Summertime and cookouts are here people. Even though I grew up calling afternoons of grilling—sausage and peppers, burgers, Dad’s secret Sicilian chicken—barbecue, I now reserve that word for meat that’s cooked low and slow over hardwood embers. Heck, in Eastern North Carolina barbecue’s even more specific. It only applies to whole hog cookery, a method I’ve come to know and love thanks to my pal Tyson Ho.(more…)
Hog prep as viewed through the event space’s fence.
I have been so eager for The Hog Days of Summer that I thought it was two weeks ago. Two weeks ago when I texted Tyson Ho the hog cooking Chinese-American Yankee who put on the event along with John Brown Smokehouse he responded, “Next Friday . . . very close my dear friend. Soon we shall be awash in HOOOOOOOOOG!” For about a month I have been like a child waiting for Christmas. A tiny, carnivorous child. At last the appointed day came and I showed up the night before to help out a bit. The first thing I noticed was Tyson’s gigantic rig emblazoned with his nom de cue Arrogant Swine.
While the sun was still up the wood, a mixture of oak logs and other woods was delivered. And then came the hogs, two 200-plus pound Gloucester hogs, which each took three men to carry. Tyson instructed his apprentice, James in the finer points of whole hog butchery, teaching him how to expose the shoulder meat so that it gets a nice burnished crust while cooking. With their heads removed and the breast bone cut through so they would lie flat, they were ready for the cooker.
Tyson Ho and his mentor, Ed Mitchell having a hearty country breakfast.
Today is the day that separates the hogs from the sucklings I thought to myself as Tyson, Matt, Mike and I hopped into the pickup for day two of our whirlwind North Carolina barbeque tour. “Some of the places we are going today will make yesterday’s places look like four-star dining,” Tyson said as we began our journey into the sticks.
Our first stop was Wilson, N.C., “the beginning of the sticks,” for breakfast with Ed Mitchell, Tyson’s barbeque mentor. I was kind of disappointed that we were meeting him at a Cracker Barrel, as I’m more of a Waffle House man. Actually I was hoping that breakfast would be at Ed’s new joint, slated to open later this summer. Meeting the maestro of whole hog was kind of surreal, I’d never seen him without overalls or a baseball cap.
At first I wasn’t going to eat anything as I wanted to reserve all my stomach capacity for barbeque. As I heard everyone placing their orders that plan soon fell by the wayside. I had a light breakfast, biscuits and gravy with a sausage patty. A couple of weeks ago when Tyson—a self-professed Chinese Yankee hog cooker—told me barbeque had its roots in North Carolina whole hog cookery I took it with a grain of salt. Now as I broke biscuits with his mentor, I began to realize that this stuff about barbeque being born not from trying to make the best out of tough cuts but from the celebratory roasting of a whole hog was true.
“That’s where barbeque comes from, the pig,” Mitchell said in between phone calls about his new restaurant, each of which seemed to involve fried chicken. “People didn’t slaughter the pig just to cook a shoulder they did it to roast the whole animal. The full technique comes from being able to roast the whole animal. Cooking a rib or a shoulder is nowhere near the challenge of cooking a whole animal.” Pointing to his hands he said, “The only thermometer I have is these right here, but that comes from years of experience.” (more…)
Hursey’s was the first stop on our whirlwind North Carolina barbeque tour.
My notebook and several articles of clothing still smell of hardwood smoke. I blame it on my buddy Tyson Ho. Last week we took a barbeque road trip to hit up a bunch of whole hog joints in North Carolina. Tyson, the man behind the Hog Days of Summer, never misses a chance to evangelize about Carolina barbeque, but the real reason for the pilgrimage was to pick up a cooker to replace the one stolen from in front of John Brown Smokehouse last month. Very few things cause me to leave the house before dawn. One is the Malaysian soup service at Curry Leaves in Flushing. The other is barbeque. So last Thursday morning found me standing on the corner at 4:15 a.m. waiting for Tyson to pick me up to begin the journey southward. Joining us were Tyson’s buddy, Matt Gelfand and Michael Rudin, a photographer and fellow barbeque enthusiast.
On the 10-hour drive down—thanks and praise to expert wheelman Matt—I learned quite a bit about whole hog barbeque. The most important fact being: in North Carolina the phrase “whole hog barbeque” is redundant. “A lot of people will say, ‘I went to North Carolina and asked the waitress what was on the barbeque plate’ and she looked at me funny,” Tyson, who I’ve come to consider as something of a Chinese John T. Edge, said. “That’s because there’s only one thing on it: barbeque. And barbeque is whole hog.”
