A large part of our culture in the South revolves around food. Cooking, simmering, frying, and roasting—we do it all, and make an occasion of it, too. We’ll make any day a celebration if it means there’s a reason to gather for so-and-so’s famous cornbread or fried catfish. But that’s certainly not to say it’s a one-man job; that little red hen would be proud of all us Southerners for the nature of our gatherings, in which every man, woman, and child come together to create a feast together.
For centuries, pork has been the showcase of many of these Southern celebrations. Since the South became a thing, every part of our culture, from the Appalachians of our northwestern boundaries to the Cajuns of the Deep South, has relied heavily on pigs for sustenance. The easy-going porkers could be set loose to roam the dense woods and swamps of our homeland, fattening on the fruits of the land, and then brought home when they looked ripe for the fire. The roasting of such a fine animal, naturally, became an occasion, and so the pig pickin’ was born.
Call it a pig pickin’, pig pull, pig roast, cochon de lait, rolling a pig, or just a barbeque, the cooking of a fresh hog is always a cause for celebration and an opportunity for community camaraderie. Pig pickin’s are held to celebrate holidays, like Thanksgiving and Christmas; life events, like weddings and graduations; in honor of football or concert tailgating; or just to celebrate friendships and community. Even George Washington journaled about his own pig pickin’ in a journal entry dated August 4, 1769, proving that even noble Presidents can’t resist the smoky scent of a barbecue.
Like most things pertaining to barbecue and pork in the South, pig pickin’s certainly vary according to region, but every roast has a few similarities in common. The hog (a castrated male or female pig, never a sow or boar, which are much larger) is usually between 80 and 120 pounds, and the cook splits the piggy in half and spreads him over the steaming grill. Much debate exists regarding the superiority of charcoal or propane grills when roasting a pig. Proponents of propane argue they can maintain a more consistent temperature, while those in favor of charcoal contend that their flavor is exceptional. Propane or charcoal, after four to eight hours of roasting the effect is the same: delicious, fall-off-the-bone, melt-in-your-mouth pork.
Here the contrasts in regions continue. During and after cooking, the hog is usually basted in a sauce, which varies according to the classic regions and palates—vinegar, mustard, or ketchup based, depending on where in the South the hog’s hooves lie. And the actual serving of the pig ranges widely, as well; some cooks choose to pull the pork off the bones, removing gristle and fat, before serving it to guests, while others prefer to let their guests pull it off the hog themselves (hence the name “pig pickin’”).
The tables at pig pickin’s are always chock-full of Southern favorites: hush-puppies, coleslaw, beans, brunswick stew, biscuits, pound cake, and, of course, sweet tea. Sometimes you’ll also find hash, a dish traditionally made from the liver and head meat of the hog (though today they tend to leave those bits out); hash is usually made of the extra pork and sauce, gaining the consistency of chili, and served over rice.
When guests at a pig pickin’ sit down to eat the heavenly hog, it is with a sense of communal accomplishment that they dig their forks into that first bite of tender pork. After standing for the majority of the day, watching over the roasting hog, or mixing up a side, their voices engaged in constant conversation of rumors and gossip, how’s-mamas, and bless-her-hearts, that bite is well-earned. For a moment, everything is hushed except for the satisfied sighs of pleased palates. But then, as we always do, someone strikes up the conversation, and the lazy lull of the Southern tongue goes on.