The cooking highlight of the year at stately IPB Manor is PorkFest, our annual celebration of all things pork. This tradition started three years ago when I made pulled pork (smoked in my regular old Weber grill, mind you) and mentioned it to Carrie (Official Real-Life Friend of IPB [TM]), who was aghast that she and her husband Jonathan were not invited to partake of it. Jonathan should be, if he’s not already, a legend in the pork industry for his tremendous fondness for all things pig meat. Because I enjoyed making the pork so much, I was more than happy to re-create the dish in “having actual people over to the house to eat the things I’ve made” form, and PorkFest was born. This year’s invite list included Carrie, Jonathan and their daughter Molly, Sarah and Paul and their son Clark, and Eugenie and Jarrett (of U.S. Open fame), and everyone was asked to bring a dish.
So my big PorkFest secret is that pulled pork is almost stupidly easy to make. Last year it was even stupider, because I made a vinegar mop to go with it that involved no cooking, but I prefer a tomato-based barbeque sauce, so I returned to the original PorkFest recipe (from Cook’s Illustrated’s barbeque book) this time around. That at least involved several hours of simmering.
As far as the ostensible centerpiece of the whole affair, though, the key is to buy a nice hunk of meat. In this case I started out with a ridiculously large Boston butt (it was nine pounds, and Whole Foods very nearly sent Boomer home from her meat-fetching errand with twice that much — I’m so oblivious, though, I’d probably have just gone ahead with the 18-pounder, wondering why it’s taking so long to cook), rubbed it good early on Saturday morning with a blend of paprika, chili powder, brown sugar, cracked black pepper, oregano and whatnot, then let it refrigerate while thinking about itself for about 15 hours.
Around midnight I fired up the Bradley smoker, tossed the butt in, and went to bed. (Doesn’t that sound easy and cavalier? Because I’m a terrible worrier, it totally wasn’t either of those things. I barely slept at all, for the way I was fretting about wild animals tearing into the smoker during the night [I worked myself all the way up the food chain to bears; if I’d gone to bed any early I probably could have tossed-and-turned myself to freaking out that killer whales were going to come into our yard to go after the butt], and then the smoke smell made me dream, once I finally fell asleep, that our house was burning down.) While I am fully capable of smoking a huge piece of meat in my normal grill (and have done so. Twice), I hope to never have to do so again, now that I’ve experienced the joys of this electric smoker device. Twelve hours after putting the butt in there, I retrieved from its blackened interior a gorgeous, melt-in-your mouth hunk of smoked pork.
A few minutes spent shredding the pork by hand yielded a mountain of sandwich-ready meat, begging to be topped with the zingy, spicy homemade barbeque sauce!
The rest of the menu was rounded out with pork and bacon kebabs (The key to making them is, in my opinion, building the hottest fire in the history of grilling, which will then belch flames as the bacon drips grease onto the coals. At those astronomical temperatures, with charring flames licking up around them, the kebabs will be cooked in about 15 seconds. Good stuff.), potato salad (with a cider vinegar and mustard dressing, and crumbled bacon — of course), and heirloom tomato salad (recipe courtesy of andrew; when Pookie tried the salad she declared, “andrew’s my hero”). Pookie made several gallons of lemonade, and after some hard tidying of the yard by Boomer, we were ready for our guests!
Our friends, awesomely, are some serious foodies — when there is a potluck in this group of people, that means some crazy-good food is going to be produced. And PorkFest ’07 was no exception. Carrie and Jonathan faced perhaps the biggest challenge, thanks to Molly’s recently-discovered food allergies. They brought allergen-free corn muffins, and while no one could argue that they looked awful (thanks to a lack of dairy, there was no real binding agent, so the muffins were terribly crumbly), they were surprisingly moist (almost like a cake rather than cornbread) and utterly scrumptious. For dessert they brought chocolate cupcakes that were also delicious, and an especially big hit with Clark, who demonstrated admirable toddler cupcake-eating protocol (the two-hand grab, the chocolate frosting all over the face, the refusal to eat anything but a cupcake).
Sarah brought a staggeringly delicious apple poppy-seed slaw (which was good enough that Carrie didn’t seem too broken up over having accidentally consumed some allergen-filled mayonnaise), and a ginger-peach cobbler that was every bit as good as it looked (especially topped with ginger chantilly cream).
Eugenie provided some profoundly tasty oatmeal raisin cookies (we were well dessert-ed, indeed!), and Jarrett brought the real show-stopper: homemade bacon. He had taunted us with some ultra-close-up pictures of it earlier in the week, but coyly refused to tell us ahead of time what he was bringing. The surprise reveal was well worth the secrecy, as Pookie and I were truly humbled. He explained the process, which involved stumbling across some uncured pork belly at the grocery store (Pookie: “Did it look like a giant meat Fruit Roll-Up?” Eugenie: “It was more like a meat danish.” Jarrett: “Definitely a meat danish. It was like a meat cinnamon bun.” Pookie: “Like Meatabon!” Jarrett, eyes lighting up: “I think there’s a market for that…”), rubbed it was a tantalizing blend of curing materials, let it cure in the fridge for three days, then baked it at low, low heat for 8 hours. The end result was… interesting. It had a marvelous flavor, but a bit of a gelatinous texture; the sheer wow factor of “You made your own what?”, though, makes up for any of its shortcomings. Furthermore, the gauntlet has been thrown — it’s going to take something really special to top that next time we get together!