Text and photos by Ray Linville
What’s the best way to develop a spirit of unity in a small town or city? In Newport, a town of 4,500 residents in Carteret County, an old-fashioned pig cookin’ is the best way to bring the community together by creating a lively competition to determine who can cook the best barbecue.
Chartered as long ago as 1866, Newport has undoubtedly been the scene of quite a few pig cookin’s. True to eastern North Carolina traditions, pigs in Newport are cooked “whole hog”—shoulders, butts, or ribs alone are considered incomplete and inadequate, regardless of what barbecue aficionados in other parts of the state proclaim (particularly in that western half).
So strong is the pig cookin’ tradition in Newport that it is the home of the longest-running and largest whole hog cookoff in North Carolina. It also hosts the inaugural event in the Whole Hog Barbecue Series, which celebrates the history and artistry of whole hog cooking. These cookoffs, attended by 130,000 people and sponsored by the N.C. Pork Council, are very popular. After the cooked hogs are judged, the meat is chopped and sold in plates and sandwiches, often to support local charities who receive more than $100,000 each year from these events.
For 38 years, the Newport Pig Cookin’ has been the contest where experienced and amateur cooks compete for prize money as well as braggin’ rights. The top finishers advance to compete in the ultimate cookoff later in the year, which the Pork Council conducts with winners of its other regional events to determine the Whole Hog Barbecue Champion for the state.
Among the competitors this year was Smokey Colwell, who has been a participant for all 38 years that the cookin’ contest has been held in Newport. Colwell told me that he got involved in pig cookin’ after he came back from Vietnam when he was a Marine sergeant. His friends in the Fleet Marine Reserves told him, “You’re going to cook a whole hog on Saturday.” And he did— and has been for another 37 years.
Today, teams use cooking thermometers to know when the pig is cooking at the right temperature. In his first experience, Colwell said that he had to use his hands. “If you could keep your hand on a pig for more than five seconds, it was too cold. If you couldn’t keep you hand on it for at least five seconds, it was too hot,” he said. Otherwise, the temperature was right.
Colwell cooks with wood and charcoal and is one of the few cooks that still cooks in the traditional manner (most cook with propane gas). His team is up all night to make sure that the temperature is right (preferred to be around 180 degrees). Colwell views with disdain teams that cook with gas. “It’s too easy,” he said.
To be sanctioned in the Whole Hog Barbecue Series, an event must include at least 10 cooks. The Newport Pig Cookin’ Contest is not only the granddaddy of the series, it has the largest number of competitors. For the 2016 cookoff, 77 cooks and their teams participated. In some years, the number has exceeded 100. As long as Colwell keeps participating, new cooks will have a great role model to keep the N.C. cookin’ traditions alive.
Newport Pig Cookin’ Contest
Whole Hog Barbecue Series