Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
When the leaves start falling, the temps start dropping and night comes earlier and earlier, we get a deep craving for charred meats in gluttonous portions. Also beer. And standing around fire. Thankfully, the powers that be here at the Arkansas Times saw fit to align the third annual Arkansas Times Whole Hog Roast with our wants and needs and move the festival from spring (when our bodies crave green food and running — along with beer) to Saturday, Nov. 14.
This year, we've introduced tweaks, but the basic formula remains: Some 15 teams will smoke pork at the Argenta Farmers Market grounds at Sixth and Main streets in North Little Rock. They'll serve their pig and two sides for your consumption. Gates open at 5 p.m. Food will be served beginning at 6:30 p.m., and the party, which will include live music from bluegrass act Big Still River and soul-tinged rock band Brown Soul Shoes, will continue until 9 p.m. It's all-you-can eat, but we can't guarantee your favorite team will have pork until late in the evening. So be punctual. Buy tickets — $15 in advance or $20 day of the event — at arktimes.com/hog15.
Meanwhile, this year's new wrinkles include fewer rules and two divisions. As in years' past, a professional division will pit local teams of chefs and restaurant folks against each other. Each team will cook a whole hog in whatever rig or pit it chooses. New this year: Amateur teams will cook pork butts and another protein of their choosing. The crowd will determine winners in each division — and in the all-proteins-welcome, "No Butts About It," category — by placing tokens that come with admission in voting receptacles. Because this is a fundraiser for the Argenta Arts District, there'll also be a way for eaters to purchase additional tokens. The winners in each category will receive a trophy made by North Little Rock mosaic artist Kandy Jones.
Read on for short profiles of this year's competitors. (Look out also for a pro team from the Country Club of Little Rock, not available for an interview.)
Arkansas Ale House
When we asked Arkansas Ale House general manager Matt Beachboard to describe his approach, he cryptically replied that he and his team plan "to spend a lot of time sharpening our axes, just in preparation." We puzzled over this for a second, alarmed and a little excited at the prospect of an ax-wielding Beachboard going toe-to-toe with a boar in an Argenta parking lot, before he clarified: " 'If you ask me to chop down a tree in six hours, I'm going to take the first four hours sharpening my axe.' Lincoln said that. I think." We're not sure if Lincoln said it either — there's disagreement on the Internet — but the point is that preparation is everything, which is why Beachboard plans to allot a full 24 hours beforehand setting up. "When you're not in your own kitchen, there are a lot of screwy things that can happen along the way." Since the Ale House opened last year at the new Diamond Bear brewery in North Little Rock, Beachboard has delivered European-accented pub fare with the odd Southern twist, so it's fair to speculate about whether the team's hog will feature a similar approach. But Beachboard was stingy with details. "I have to be coy. I can't let my tricks out of the bag," he insisted, though he did at least clue us in to one side item he'll be bringing from the bar: "I've been a big champion of the German-style potato salad. I thought originally I was going to get run out of town on a rail when I proposed a non-mayo-based potato salad, but it's gone over really, really well. Mustard-based, warm, with green onions — and bacon in it, of course, because I'm not stupid." BH
For more than a decade and a half, Conan Robinson has worked the door, tended bar, booked bands and done just about every other job at Midtown Billiards. Now, Midtown owner Maggie Hinson is staking him in a new venture in the former home of Sidetracks at 415 Main St. in Argenta: 4-Quarter, "a really cool bar" that will serve "good drinks and kickass barbecue" and host live music, Robinson said. Already, Robinson has contracted with Brown Chicken Brown Sow out of Mountain Home to get family-farm-raised, chemical-free hogs every week. Look for 4-Quarter to open sometime before the end of the year. And consider the return of Midtown's Los Cerdos Borrachos ("the drunken pigs") team to the Hog Roast a preview of sorts of Robinson's barbecue skills. The plan is the same as last year, Robinson said: "Inject the pig with a whole bunch of PBR and special spices and let it sit. Use Bradford Pear for the fire. Stay up all night." LM
Simply the Best Catering
Executive Chef Brian Kearns is an experienced hog roaster, and it's his third year to compete in the Arkansas Times Whole Hog Roast. He won first place the first year, and he's thinking of reclaiming the crown Caribbean-style, getting out his big old hypodermic needle and injecting his big old hog with jerk spices — cayenne, nutmeg, cinnamon, red pepper — that will warm your insides as well as Mr. Pig's. To go with the Jamaican theme, he's thinking about sides of rice and pigeon peas, the latter legume an Asian pea embraced by Caribbean cooks and traditionally eaten with arroz. Helping him tend the cinderblock pit and apple-wood fire will be his sous chef at Simply the Best, Tommy McCoy, and Fox Ridge Corporate Executive Chef Jon Bobo. They'll tend their 100-or-so-pound hog for up to 13 hours before dishing up 50 pounds of pig meat, all save one portion: "The cheeks are always the chef's treat," Kearns said. When he's not slaving over a hot pig, Kearns, formerly with Arthur's Prime Steakhouse, is doing all off-site catering these days, which means he can put a sharper focus on his clients — like the Arkansas Arts Center — and gets to eat dinner at home "most nights" with his three dogs. LNP
