Investigating a bluegrass country tradition
In the heartland of America there’s a world of people devoted to preserving the southern tradition of whole hog barbecue. Along with their Tennessee-style barbecued pork, these pitmasters are a dying breed.
Whole hog is exactly what it sounds like. It involves slowly cooking an entire hog at the low temperature of about 175-220 degrees Fahrenheit. Whether cooked in an old-fashioned barbecue pit or in a modern smoker, the process takes about 24 hours.
In the nondescript town of Nolensville, Tennessee, just outside of Nashville, Patrick Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint greets drivers on the main drag. Pitmaster Martin and his crew do more than serve up incredibly delicious barbecued pork, though. Martin sees his work as part career, part mission to preserve the art of whole hog.
Martin picked up the craft of Tennessee-style whole hog barbecue when he was at college in the northwestern part of the state, in tiny town of Jack’s Creek. There, he learned to slow-cook an entire hog, in a pit of cinder blocks over coals.
The restaurant where he learned his craft, Siler’s Old Time BBQ, is still run by Chris Siler and his wife.
At Siler’s, just as at Martin’s establishment, the food takes so long to cook that they abide by the policy of cooking and then selling until the food runs out. Any customers who show up too late are simply out of luck. That’s a throwback, in a world where customers are used to getting what they want, when they want it. With whole hog barbecue, there are no shortcuts or substitutions. It reminded me of a time when the world was a slower place.
Martin and Siler are among a disappearing handful of expert whole hog pitmasters. Even in Jack’s Creek, rising operation costs have made it hard to get an entire hog from farmers.
I located Siler’s by following Martin’s handwritten directions. It was a nearly six-hour round trip drive through rolling Tennessee bluegrass and beautiful hills.
I reached the restaurant just as the last parts of the hog were being sold to discerning customers. Siler explained to me that folks in that part of Tennessee are so particular about barbecue that they order according to the part of the hog they want.
Siler and Martin’s restaurants are as Americana as it comes, and not because it’s trendy. They are simply people who keep to tradition.
For Martin, who has succeeded in expanding into various commercial ventures based on his success as a pitmaster, it goes beyond that. He wants to preserve what he calls the “dying art of whole hog barbecue.”
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