I already wrote a much more serious, philosophical treatise about this even on my new food blog, Amuse Bouche. But this narrative is completely different, aside from the same video of pigs being pigs.
Last weekend I got another reminder of why I need Miss Chef in my life. Around Thursday, she got a cryptic text message from our chef friend in Myrtle Beach about a farmer, a pig and a potluck in some place called Holy City, SC. Chefs from Charleston were being invited, and our friend had been told to go ahead and invite chefs from Charlotte. Now, keep in mind that that part of the South Carolina coast is at least three hours’ drive from home, and this event didn’t get started until 2:30 Sunday afternoon.
So, naturally, we went.
If I weren’t with Miss Chef, not only would I have not received the invitation in the first place, but I wouldn’t even have considered going. I had a meeting at 9:00 Monday morning, but Miss Chef didn’t have to report to work until after noon, so she said she’d do the driving, and I could sleep in the car on the way home.
Perhaps to make the drive more worthwhile, our friend in Myrtle Beach arranged for us to meet for brunch at Edmund’s Oast, a new restaurant and brewery that’s not quite in North Charleston. Not only do they seek local and seasonal ingredients, but they also have their own charcuterie program. Of course we ordered both the “fresh” and “cured” charcuterie boards—the first with things like paté, sausage and mousse, the second with salamis and the like—but I didn’t take many photos there.
I ordered buttermilk fried chicken with a tangy ranch sauce and a fresh salad. It was delicious and moist, just what you expect in the south, right?
I tried to help Miss Chef with this grilled asparagus dish, but I was kind of full from the charcuterie, and the awesome cornbread that had been strongly recommended by another friend.
On the way to the bathroom, I was intrigued and amused by this wall décor…but I didn’t have time to stop and peruse the titles, because we were on our way out, headed to the boonies!
Once I had finally been able to ask for more details from our friend, I’d found that there weren’t a whole lot. Our friend didn’t even really know anybody involved, but there would be a pig slaughtered and roasted, and people were bringing side dishes. The farm was located on Wadlamaw Island, which I’d never heard of, but it’s off the coast near Charleston, south of John’s Island.
So from the restaurant, we piled back into the cars and drove another 20 minutes or so, quickly finding ourselves on narrow, tree-lined roads. Who knew that you could get lost in such dense forests so near to the city? When we finally found the right place, we drove down a twisty gravel drive past some outbuildings and a small, empty greenhouse, and pulled up to the edge of a field to park next to a handful of other vehicles.
As it turned out, the pig had already been slaughtered, cleaned, spitted and set to roast on a purpose-built pit constructed of concrete blocks, wooden frame and corrugated metal covering. You can see it in the background to the left in this picture.
As I said, the event was to start at 2:30, and we got there late, but the first few hours was a lot of this—people standing around and talking. We briefly met the farmer, who was young, probably not even 40, but sporting an impressively bushy beard. Turned out somehow he’d gotten in contact with some chefs from Lafayette, La. and convinced them to fly to South Carolina for the weekend.
It was an odd day, making small talk with people who you only knew by first name and, perhaps, the kind of food establishment they were connected to. I spent some time taking a walk around the field next to us with a couple of our friends.
Unlike the farms we’d driven by on the way down, this was not acre after mind-numbing acre of a single crop. The field was lined with fig and persimmon trees, and in the rows we saw tomatoes, squash, corn, beans, spinach, herbs, even flowers.
Meanwhile the boys from the bayou were busy stirring some kind of stew made from the organs cooking over a propane burner. It was all very informal.
After awhile, a rumor reached us about going to see the pigs, and I was one of several eager to see another part of the farm. About eight or ten of us hopped onto an extended golf cart and bounced back to and across the road, then back through acre after acre of open fields punctuated by graceful live oak trees. (My camera pooped out after about :22.)
As we approached a woodline, someone pointed out a few pigs trotting across a brushy field to follow the sound of the golf cart. Apparently, that is the sound of dinner, although when we actually got to the feeding area, there really was a dinner bell used to call them all in. Crates of rotting milk were stacked there, fragrantly spoiling in the heat, and we were handed moldy bread and rolls to toss over the fence. When I asked, I was told it didn’t matter how long the milk sat out, because the rottener it gets, the more the pigs like it!
I don’t know if you’ve ever had the pleasure of driving by a pig farm or behind a pig truck, but if you have, you know they can be the most rancid-smelling beasts…except that here, with acres of woods and fields for them to spread out in, the only nose-wrinkling odor came from the rotting milk. Sure, some of the pigs had mud crusted on their sides, but it was clean mud.
In case you’re interested in breeds, the black ones are Berkshires, the tall tan ones are Tamworths, the black and white spotted ones are Ossabaw…and did you see the light-colored ones that almost look like sheep? I’m not sure, but I think they may be mangalitsas, a rather rare Hungarian breed. Google “sheep pig,” and the pictures will come right up! Aside from their coats, you’ll notice that, even though these breeds provide meat that’s fattier than that of the overbred superpigs on factory farms, the pigs themselves look leaner than you may be used to seeing. You are what you eat, right?
Shortly we loaded back up on the golf cart and bumped the way we’d come over the fields, the boys from the bayou declared that the fraisseurs was (were?) ready. That’s apparently the name of the organ stew they’d been working on, and although someone said it was an old French tradition, I suspect they meant an old Cajun or Creole tradition. Anyway, it was served over rice, naturally, and topped with green onion.
Besides being a bit squeamish about not knowing which organ bits I might be putting in my mouth, I was still trying to let brunch digest in preparation for the main event, so I only had a few bites of this. But I can say it was rich and flavorful…and the rice was pretty good, too, for being cooked over a propane burner!
We stood around some more, wandered around looking for a bathroom, and wondered whether we’d have to leave before the pig was declared roasted. Finally, around 8:00, we noticed some activity around the pit, and gathered to watch it being dismantled.
But the chefs didn’t simply pull the pig off the spit and start breaking it down. No, they had sent somebody out for a last, special ingredient—cane syrup. They mixed this up with a little bit of water, then used a mop-looking thing to baste the porker all over before pulling out the big guns and the FIRE!
This created a sweet glaze and helped crisp the skin. They did both sides, and then finally pulled the pig off and started to break it down so we could eat.
And you know what? Neither Miss Chef nor I thought to take any more pictures after this! Not only were we anxious to taste that spit-roasted meat, along with the grits casserole, quick-pickle veggie salad, corn salsa and other sides, but the bugs were coming out and we needed our extra hands to start slapping.
So by the time we got back in the car and headed through Charleston for home, the sun was already below the horizon. It was a long, tired drive back, but that’s a small price to pay for such a unique experience. A cajun pig roast on the South Carolina coast…life with a chef sure has its moments.
And now, by request of jenny_o, here are the latest photos of the developing broccoli in my garden. Does it look much different? Since the temperatures have climbed back into the 80s, it’s not going to form such a nice, tight bunch like we’re used to seeing in the grocery store. It’ll taste better, though.
May 20 (morning)
May 23 (afternoon)