Ed Mitchell, barbecue pitmaster

Ed Mitchell is an old-school pitmaster. For him, barbecue is a verb, not a noun. “In my neck of the woods,” says the burly 65-year-old from Wilson, North Carolina, “the true sense of the word means digging a hole, filling it with hot wood cinders, placing a hog over that, and then being prepared for a long process. Everything else is grillin’.”

Americans worship barbecue with a religious fervour bordering on mass hysteria. Pitmasters are their high priests. The great ones typically grew up in the rural South where the tradition – and quite often the secret sauce recipe – was passed between generations on occasions which called for huge portions to feed the hungry faithful. “When I was coming up, we were always celebrating a newborn or a church outing or a reunion during holiday times,” explains Mitchell, who began learning his trade as a teenager. “Back then, women would cook the collard greens and cakes, while the men would pretend to tend the pit all night so they could drink without being scolded. But it was also a rite of passage for young boys who wanted to hang out with their grandad.”

Barbecue is not just an excuse to stand around the fire telling lies and swigging illegal corn liquor from a jug. It requires serious concentration and skill to smoke a pig that might have topped the scales at 135kg while still alive and snuffling. “The craft of cooking a whole hog comes down to understanding where to position the coals,” says Mitchell. “And depending on the animal, it means a slow-roasted process that takes anywhere from 12 to 20 hours.”

Traditionally, pigs rested on simple wire racks about 50cm above an open flame. A sheet of corrugated tin might serve to cover the pit and retain smoke. Modern commercial cookers like the one Mitchell now tows to competitions on a trailer have hinged lids and sliding steel trays or even rotisseries.

Mitchell generally fires up to 35kg of charcoal at one time, then arranges it with a shovel under the thickest portions, such as the hams and shoulders, which need the most intense heat to cook uniformly. However, not all of Mitchell’s tricks were learned from the menfolk in his family. His mother, who loves extra-smoky meat, taught him to brine the logs of oak or hickory in a vinegar-and-pepper bath. “She soaks her wood like you would season a piece of meat,” says Mitchell. “Throw a handful of wet woodchips that have been sitting in salt and cayenne on the hot coals and the flavour comes up.”

Connoisseurs are also adamant about the quality of the meat before it hits the heat. “I can do a good job with whatever breed,” Mitchell says, “but if I can select the right pig, it will blow your hair back.” He prefers heritage stock such as Tamworth, Duroc or Yorkshire for their flavour and marbling. “The meat is more succulent, not as dry or lean, and when there is more fat, it has a different aroma. The drippings fall down into the charcoal and send out that mmm-yum yummy smell.”

Once removed from the pit, barbecue of this calibre is served three ways in North Carolina. Meat from all portions of the hog are piled together and “chopped” with a cleaver, then blended with a cider vinegar sauce containing cayenne for kick and sugar to balance the acidity. Chunky, leaner shoulders and hams are “pulled” or shredded off the bones and drenched with a sticky tomato and molasses sauce. But what Southerners really love is a traditional pig picking: a butterflied hog flipped on its back and spread on a picnic table for everyone to dig out whatever portion they fancy – ribs, tenderloin, belly, cracklings – with their bare hands.

Can authentic barbecue be scaled down for a kettle grill? Mitchell recommends smoking half a suckling pig weighing around 6kg, or a combination of shoulder, ham and belly cuts. “Then blend those pieces together for true flavour.” Serve it sandwiched in a potato bun or simply piled onto slices of soft white bread. American-style side dishes such as creamy coleslaw, candied yams and corn bread are a fundamental part of this meal, accompanied by gallons of sweet iced tea. Unless, of course, you happen to know someone in the moonshine business. Amen to that.

Catch Ed Mitchell at the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival, 2-21 March.


This article was published in the January 2012 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.

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