Nothing draws a crowd quite like a whole pig smoked to perfection over smoldering logs in the backyard.
It's a warm afternoon, and I’m standing on the sidewalk outside my Brooklyn home staring through the iron gate at an astonishing scene: 75-plus friends, neighbors, friends of friends and total strangers, plus assorted children and dogs, are crammed into every inch of my modest gravel-and-cement garden. In fact, they are exploding out of the yard, up into the four-story co-op building and onto the street, plastic cups of rosé, lemonade or beer in their hands. Above them wafts an aroma that reminds me with sudden clarity of what has brought this crew together: the wood-scented promise of a whole smoked pig.
At least once a summer for the past seven years, I’ve been cooking pigs on my flimsy $200 Char-Griller with a smoker box attachment, and inviting friends to partake. And while the pigs have always been tasty, this frenzy seems, well, a little much.
Or is it justified? Pigs are pretty darned good at getting people together. In the South, a pig pickin’ is a community affair—you need a lot of hands to break down 100 pounds of barbecued pork. In Mexico, families take turns stirring cauldrons of whole-hog carnitas. And I remember one late night in Rome, when I stumbled on a van serving slabs of crackle-skinned, herb-stuffed porchetta to a throng of revelers, whom I joined without hesitation. Cook a pig and, no matter where in the world you are, it’s a party.
To be fair, I’ve learned a thing or two about whole-hog preparation over the years, in my travels and in my backyard. It’s a labor of love that takes days of setup and hours of tending over smoldering logs. My hogs come from family farms in New Jersey, and while they’d be fantastic rubbed with just salt and brown sugar, I make a mix of pig-friendly flavors I’ve encountered on the road: numbing, citrusy Sichuan peppercorns; cherry-sweet, smoky isot chiles from Turkey; astonishingly vibrant black peppercorns from Vietnam. The rest I’ve learned through trial and error. When the ears and tail kept overcooking, I wrapped them in foil. And I recently adopted a Cantonese technique of pinpricking the pig all over, which lets the fat bubble through and crisp the skin.
But a 40-pound pig is about all I can manage, so I ask guests to supply sides. They bring their A games, from heirloom tomato salads to white peach galettes. Last year, one guy made a chicken liver pâté topped with home-cured salmon roe that disappeared so fast, I only saw it on Instagram.
Friends arrive with not only sides but also an equally impressive array of acquaintances—and marvelous things happen. A childhood pal chats up an expert on Bhutan. A ramen blogger realizes he and my colleague once shared a bus ride through China’s Gansu province. Actual beer-brewing Italian monks wander about in brown robes. A designer meets a filmmaker, and after a few years of flirting in my backyard, they marry and move in two doors down (obviously to guarantee an invite to future barbecues). Is this genuine bonhomie the reason pigs always look like they’re smiling?
At times, the whirl of food and friends is too much, so I step outside the gate and gawk at the scene I have somehow set in motion. Does this kind of thing happen over burgers and dogs? It must, I guess, but the pig has a particular, primordial power. Cooking an entire animal is a ritual as old as humanity itself, one that forges new friendships and conjures community among those who have shown up to celebrate summer with lard-slicked fingertips. Try doing that with a burger.