Pointing to the cookhouse at Hursey’s.
“We are at the six-hour mark don’t eat too much at the first stop,” Tyson said. By the time we pulled into Burlington, N.C., I was delirious from hunger and lack of sleep. So much so that I was ready to try the buffalo chicken pita that some god-forsaken place called The Park touted on its roadside sign. “For me to eat it has to be cooked with wood,” Tyson said pointing to a stack of hickory outside the cookhouse at Hursey’s Bar-B-Q (1834 S. Church St, Burlington, N.C.).
The counter at Hursey’s is country as all getout.
Hursey’s is a local institution that started out with a homemade backyard pit in 1945. Four years later Sylvester Hursey and his wife, Daisy were granted the state’s first ever barbecue wholesale license. These days the entire operation smokes 1,200 shoulders a week over hickory coals.
A plate of Hursey’s hickory-smoked whole hog.
It’s a good thing that we were warned not to pig out too much at the first stop. By the time we were done ordering the table was covered with plates: chopped barbeque, sliced barbeque, broasted chicken, hush puppies, and a rack of ribs, along with cole slaw, banana pudding, and cobbler. The barbeque itself had a nice tangy flavor with a good bit of smoke, but was quite honestly nothing to write home about.The culprit? Prechopping and presaucing the gives the meat a texture not unlike tuna salad. I’m gonna go out on a hickory limb here and say that Sylvester and Daisy would not approve. Frankly I’ve had better whole hog in Tyson’s back yard. The ribs—and remember in N.C. ribs ain’t cue—were of the steamed saucy variety shunned by barbeque geeks like myself. I literally took one bite and left the rest.
Tyson Ho is the type of guy who invites his pals over to hang out in his front yard for a pig picking. Not such an unusual occurence in the South, but you can be damn sure he’s the only Yankee in Flushing cooking whole hog in his driveway. When it comes to Carolina barbecue, the man is no slouch. He learned the art of cooking the entire animal slowly over hardwood embers and then chopping it up, including the crispy skin so that every bite contains a little bit of the entire pig, at the hands of the master, Ed Mitchell. He’s got big plans for New York City including the Hog Days of Summer. He and I are taking a short trip to North Carolina later this week to pick up his new hog cooker. Before we hit the road he was kind enough to answer Seven Questions
What made you get into Carolina whole hog barbecue? Why not brisket? I actually expected to hate Carolina whole hog the first time I tried it in the middle-of-nowhere town of Ayden. Seriously who wants to eat pork drenched in vinegar? The first bite was a message from God, by the last bite my mandate was set. I have seen the path of righteousness, now it’s just matter of converting everyone else.
Back when I got into barbecue, no one [in New York] was really doing brisket and all the restaurants serving brisket sucked. I also tried my hand cooking brisket and it came out horrible. Thus I concluded that brisket intrinsically sucked for barbecue. Obviously I’ve been proven wrong, but by the time Hill Country, Bowen, Mangum, and Delaney came to town I was already too deep in this whole hog thing to hop on the trend. (more…)
It’s hard to believe that Josh Bowen, the owner of John Brown Smokehouse, once told me he wasn’t really into Kansas’ most famous abolitionist. These days his restaurant has a whole wall devoted to its namesake. And on Sunday Bowen hosted the first ever John Brown Day along with JOHN BROWN LIVES!
The celebration featured a talk by John Stauffer, a Harvard Professor, and Zoe Trodd, a professor at the University of Nottingham. Bowen was also presented with a proclamation by Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer. Later in the evening there was some swing from George Gee and some kick-ass blues from R.L. Boyce. The most important part of the proceeding as far as I was concerned though was the Carolina style, whole hog barbecue prepared by Tyson Ho aka The Arrogant Swine.
Barbecuing a whole hog requires a whole lot of time and, of course, a barbecue itself with which to smoke the hog. This presented a bit of a setback for the Ho and his crew since some miscreant stole his hog cooker from in front of John Brown the night before he was to start cooking. Thankfully Matt Fisher, the pitmaster of Fletcher’s Brooklyn Barbecue came through and lent a hog cooker to the cause. As they say the sow must go on. (more…)