Going whole hog for holiday feast

Posted: Sunday, July 25, 2004

An electric motor betrayed John Doyle.

years, he has talked of wanting to roast a whole pig on a turning rotisserie spit. Unfortunately, after a week of planning, when it came time for the pig to turn on the spit, it wouldn't budge. The electric motor didn't have enough guts to spin the pig carcass.

Instead of being a story of defeat, though, here's how Doyle prepared a holiday feast.

Even though he has a state-of-the-art grill, my friend and cooking instructor Doyle wanted to cook this pig over an open fire dug in the ground. Over the July 4 holiday, Doyle roasted his pig. It was delicious. The succulent pork was moist and full of smoke flavor. No barbecue sauce needed. But I'm not sure which spent more time in the heat the pig or Doyle.

The project started with a phone call to Publix, where Doyle ordered the 27-pound, dressed pig. Stores don't just keep them on hand; you need to call ahead. They are frozen, so ask the store to thaw them. However, you might want to call a couple of days before you want the pig. Had Doyle not called to check on his order and remind the store to thaw it, he would have picked up a frozen pig.

Doyle and I made his cooker from scratch. He first dug a shallow hole and placed a grate in it to hold the charcoal. Then, under the blazing sun, we used a posthole digger to carve two holes in front of the fire pit, 3 feet apart. Two 2-by-4 boards were stuck in the holes to hold the spit.

The posts were cut to size and sunk in the holes so about 3 1/2 feet of board stuck in the air. Two small square cinder blocks were then slid over each post and dirt was filled in. The blocks offered stability and protected the bottom of the posts from burning.

This was an exacting process. The posts had to line up. The rotisserie motor was fastened to the top of one board and on the other was a bracket to hold the other end of the spit. The spit had to turn freely and couldn't bind.

Then the dome was constructed. Five strands of block wire, normally used to reinforce block walls, were stuck in the ground on either side of the posts. The pliable wire curved easily. Heavy-duty wire snips cut them to size; we needed smaller lengths as we moved away from the posts and behind the fire pit. This wire formed the dome's skeleton.

Sheets of aluminum foil were then stretched from the back to the front of the dome. It was used to provide protection and heat retention. Foil was placed around the fire pit and on the rotisserie motor and cord.

Then, 10 yards of burlap, purchased at a fabric store, were draped and cut to cover the dome, making it look like a cave. As it began to rain, Doyle and I frantically stitched the burlap sheets together. Just as the last stitches were in place, a hard thunder and lightning storm hit Jacksonville Beach. We raced for cover and prayed the wind wouldn't pick up the dome and toss it around like an untethered kite.

The lightning struck close and the rain came down hard, but there was no wind. Mother Nature took care of the last step by soaking the burlap to prevent it from burning.

At 6 the next morning, Doyle got up to prepare the fire and put the pig on the spit. He wanted the temperature inside the dome to be around 250 degrees, so he bought a thermometer to make sure the dome was hot enough.

Here's where gear ratios failed Doyle. The motor wasn't strong enough to spin the 27-pound carcass. Doyle is an experienced and calm cook. I have never seen him flustered. When I arrived with my morning coffee, he already had lopped off the pig's head (to decrease the weight) and arranged the pig a couple of different ways to redistribute the weight. It still wouldn't spin.

All of that work. It seemed to be for naught. Doyle was ready to abandon his dome and just butterfly the pig and lay it on top of his gas grill. It then dawned on me that we were OK.

We were smoking the pig using indirect heat. The pig was nowhere near the flame. It could simply hang on the spit, inside the covered dome and cook. It didn't need to spin. At the 3 1/2-hour mark, we just had to turn the pig 180 degrees to make sure both sides of the pig faced the fire for the same amount of time.

But our work wasn't done. For seven hours, Doyle kept watch on the fire, occasionally throwing in mesquite charcoal to keep up the heat and adding wet mesquite wood chunks to create smoke. To keep the pig moist, a drip pan filled with beer was placed under it. During the last couple of hours, Doyle basted the pig every 30 minutes with a mixture of equal parts soy sauce, white vinegar, sherry and sugar (using about 1/2 cup of each). He thickened it with 2 tablespoons of flour to help the marinade cling to the meat. The sauce seeped into the crisscross cuts he had made into the pig's back before placing it on the spit.

When done, the pig was a caramelized reddish-orange. The internal temperature registered a safe 180 degrees. Doyle was happy as a pig in slop, as some say in these parts.

After we ate, I mentioned washing the burlap and storing the wire and cement blocks so we wouldn't have to buy them the next time we roasted a pig.

Doyle gave me a look that said there would be no next time. This was a once-in-a-lifetime culinary experience. Been there, done that. The next time Doyle prepares a whole pig, he'll embrace technology it will be cooked on his gas grill.

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