Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Pigs, And What They're Good For

There's something about the smell of a whole pig cooking over carefully banked coals that's just right to me.  It started for me when I was a wee tot, growing up in Atlanta.  We lived then in a nice, middle-class neighborhood in the northeast of Atlanta.  The houses were built in the 1920s and 30s, there were oaks and dogwoods and all the trimmings of that existence.  A group of families started having a pig roast every September, on Labor Day weekend, and inviting everyone to come.  My father was a part of that, and he and the other men would set up camp in a local park on Saturday morning, where they had a permit to dig a pit and cook the pig.  They'd set up a couple of awnings and haul in coolers full of Pabst Blue Ribbon, unfold their lawn chairs and dig a pit, lining it with cinderblocks.  The fire was started with the proper ceremonies -  wood would be stacked in, doused with lighter fluid and a lit match would be thrown in, causing a mushroom-shaped fireball to jet up towards the tops of the poplars around the roasting site.  Shortly thereafter, someone would show up with a huge (to me) dead pig in the back of his car, which would be carefully set on a steel pipe/fencewire rack, and once the fire had died down and the coals were spread out evenly, it'd be manhandled on to the pit.

The children of the neighborhood were segregated by age - those under 5 didn't come at all, 5-10 could stay until nightfall (when their mothers took them home), but the kids 10 and up - oh, what a treat!  We were allowed to stay up all night long!  As a rule, most kids didn't manage that - sometime around 1 or 2 in the morning, their fathers would find them curled up in their sleeping bags, sound asleep and worn out from the excitement.  Some of us, though, made it through the night.  By the time I was 11, my older brother and his friends had figured out that after 10PM or so, the dads stopped paying close attention to the beer coolers.  This led to some experimentation, never to dangerous excess, but I look back and cringe at the thought of something like that happening today.  The past is truly a foreign country, as L. P. Hartley wrote.  My brother Scott and his friend Beau were like Gods to me - Scott 1 year (FIFTEEN MONTHS, he used to insist, to put more space between us) older and Beau a year older than Scott.  As much as Scott and I fought (and like most brothers, we fought a lot), I wanted more than anything to have his ability to be casual and easy talking to girls.  He'd even kissed girls, lots of them!  Beau was... well, he was the kid in our neighborhood that, if you'd come up with a dare so dangerous, so wild and ridiculous that no sane person would contemplate it, because even admitting you'd considered it would get you a swift spanking, if you had a stunt to try that made your knees buckle thinking about, you'd ask Beau.  Ride a skateboard down Dead Man's Hill?  Beau did it first.  Take a 10-speed bike over a five-foot tall ramp?  Beau did it, and survived without a scratch.  Beau was (and still is) funny as hell - he could reduce me and the other kids in our circle into helpless, pants-wetting laughter with a word.  When Beau and Scott teamed up, you never knew what was going to happen, but you knew in your bones it would be dangerous, thrilling, terrifying and, occasionally, bloody.  They introduced me to beer, and tried to make sure that I didn't do anything too stupid (apart, of course, from drink the warm beer they provided).

The taste of stolen beer, the feel of the can in my hand, the sounds of the neighborhood men talking and telling dirty jokes drifting across the park towards us, the sight of the tennis courts in the moonlight - these and more come flooding back to me when I smell a pig cooking.  It's the scent of my youth.

By dawn, the men were either sitting and silently watching the coals, or snoring gently in their chairs.  As the sunlight washed over the park, we kids scurried to hide our empties and clustered around the firepit to warm up.  Someone would put an enamel coffeepot on the fire, and under an awning, my father would get eggs and bacon going on the camp stove.  We spent the day wound up and strung out from lack of sleep, but unwilling to show weakness in front of the younger kids, who listened with awe as we told them about drinking beer, and repeated the jokes we'd overheard and only half understood.

Around noon, the pig would be done, and it was pulled off the fire and chopped.  If your hands were fast, you could grab a hard, crispy chuck of pigskin to chew on, dripping with fat.  BBQ sauce was produced, and other neighborhood residents showed up to set up tables and put out side dishes - potato salad, loaves of white bread, beans, and always at least one pasta salad.  When it was all ready, folks lined up and paid their money.  My father (a preacher, though running a contracting company at the time) would say a short prayer and it was time to dig in - paper plates were piled high with pork and sides, people sat at picnic tables, or stood around balancing soggy plates in their hands.

I'm a little older now than my father was then.  I live in a nice neighborhood in Austin, but it's not as close-knit as we were in Morningside.  We moved out of Atlanta in 1982, and I spent high school living on a farm.  The pig roast moved out of town with us, and became a part of our Easter celebration (about which more at a later date).  A pig roasting is, for me, a trip back to that foreign country that was my youth.  It's a glance back at what was, and a reminder of how things are different now - some for the better, some not.

"The only constant is change." - Heraclitus


  1. Lovely reminiscence. Makes me all nostalgic because you (and Hartley) are right about the past.

  2. Odd, I'd intended to put more actual cooky bits in there.

  3. I think kids should be taught about smoking at a young age. Start with pig butt.