by David Cecelski
Yesterday my daughter and I kept her godfather company while he cooked a pig. We found Tim in a field by the railroad tracks. Bathed in sweat and smoke, he was shoveling fresh coals into a heavy cast-iron cooker. The air smelled of hickory wood burning, pig cooking, vinegar and red pepper. We embraced and then he lifted the cooker’s lid and showed us the pig, which was a pretty golden brown, and he said that he was glad to see us. It was three-thirty in the afternoon. The temperature was well over 90 and Tim had already been cooking the pig for six hours.
Tim cooks pig the old-fashioned way. He fixes only whole-hog barbecue. He cooks with hardwood, never gas. And like the old pit masters, he doesn’t hurry. He understands that making great pig takes time. It’s a way of cooking pig perfected, if not born, long generations ago around tobacco curing barns across eastern North Carolina.
My daughter found a shady spot to read a book, while Tim basted the pig with his homemade rendition of eastern North Carolina’s classic cayenne pepper and vinegar sauce. His recipe was inspired, he humbly acknowledged, by the ‘cue sauce concocted by Adam Scott, the African-American proprietor of a legendary barbecue joint inGoldsboro.
While the pig finished cooking, we sat in rocking chairs and drank lemonade and talked under a maple tree. Tim kept a close eye on the pig, obsessing over the smallest details, always making adjustments. He ladled on a little more sauce, shoveled on a few more fresh coals, fiddled a bit with the vents. He treats a pig reverentially, taking care to make sure that every step is done right. The boy is an artist with a pig cooker.
Around five o’clock, he took the first side of the pig off the fire. After he tossed one of the pig’s feet to my dog, we got out heavy knives and cut off the fat and chopped the meat until our arms were sore. Sweat was rolling down Tim’s face and forearms, but he was taking no short cuts.
Once the meat was chopped, he doused it with a little extra sauce. By six o’clock, he was carrying trays of barbecue over to a buffet line that had been set up under a tent.
There must have been 150 people there, maybe more. While they ate their barbecue on tables covered with white tablecloths, Tim stayed in his rocking chair, maybe a hundred feet away. He had the serene look of a man that had given his all and done a job right. After ten hours of cooking in the hot sun, he was also worn out, too tired to eat a plate of ‘cue even.
Across the way, I could hear exhalations of delight, little cries of bliss. The guests were taking their first bites of his pig. Tim closed his eyes and sighed contently as just a hint of a breeze finally reached us. It did my heart good to see him looking so peaceful. We’d be cleaning up until nine that night, but for a few minutes everything seemed just right.