From Pork to Fork
My Adventures with Roasting a Pig
Warning: This story has some details that may be unsettling for the squeamish.
A little background first: I grew up on a farm in northeastern Oklahoma. My family raised almost everything that we ate — fruit, vegetables, eggs, beef and milk, chicken and pork. My mother even made our butter. So, very early on, I knew where my food came from and what it looked like at just about every step along the way, which has given me a great deal of respect for food and the effort required to eat well.
Being an adventurous eater and cook, and having had access to lots of different ingredients over the years, I get a little obsessive from time to time. I’ll try just about anything once. Over the years I have made my own fresh Thai peanut sauce that required shredding and hand-squeezing a coconut 11 times, rendered my own lard and hand-painted chocolate gills on meringue mushrooms for a French dessert. But there are still a great many aspects of food in general that I have yet to try my hand at, and in the last year or so, I got hooked on the idea to roast a suckling pig — something my mother never did, for sure.
And for full disclosure about why I really wanted to try this: Almost every recipe I found about roasting a baby pig included the line “Pry open the mouth with a screwdriver, and insert a ball of aluminum foil.” How could I not try something that requires those steps?
HURDLE ONE: PROCURING
I live in the Clifton neighborhood, on a normal smallish city lot, and most all of my property is a vegetable garden. Digging a pit to roast a pig was not an option. My home oven was my only choice, limiting me to 22 pounds, at the most. Just getting my hands on a right-sized pig turned out to be quite an undertaking.
Louisville has some retail meat markets that can order them and get them fairly quickly, but I had some misgivings about that route. For one thing, the pigs were going to be a little bigger than my home oven could deal with, and they were more than likely coming from a large-scale commercial factory farm. For years now I’ve been buying meat from local farmers’ markets and I really wanted to get my pig from of my regular farmers.
I talked to every pig farmer I know through the farmers’ markets I frequent, and no one was going to have baby pigs in the timeframe I was (initially) interested in. They all also told me that if a farmer can grow a baby pig up to 15 pounds, the next 285 or so is easy, so some farmers wouldn’t want to sell a the smaller pig for considerably less money than a full-grown one. The final roast was going to cost considerably more than a turkey. Months later, one of the farmers I had talked to called me — he had an order from a restaurant in Chicago for baby pigs, and if I was still interested he would let me have one from that litter.
Hurdle one cleared!
HURDLE TWO: TRANSPORTING AND KEEPING
The day came for me to pick up my cleaned and frozen pig. I had presumed the pig would be frozen in the position I would be cooking it, like a turkey is. I cleared space in my refrigerator freezer and off I went to pick it up. Big surprise: It was frozen like a super-hero piglet — all four legs stretched out ready to go on a spit. Of course that was during the record-breaking heat of this summer, and thawing was going to happen fast. Frantically, I started calling everyone I knew to see if they had a big chest freezer with space enough for this stretched-out baby pig. Luckily, I quickly found a friend who made some space in her freezer, but I had to promise to get the pig out before her annual orders of beef and lamb showed up.
HURDLE THREE: INVITING THE UNSQUEAMISH TO DINNER
In modern America, you can’t invite just anyone to a dinner that includes a whole roast animal (though it is quite common in many cultures to celebrate with same). Some of my (very) carnivorous friends said they didn’t think they could sit down to a whole animal. (In fact, the farmers who sold me the pig don’t want their name in this story — many of their customers still are getting used to the idea that the meat they buy actually comes from an animal with a face and might be upset that their gentle farmer would sell baby pigs.) A dinner group was finally put together, all promising they had the emotional mettle to deal with a baby pig on a platter.
HURDLE FOUR: (THE BIG ONE): PREPARATION
Thawing a frozen pig ended up requiring a bathtub for a few days, as the critter was too long to fit in the refrigerator. I had to buy several hundred pounds of ice over a few days to keep it properly cooled while it was thawing. Even I admit that the sight was worthy of a horror movie, and nearly drove my husband out of the house.
On the morning of roasting day, I learned just how small my kitchen is. My single sink is a 1922 farmhouse sink. It is cool looking, but it is small. If I ever roast another pig, I will have at least two sinks. You have to wash your hands about every five seconds, and having the pig in the sink makes that difficult. I had to keep running to the powder room to wash up as I would move to the next step in the process.
The meat processor who cleaned the pig did a wonderful job gutting it and removing all the hair. For some reason, the eyes weren’t removed. Every recipe I read about roasting pigs says to have the processor remove the eyes. This step was the hardest thing I have ever done in the preparation of any meal, both physically and emotionally.
Let’s just say my baby pig had pretty blue eyes and the eyes really want to stay put. I almost gave up, but realized the pig had already given its life for me, and I had a major obligation to not let that life be wasted.
Once the big emotional hurdle was cleared, I stuffed the pig with a squash and apple stuffing. Not equipped with a trussing needle, I decided to use bamboo skewers. (Here is where frequent hand washing really came in — pigs are greasy and your hands get really slippery when handling one that much.) Pushing the skewers through that pigskin was extremely difficult. No wonder footballs are made from pigskin. Even on a few-weeks-old piglet, that skin is something to contend with.
Next came that intriguing step of prying open the mouth with the screwdriver.
The screwdriver is really useful because the teeth are pretty sharp — something else I hadn’t thought about. (The aluminum ball is to keep the mouth open while it is roasting so you can put the apple in mouth later.) Now, into the oven for several hours and I cannot tell you what a relief that was.
Don’t underestimate just how hard it is to carry an already heavy roasting pan laden with a 21-pound pig stuffed with about five pounds of squash and apples. You may need help getting it into the oven—I couldn’t do it alone.
The pig roasted for four hours (per all the recipes) and was tested with a thermometer. Out of the oven it came. We quickly determined it really wasn’t done (turns out you just about cannot overcook a whole pig) and we didn’t want to wait several more hours to eat, so a few of us quickly removed the stuffing, carved up the pig and put undercooked pieces back in the oven for another 30 minutes. We were able to eat at a reasonable hour and as it turns out, no one had to sit down to the table and look at the whole pig! Even though we didn’t get to eat much of the skin that way (which I’ve always heard is one of the best parts of a roasted baby pig) nothing went to waste. All of that skin and the carcass went into the stock pot, and it made the most wonderful stock that I’ll be using in soups all winter.
Out of a 21-pound pig, there were about four and a half pounds of actual meat, which fed 12 people for dinner and made for some very nice leftovers for another few meals for my husband and me. I’ve got a pantry full of canned stock and my friends’ dog really enjoyed the ears.
My take-away from this experience? I’m glad I did it, but I’m not sure most cooks need to go to the extremes I put myself through. I honestly think I learned some new things about myself in the process that I probably wouldn’t have learned otherwise. Mostly, I’m so glad we have local farmers who bring fabulous, humanely and sustainably grown meat to our markets.