So Restaurant is a swanky place, serving a menu of fine American cuisine entirely devised by chef Casey Copeland (with the exception of an appetizer or two and a dessert) and 250 wine labels. Does that mean Copeland's hog will be stuffed with bone-marrow mashed potatoes and topped off with grilled oysters soaked in Dom Perignon? That lamb lollipops will be stuck between the pig's teeth? Probably not. No, the graduate of the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Austin and 2015 winner of the Iron Chef prize awarded by the Arkansas Hospitality Association said his goal for his first Whole Hog Roast is to do some "fun cooking" and hang with fellow chefs rather than get all competitive about it. He's cooked a whole hog — just for himself and a few others ("we chefs know how to eat," he said) — the traditional way, split and lain flat over hot coals with a sauce of garlic, brown sugar and "Southern spices." For the hog roast, he said, "I'm going to church it up," meaning he's going to make it a little fancier. "I love me some pork," Copeland said. The Dallas native is a youngster — 27 — who came to Arkansas in 2009 to work at Forty Two, the Clinton Presidential Center restaurant, with his pal and former Cordon Bleu classmate Stephen Burrow, now at Chenal Country Club. LNP
Apple Bottom BBQ
"Oh, 100 percent," is the laughing answer Steve Lee gives when asked how likely his Apple Bottom BBQ team is to win this year's amateur category at the Whole Hog Roast. Lee heard about the contest from a neighbor, and being local decided he would take his classic apple-wood smoked pork butt to competition. He's going for a true barbecue experience, adding beans and potato salad to pork cooked "slow and low." Lee said he would have liked to have cooked a whole hog in the professional category, but reckons that his barrel smoker will do just fine with pork butt, one of the tastiest parts of the pig. There's something compelling about the quiet confidence it takes to do pure, authentic barbecue without any gimmicks, and Apple Bottom seems ready to represent. MR
Josh Mills originally hails from Kansas City, and he's parlayed that city's rich barbecue tradition into a couple of appearances at Hot Springs' Great Park Avenue BBQ Cookoff. These days, Mills calls Argenta home, and said his love of his neighborhood was the major inspiration for joining this year's Whole Hog Cookoff competition with his team, the aptly named "Argenta Boosters." Mills is going two different routes with his 'cue this year: The first is a classic Kansas City-style take on pork butt, but the Argenta Boosters also want to mix it up with pork that Mills said will feature Asian-inspired flavors. "I'm not in it to win it," Mills said, although he thinks his team has as good a shot as any. "It's more about having a good time." MR
Billy Bob's Smokin' Butts
While marching, saluting and firing large artillery pieces don't have many real-world applications outside the military, you can learn a lot of skills in the armed forces that will serve you well for the rest of your life. For Steve Glaze, who will be heading up the Billy Bob's Smokin' Butts team at this year's Hog Roast, what Uncle Sam taught him to do was cook and run restaurants. "I'm retired Air Force," he said, "and that was part of my job in the Air Force — running the clubs and all that stuff. In fact, they sent me to get my master's in hotel and restaurant management. But I've never done it professionally." An avid cook at home who said he genuinely enjoys his time in the kitchen, Glaze has started venturing out to local competitions in recent years. "I've done the Chili Fights in the Heights several times. In fact, the time before last, I came in second place." He wasn't able to go back for all the marbles this year because of a trip out of town. He said that if he wins the Arkansas Times pork butt cookoff, that will be fine, but he's really just competing to be around other cooks and to enjoy himself. It'll be the Cinderella story of the ages if he does pull it off, though, as he's never smoked a pork butt before. He is, however, getting plenty of tips from his smokin' momma. "My mom's pretty good at it," he said, "so that's a good starting place." Glaze's team will consist of himself and a friend. For sides, he plans to stay in the ballpark of traditional, while mixing it up just enough to keep things interesting, dishing up an onion, cucumber and zucchini slaw and a five-bean relish. DK
Buford's Downtown Smokers
This will be Buford Johnson's first barbecue competition, but he's got several decades of experience working the grill. His plan: make "finger-lickin' good" Southern barbecue. "We'll try to keep it traditional, but with a little twang," he said. He and his team, which includes a big group of folks who live and work in Argenta, will be using offset T-box smoker/grillers and Big Green Eggs to cook their pork butt and some secondary protein. Maybe chicken, squirrel or rabbit. As for sides, Johnson said they're a surprise, but promised they will be "something you're gonna like if you're a country boy." LM
Ask Randy Wyatt the secret to his barbecue sauce. Go ahead and ask him. Here's what he'll tell you, though: nothing. There is no chance, whoever you are and whatever you've done, that Wyatt will give an inch on this issue. How serious is he? When his daughter and her husband announced they were having a child, Wyatt — a fourth-generation Arkansan understandably eager to see the Wyatt family name outlive him — he gave them an ultimatum. Either the child would bear the Wyatt name, he said, or they'd never learn his greatest secret. "I told them they'd never get the recipe," he chuckled. The barbecue sauce, in other words, would vanish into history. Cruel? Depends on how you look at it. And anyway, it worked: The Wyatt name lives on. "And he's gonna get the sauce," Wyatt said proudly. Under the name Cowboy Cafe, with the help of his treasured two-tiered smoker, Wyatt leads one of the Hog Roast's most talked-about amateur teams, a crew of dedicated Little Rock and Heber Springs folks who are serious about barbecue and serious about winning. His homemade sausages will also be on hand, as will, of course, his sauce. "And if you're real nice," he told me, "I'll bring you a bottle." WS
Michael Rieser was waiting for some friends at Cajun's Wharf, flipping through the Arkansas Times, when he came across an ad enjoining amateurs to the 2015 Hog Roast. Though he's never participated in such an event (he works in IT), Rieser heard history calling. "I thought I'd do a run at it. I like to cook. I like to eat food," he said. His team of three includes two colleagues from work: "One is going to be cook; the other is going to be the social media guy, live tweeting the event. We're going to blow this thing up." They'll have three smokers going, one of which will be devoted to the pork and another to chicken thighs for the No Butts About It competition.
