Hogs for the Cause Lake Tahoe returns to Crystal Bay Casino
Tribune publisher shares pig-roasting experience
The annual Hogs for the Cause event held at Crystal Bay Casino brings a truly unique event to Tahoe’s North Shore.
Now in its fourth year, the event raises money for local families who are dealing with pediatric cancer.
If that isn’t enough to get you out to show support, at least go to check out the spectacle that is whole hog barbecue.
What is so special about cooking a whole hog?
Well, I’m glad you asked because not only am I fresh off my own experience, but I was also able to chat with one of the New Orleans chefs (Chris Montero) who will be participating in the event this weekend — all in an effort to give you the rundown on what goes into this unique experience.
I should note up front that cooking a whole oinker isn’t for the faint of heart. It takes pro athlete level commitment and you need to be nimble should you need to adjust on the fly. This is by no means a set-it-and-forget-it process and you’ll see why.
First: The prep
Chef Montero’s team (Silence of da Hams) has done approximately 20 pigs. Compared to my one, I’d say that makes me the rookie and them the well-seasoned veterans. Still, we both take the same approach prior to cooking, which is injecting the meat with a seasoned liquid in an effort to keep it moist during cooking. It also adds a bit of flavor.
I let my injection liquid sit for 24 hours so the flavors had time to marry together, which means the process started a few days in advance before we even started cooking. Yes, a few days in advance. I told you this was hard core.
According to Montero, a good target for a whole hog cooking is about 65 pounds. For me, and a bunch of my neighbors, it was go big or go home — our hog was 80 pounds before injecting. After injecting the pig it needed to sit another 12 hours or so before lacing it up on the spit.
I’ll warn you: at this point in the process there is no turning back. Expectations are high and then it dawns on you, you’re about to cook a rather large animal … all at once.
Second: The cooking
This is where things get interesting.
The Silence of da Hams are known for their cooking methods, which they usually design themselves. Whether in a bathtub, burying the pig, or just in a smoker, they tend to get creative in this area.
For Tahoe’s Hogs for the Cause, they plan on using a smoker, which has been their method of choice each of the first three years.
The cooking method I used was an open fire spit using wood charcoal, which got a little tricky as the day wore on — more on that in a bit. One thing about a spit is that you need to make sure you have some security on that animal.
I found out very quickly that if not tied down well, it literally flops as the spit turns, which had me worrying it was over before it even started because the machine was having a seizure trying to rotate the hog.
I knew it couldn’t go all day like that but an hour and a half later, the pig was fastened and spinning like a well-oiled barber pole.
For Silence of da Hams, Montero is charged with making the spice rub for their pork. They rub it all over so that it seeps in during the entire cooking process.
I went with a water cocoon method before adding the rub. In hindsight this was probably more trouble than it was worth and would save you a few singed arm hairs if you just went with the pros approach here.
During the cooking process you also need to dial in some type of method to keep the skin moist. It could be fruit juice or vinegar, or even plain water. This adds great color and helps prevent the skin form drying out.
The year Montero’s team won grand champion for best whole hog, they hung a pork belly and let the fat render all over the large pig, creating a dreamy bacon-like shower that makes my mouth water just thinking about it.
I can’t top the bacon shower, so I won’t bore you with how I kept the skin moist, but let’s just say a lot of butter went to good use.
I can’t stress enough how much experience pays off. If you know what you’re doing, you can pivot a little easier and make sure the variables are kept to a minimum.
“From a competition standpoint, it’s the most difficult thing to do right,” Montero said. “There’s every cut of a pig and the absolutes are more finite when your cooking individual cuts.”
The difficult part is very true — especially when you consider changes in the weather. What I didn’t realize is how much an abundance of wind can change an open spit. I toughed through it, but I felt like an old school fireman shoveling coal in the fire box trying to keep the train moving down the tracks.
Third: The breakdown party
If you think taking a whole smoking pig off of a cooker and transferring it to a table to be broken down would be a site to see, you would be right. I think that’s one of the things that make this event so unique.
The Hams team makes a big production out of it, placing it on a large table and letting it rest for a bit while people take their photos and selfies.
My take away from this experience is to have a plan in how you’re going to break it down. Where do you start and how are you going to manage the individual cuts of meat?
You don’t want to go in like Michael Meyers and just start slinging your knife. Some cuts need to be more precise and others you may want to simply pull. Regardless, after a full day of cooking you’re about to dive into an experience.
“In layman’s terms, it’s a big ‘wow,’” Montero said. “It’s kind of primal and the image of a perfectly roasted pig — it’s same thing as Thanksgiving when you pull out a turkey and it looks perfect.”
Montero also added that people don’t generally cook a whole hog in their yard, but that’s exactly what I did. I guess that’s why the mailman had to stop and do a double take on the day it went down.
I’d imagine out of all the packages he saw that day, ours was the most distinct — and probably tasted the best, too.