Twenty years of marriage has taught my wife not to expect a lot out of me when it comes to event planning. At our wedding, my only jobs were to show up and get the beer. I’m often trusted with preparing the meat too. I’m a pretty simple guy.
Months before my oldest son was scheduled to graduate high school, the party stress had already begun. School has never been his favorite thing, so the fact that he was on track to graduate was exciting, and Mama Bear was already starting to worry about hosting his graduation party. Like any good husband, I stepped in to see what I could do to help.
“Can you handle the meat?” she asked. Yes! That was exactly what I’d hoped she’d say. This was a perfect excuse to host the pig roast I’d always dreamed of.
Planning a Pig Roast
My buddy Brian is famous in these parts for being the best pig roaster around. He prefers to pit roast. I contacted Brian soon after I had my marching orders and asked if he’d help me prepare a hog for my son’s party. He gladly accepted the challenge.
In addition to the pig, which I was already raising, Brian told me to get 80 pounds of regular lump charcoal, three large rolls of aluminum foil, and a roll of chicken wire. He had everything else we’d need.
With the party set for a Saturday at 3 p.m., I planned to slaughter the pig Friday evening and get everything prepared that night. After removing the pig’s head and entrails and skinning it, I had one fat hog carcass. I’d fed the hog food scraps from the cafeteria at the school where I teach, and my suspicions were correct: I’d overfed this animal. I’ve never seen so much fat on a pig!
A Season for Everything
I wrapped the trimmed pig in a couple of garbage bags and drove over to Brian’s house late Friday afternoon. Brian and I had spread the word, and a couple of buddies came over to “help.”
The first trick to in-ground hog roasting is to trim almost all the fat off the animal. Brian said all that extra fat would slow down our cook time too much. This animal had 2-to-3-inch layers of fat in some places. We trimmed it off, but it didn’t get wasted. I set aside the cleanest and thickest pieces of fat to freeze for future sausage making.
After we trimmed the hog carcass, we cut a crisscross pattern into the meat — a giant grid pattern of cuts all over the entire animal, front to back and top to bottom.
Brian made all of us close our eyes as he mixed up his secret dry rub recipe in a giant bowl. (He added garlic powder, onion powder, seasoning salt, and cracked pepper, but that’s all I know, and that’s fine by me. The guy is a master at what he does, and I want to respect his secret.) Once the rub seasoning was mixed, we all grabbed handfuls of it and rubbed it all over the pig, working it into as many of the cuts as possible.
Next, it was time to wrap up the pig. I was impressed with the homemade hook and rebar system Brian rigged up. We hooked some rebar through the hog’s rear legs, Brian pulled up his skid-steer loader, and he lifted the hog above our heads. Then we picked up the rolls of aluminum foil and spun the hog around, wrapping it up like a really tight cocoon. Up, down, back, forth, zigzag, the whole nine yards. Afterwards, we could’ve sprayed it with a fire hose and it would’ve stayed dry. We then laid out the chicken wire on a nearby table and transferred the hog over to it. Brian neatly wrapped the hog in a layer of wire, being sure not to puncture the foil. He secured the wire tightly to itself by weaving loose ends in and twisting them tight. We then carried the wrapped hog into Brian’s walk-in cooler for the night.
Prep the Pit
Brian estimated the pig at about 150 pounds hanging weight, after we’d removed most of the fat. He figured it’d need eight hours of cook time, plus an hour to rest before serving. That meant we had to move the hog into the pit by 6 a.m. on Saturday so we could pull it off the fire at 2 p.m. and serve it at 3 p.m.
The morning of the party, an entirely new group of friends showed up with coffee, donuts, and the ceremonial first beer to get things started. Brian maintains a pit at his farm year-round. The pit isn’t fancy — it’s 3 to 4 feet deep and just a bit larger than the hog. We lined the bottom edge of the pit with softball-sized rocks for thermal mass to help regulate and maintain the cooking temperature.
Early Saturday morning, we pulled the hog out of the cooler to let it warm up. We assembled a handful of empty 5-gallon buckets and a few gallons of gas, and began to prepare the coals. We filled each bucket with charcoal and dumped gas into one bucket. After a couple of minutes, we transferred the gas to the next bucket and dropped the saturated coals from the first bucket into the bottom of the pit. After all the coals had had a gas bath and been placed in the pit, we raked them flat and even.
Everyone stood back as Brian lit a match and tossed it in. The audible “WHOOSH” was a neat effect, and the heat and flames that followed were impressive as well. We let the coals burn down for about 45 minutes, until they were chalky gray, as we would’ve if we’d been planning to grill hot dogs or burgers.
Execution and Patience
When the coals were ready, we used bent rebar hooked through the chicken wire (but not the foil) at each end of the hog to lower it down into the pit. Then, Brian propped two 5-foot-long steel pipes at each end of the pit. I learned that the pipes would create an air intake and exhaust, keeping the coals burning all day. We then covered the pit with two pieces of steel sheet, notched to fit perfectly against the pipes. Then, we shoveled a thin layer of dirt over the plates, just enough to keep the smoke in. Wherever thin wisps of smoke escaped the steel roof, we’d add a few more shovelfuls of dirt.
Brian assured me he’d keep an eye on things, so I had nothing to do but wait. Throughout the day, whenever I got bored or needed to take a break from party preparations, I drove over to Brian’s house. Every time I showed up, I saw the same innocent-looking setup: a flat slab of dirt with two pipes, and smoke coming out one end. But the smell! The smell was fantastic. I couldn’t wait to try this hog.
When 2 p.m. rolled around, we gathered at Brian’s house. With my pickup truck backed right up to the pit, we quickly scraped the dirt off the steel and, wearing insulated gloves, we removed the panels and pipes. With a couple of guys on each end, we reached down, hooked the bent rebar through the chicken wire, and lifted the hog onto the tailgate of the truck. It smelled absolutely incredible. When Brian got a good whiff of it, he smiled and said, “Yep. She’s done.” We covered the hog in a packing blanket and drove back to my house.
Our mouths were watering by 3 p.m., after we’d waited an hour for the meat to rest. We cut the chicken wire off the top of the hog and gently peeled back a corner of foil. A beautiful orangey liquid, saturated with seasoning, slowly dripped out onto the tailgate. The smell that escaped was simply breathtaking. Brian continued to smile as we unwrapped more of the hog, allowing each of us to grab a piece to try.
I consider myself a pig roast expert. Although I’ve never met a roasted pig I didn’t like, this hog — one I’d raised from a piglet especially for my son’s graduation party — was absolutely fantastic. By sealing the animal in foil, we retained all the juices and heat, allowing it to cook quickly and remain moist. And the in-ground method is also inexpensive.
We ended up hosting about 300 people at the party. I don’t know if they were all invited, or if they crashed the party because they could smell the hog from miles away. Regardless, we ran out of pork.
A year later, people are still raving about that roast pig. I’ve since learned that many cultures traditionally cook meat in the ground. The method isn’t unique to hogs, and it isn’t unique to us Midwest hillbillies. I keep explaining that it really wasn’t that difficult, and I try to give my friend Brian all the credit he deserves for being the roasting mastermind. Although I’m sure I’ll never be able to duplicate Brian’s secret recipe for dry rub, I’m going to continue to try. Being blessed with a houseful of kids, I’ll have plenty more excuses for a pig roast — graduations, weddings, birthdays, anniversaries. Life is good!
Jason Herbert is a teacher, farmer, homebrewer, and self-described “pig roast nerd.” He lives in southern Michigan with his family.