Though Rieser and his fellow cook, Paul Russell, have lived in Little Rock for years, they're both transplants from the North. Might they feel any trace of anxiety about wading into culinary terrain so fraught with Southern regionalism? "No, why? Pig is pig, and it's delicious," Rieser said. "We're gonna show people what the Ohio Valley's all about." BH
Pop Smoke BBQ
Rashad Pippen and his Pop Smoke teammate, Phillip Chism, are Arkansas National Guardsmen and mechanics at Camp Robinson, where they work on Humvees, Medium Tactical Vehicles, Light Tactical Vehicles — anything the military has in the state of Arkansas that has a motor. Lately, Chism and Pippen have gotten serious about barbecue, traveling to Helena-West Helena and Hot Springs to compete in cook-offs, "trying to get established and get our name out," as Pippen said. For the Times event, their plan is to use applewood and lump charcoal and all natural meats — "no hormones, no added nitrates, so you get the true taste of the meat," Pippen said. For sides, look for creamy fiesta corn and spicy and sweet baked beans, military style. LM
Smoke City Limits
"A version of this team has competed in a cook-off in Jonesboro a couple of times," team captain Gabe Holmstrom said. "We came in second from last — 57th. The best news we've heard about this competition is that there are a lot fewer contestants, so we're sure to place higher." Holmstrom, the executive director of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership, has for the last four years roasted a whole hog in his backyard for a fundraiser for the Quapaw Quarter Association. The operating philosophy for his team — which includes former Speaker of the House Davy Carter, former Arkansas Economic Development Commission Executive Director Grant Tennille, Brian Rogers, Ryan Boyd and Josh Hankins — is "no planning," Holmstrom said. "The rules say we're supposed to cook pork butts, and I feel confident we will cook some of those, but there's really no telling what we'll decide to throw on the smoker." LM
David Carpenter sells commercial real estate. That's what he does, or anyway that's what he tells people when they ask, "What do you do?" But like most of us, there's more to Carpenter than his day job. "I've cooked since I was 6 years old," he told the Times recently. Carpenter, along with his wife, Maria, will be cooking pork butt in the amateur competition at this year's Hog Roast. He insists his aims are modest: "I have low expectations, as far as what we're going to achieve," he said. "If we make people happy and the food's good, we've done pretty much what we wanted. We're just hoping to maybe make some friends." Ask him about his approach, though, and the pride is evident in his voice. "Everything I do, I create myself," he said. "I'm not using a store-bought rub, I'll use my own seasonings. And that goes for everything — the beans, the potato salad, the slaw." And that's all he can say at this point, he explains: "I'll create most of it the day we're doing it. I work from inspiration." WS
They call themselves "Tuesdays," because it was during a regular Tuesday night gathering at Reno's Argenta Cafe that Joseph Brajcki and several friends decided to enter this year's Hog Roast. "We like to cook all kinds of cuisine," said Brajcki, citing an ongoing series of dinners and birthday parties held by the Tuesday group as inspiration for taking their culinary skills into competition. Brajcki is bringing the heat with a Sichuan-style pork preparation, but he said the spice won't be too harsh. "Sichuan peppercorns have a numbing effect on the mouth," he said. "And we'll back it up with some red chilies." The group's side dishes are also inspired by Asian cuisine and will include a Chinese sweet and sour cabbage dish alongside a Japanese potato salad that uses pickled carrots and cucumbers. Will the next Tuesday meeting at Reno's come with Whole Hog Roast bragging rights? Brajcki isn't too concerned about that — he just wants to have a fun day cooking. MR
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