If It’s Worth Doing, It’s Worth Overdoing, or It Takes a Village to Roast a Pig (and a Lamb)

[First, a rollicking tale of bravado cookery, then somewhat tedious enumeration of cooking times, weights and other logistics, to prop up my terrible memory, just in case we do this again.]

Who knew roasting a whole pig–plus a whole lamb, just for the heck of it–could be so easy? Well, aside from the creeping anxiety of spectacular failure beforehand, and the running around collecting weird bits of metal, and the blinding, acrid mesquite smoke the night of…it was pretty easy.

Perhaps foolishly, I did think it would be easy when Tamara first called to ask if she could delegate the pig-roasting duties for her second-annual overkill New Year’s Eve party, this time bearing a luau theme. Although Astoria has its suburban charms, Tamara doesn’t have a yard where you can dig a pit and pile in a pig, so we would have to rig up something. Surely we could find some instructions on the Internet, I suggested. Tamara is the quintessential hostess, and I can’t think of a better person to have as a patron of such a dodgy, expensive enterprise. “Don’t worry–if it doesn’t work, there’s always booze,” she airily assured me.

Peter, naturally, was immediately deputized. When I notified him that he’d been tapped for large-animal-roasting duty, he said, “No problem. But if we’re going to all this trouble, we should roast a lamb too. My people have always roasted lambs.” Peter has some wicked strong Greek roots, which seemed irrelevant to a Hawaiian theme party, but as it happens, he does seem genetically predisposed to drinking retsina and cranking a spit for five hours.

The other thing, aside from Peter’s Greekness, that made him want to roast a lamb, was our proximity to the not-telling-the-whole-truth Astoria Live Poultry, just down the block from me. This fabulous storefront traffics not just in chickens, capons, geese, quail, turkeys, ducks, guinea hens, pigeon, and rabbits, but also, just lounging casually in a back room, cows, lambs, and goats. To rehash an old quip of mine: It’s like a petting zoo, but not. I’ve gotten all manner of poultry there before, and was just working my way up to rabbits (they weigh everything in front of you, squawking and squirming, so you have to really look them in the eye; and the bag of meat they give you is still warm, which is weirdly comforting). But Peter was all for jumping straight to the head of the class.

We put aside the meat details (Tamara was ordering the pig from the butcher who supplies the restaurant where she works, the fabulous Prune) and focused on engineering. Four days later, and plenty of URLs about smokin’ hawgs and trussing little lambies swapped, we really hadn’t decided anything or purchased any materials or even agreed on just how much meat we’d be dealing with. Over lunch, we could only mutter tersely at each other: “Let’s not talk about it.” “OK. Yeah, later.” We had only two days left.

But lo, on Tuesday, the day before Spit-Crankin’ Day, everything fell into place: Peter found a 50-gallon-drum at a scrap yard, as well as a hefty iron I-beam to support the barrel and keep it off the patio surface (which was also the roof of Tamara’s downstairs neighbors’ apartment–a small fire code infraction). We bought about a hundred pounds of mesquite at Home Despot, as charcoal was out of season (of course, later Peter noticed it in abundance at the butcher near his house–further proof that we need never leave our neighborhood). Our metalworking friend Joel made a spit and sawed the barrel in half. And Ali, world’s greatest chef and all-around generous guy, let us borrow his car to haul all the crap around.

Wednesday morning dawned late and too brightly. We’d all been at Ali’s place, the Kabab Cafe, too late, celebrating our triumphant requisition of supplies with buckets of wine (starting with a lovely Chateau Musar courtesy of Tamara, which made the later jug wine slide down easy). Peter asked if I’d nip down to the corner and order the lamb but I demurred–my eyes were too bleary to face a little lamb. But it’s a full-service establishment, with delivery, and took him seriously when he requested $120 worth of meat by phone, with no deposit.

Meanwhile, Tamara picked up the pig. As Peter had suspected (and I hadn’t), it had been boned, so it was like a big sausage with a head–I think it was about 25 or 30 pounds of pure meat. We had to do a mucky but fun maneuver of removing the too-short wooden stake the pig had been trussed on and ramming a longer one in–an operation that took three people and inspired Deb to comment, “This is kind of sexy, actually.”

The lamb required a little more attention. None of our Internet- and Ali-derived information on lamb trussing seemed particularly helpful, and we couldn’t get the spit to lodge tightly anywhere in the lamb so Peter just resorted to a lot of kitchen twine and plenty of special sliding boat knots. At one point I had to hold the lamb’s head down while Peter tied it in place–its small skull fit nicely in my hand, and there was a little tuft of fur still left on its forehead, which I couldn’t help rubbing a little. Ohhh, sooooo cute, as my mother would say.

Meanwhile, we’d also gotten our fire going in our spit setup: the I-beam was just long enough to support and stabilize both barrel halves, set next to each other (lucky–we’d been a little optimistic about fitting both animals in one barrel half). Cinder blocks were propped at the ends of each of the barrels, coincidentally just the right height for resting the spits on.

