that allows all that time, just waiting and being present.” Rien views this two-way conversation, where both parties share their life stories, as a way to understand foodways in a transformative light; he feels that it “will and should become a new way to think about food.”

The Modernization of Whole Hog Barbecue

However, time has caused the ritual of whole hog to alter. One can see the “professionalization of the pitmaster” with the rise of barbecue restaurants, and changes in the cooking processes and the hogs themselves. In addition to switching to gas or electric ovens (instead of fire), Rien reveals how the anatomy of the pig itself is changing: “The hogs that we eat today are very lean, non-fatty.”

Modernization has also allowed society to rethink the concept of an “authentic,” Southern barbecue restaurant. Rien mentioned a restaurant in Durham called Picnic, where there are three owners: a pitmaster, a chef, and a farmer. This concept has allowed for a sort of bridge to form, linking the old-school barbecue establishment with the modern restaurant. Picnic sources its produce and hogs from their own farm, creating clean, fresh and delicious options. The fact that this restaurant has been able to successfully showcase the relationship between the pitmaster and the farmer illustrates the potential for this new direction of barbecue. As Rien said, “It’s beautiful, I never thought that it would actually happen. I am still shocked that it is a reality.”

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Cultural and Racial Division

Individuals also began to alter their preconceptions concerning who has the ability — or even the natural right — to cook whole hog. Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian immigrants residing in the Deep South learned the trade, becoming masters of the pit. Even the gentleman who created Arrogant Swine, Tyson Ho, came across skepticism. Not only were individuals doubtful of a whole hog restaurant in New York City, but also with Ho’s Chinese-American identity. However, the restaurant’s success has resulted in people becoming more open to barbecue joints in urban settings.

Although barbecue connotes this image of sharing the table, there are divisions as well. Rien tells the story of the racial division in Wilber’s Barbecue. While the customer base and front of house staff is predominantly white, the majority of the back of house is African American, including the pitmaster. On the walls, there are photographs depicting the owner, Wilber Shirley, and his achievements. It would only be natural to assume that Mr. Wilber was involved with the cooking process, but Rien is not sure. It is really the unrecognized work of the pitmasters which keeps the restaurant alive, even though they are never mentioned or shown on the wall. Rien solely sought out the pitmaster, never contacting Mr. Wilber, which caused some backlash. As Rien commented, “The argument is that what happens when we do name the nameless?…Why isn’t his pitmaster’s photo on the wall, someone who has cooked more hogs than he could ever count? It’s pushback, a fight, a subversive act to talk to the guy who is rarely, if ever, given a voice.”

Rien may be “chasing ghosts” in his pursuit of the Deep South’s ring of whole hog pitmasters, but the fact that this rare type of barbecue is being reinvented and expanded to territories beyond its rural origins showcases its potential to possess a voice of its own and be shared on many more tables across the country.