We hoisted the pig into place around 5:30, and the lamb went on a half-hour later. The pig had been stuffed by the butcher with assorted herbs and prosciutto. The lamb got garlic cloves stuck under its skin and doused in a mixture of citrus juice (mostly lemon, but also grapefruit and several other things Peter had at home) and at least a cup of ground spices–cinnamon, turmeric, pepper, paprika, cayenne, nutmeg, cumin, black pepper. Peter probably added lots more red chile.

Here we parted ways: Peter settled himself into a chair with a big bottle of retsina and a big bunch of dill for swabbing the marinade on periodically. He maintained that the lamb required constant turning, and he was probably right. And he was glad to do it, the picture of Greek village manliness in a long, blood-smeared apron and a big furry hat. As for the pig, Joel and Deb took turns cranking it, but after a while, when the mesquite smoke reached toxic levels and the fun wore off (it was only the manufactured Tom-Sawyer-getting-his-friends-to-whitewash-the-fence kind of fun anyway), I made an executive decision that it didn’t have to be turned constantly, as it was balanced better on its spit and didn’t flop the way the lamb did. I’m really surprised that the neighbors didn’t call the fire department–there was seldom any visible flame, but the smoke was incredibly sharp, thick and almost oily.

After about 4.5 hours, I made another executive decision: the pig was done. I was wrong–or partially. We just chopped it up bit by bit, putting the cooked pieces on a serving platter and chucking the others into a hotel pan to finish in the oven. What made it a little tricky was that the smoke had made a lot of the outer layer of meat turn pink and look (and feel) a little raw, which had to be explained to guests. Nobody really bought my declaration that “trichinosis is sooo over.” The skin had also gotten seriously charred, though we did end up with a few good chunks of crispy chicharron. The meat was delicious, though not mind-blowingly succulent–the fire had been too hot for that, I think, and too much moisture lost. Some guests objected to the display of the head along with the meat, so it was covered with a napkin and sunglasses. Deep apologies, pig–we really meant no disrespect.

About an hour later, the lamb was deemed done, or maybe Peter just got tired of cranking. Again, about half of the meat had be finished in the oven. But the meat was stupendously delicious–a little smoky, a little tangy, very moist, with no single spice predominating. The strongest endorsement came from Barbara, a surprise guest who really got into the primal fun of breaking down the meat (a business so messy that Tamara wailed, “There’s lamb in my bed!” the next day). With the carcass splayed out on a bench behind her, Barbara happily gnawed on a greasy rib bone and rolled her eyes: “I can’t believe I was a vegetarian for eight years!”

Pig: 30 lbs, boned, stuffed and trussed on a wooden spit (that we had to replace), $150; 4.5 hours cooking time. We turned the pig only every 20 minutes or so for the last three hours; also, the fire hadn’t always been evenly hot beneath it. So some parts of the pig were done–the thermometer read above 150, but other parts weren’t quite so. The texture was more that of a good roast done in a 300 degree oven, rather than anything close to proper pulled pork. Next time maybe we’ll try slow and low, with the other barrel half as a lid. Or that crafty caja china.

Lamb: 50 lbs live, at $2.40 per pound, $120 plus a tip for delivery. It came skinned and cleaned, with the liver and heart separate, its forelegs chopped off (not sure why—that made it harder to secure on the spit, I think); about 5.5 hours cooking time, but I can’t remember what temp we were shooting for. Actual meat yield was very low—making for a very high per-pound price for pure meat. Marinade was recommended by Ali, who specifically said NO OIL–which would cause nasty burning.

We had about 30 guests, I’m guessing, and probably half the meat left over. But we also had, from Tamara’s generous hand, a huge spread of pickled shrimp, blanched veggies, black-eyed pea salad, a croquembouche, a cheese board, radishes and butter, and even that good ol’ white trash onion soup dip. See what I mean about overkill New Year’s? Brava!

We used only about two and a half 18-lb bags of mesquite (no charcoal, just wood) for two separate fires–we grossly over-purchased, with five bags at $10 each. We’d also been warned by numerous sites not to get lighter fluid anywhere near the process, but Joel had gotten a little impatient with the fire and squirted some on when Peter’s back was turned. As it turned out, it didn’t seem to make a difference in flavor–I think because cooking time was relatively short and the meat wasn’t enclosed. The fire was a couple of wood-chunks deep, and we fed it steadily by adding new wood along the edges and pushing them in periodically.

50-gallon drum: $15
Random chunk of iron I-beam: $40? $50?
Cinder blocks and bricks: $10
Chicken wire and thin wire we didn’t end up using for trussing because it was galvanized: $8
Labor and generous advice (like about how galvanized metal has nasty, poisonous stuff on it) from savvy metalworkers Joel and Deb: Free
Plus, a shout-out to the enthusiastic random customer at Home Depot who overheard us talking and offered us his 80-gallon water heater that he was planning to scrap anyway. We balked at using something with fiberglass in it, but still–the kindness of strangers!

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