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2017 Arkansas Times Whole Hog Roast preview 

All the pig meat you can eat.

click to enlarge SCENES FROM WHOLE HOG ROASTS PAST: Pork for everyone.
  • SCENES FROM WHOLE HOG ROASTS PAST: Pork for everyone.

It's fall, y'all. How do we know, besides, you know, the passing of the autumnal equinox last week? Because it's time again for the Arkansas Times' meatiest event of the year, the fifth annual Whole Hog Roast. So clear your calendar and make plans to attend the pork smorgasbord from 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 1, at the Argenta Plaza in North Little Rock. The recipe remains similar to last year: Seven teams made up of chefs and seasoned pitmasters will roast 100-pound hogs from Farm Girl Meats in Perry County; and four amateur teams will smoke their best pork butt. Attendees get to eat their way through the competition, along with sides provided by presenting sponsor Ben E. Keith, for just $15 in advance at centralarkansastickets.com, or $20 at the door.

Event wrangler Brian Kearns, of Simply the Best Catering and the Canvas restaurant at the Arkansas Arts Center, encourages anyone who has ever wanted to smoke a pig to come watch the process. Teams will probably start setting up midday Saturday, get their fires going in the evening and put their hogs on to start cooking around midnight. Hog roasters can cook in any manner they like as long as it's done on-site. "There's a lot of different ways to do it, but the trickiest part is getting it to finish at the same time — how you build your fire, what temperature you keep," Kearns said. His preferred method is in a cinder block pit; many of the teams will have elaborate smoking rigs attached to trailers.

The hogs the pros are roasting aren't your run of the mill swine. These are Boston Mountain Hogs, a heritage-style breed Katie Short of Farm Girl Meats developed with growers in North and West Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. They're bred to be physically active, which means the fat is marbled throughout the meat, which gives it more flavor potential, Short said. Plus, Farm Girl's 130-acre farm provides plenty of room for the swine to run free, foraging on seeds, nuts, blackberry and greenbrier crowns and, if they're still hungry, a locally milled, specially balanced grain. All that natural food adds to the flavor, Short says.

The Argenta Plaza is at Sixth and Main streets in downtown North Little Rock. Doors open at 1 p.m. and food will be served at 2 p.m., rain or shine, and the party will continue on until 5 p.m. Flyway Brewing Co. will have its mega-popular Bluewing Berry Wheat, Early Bird IPA (especially good with spicy sauce, co-owner Jess McMullen says) and Free Range Brown Ale (the ultimate barbecue beer, McMullen says). It and wine will be for sale for $5. Local rockers Good Time Ramblers share a bill with the sweet-harmonizing Wildflower Revue.

Professional teams

@ the Corner

The ladies who own and run the downtown breakfast and lunch destination @ the Corner — sisters Helen Grace and Leila King and their sister-in-law, chef Kamiya Merrick — have stepped up their hog-roasting game since last year's event. Leila King says they had such a good time at the event last year, @ the Corner commissioned a custom-built smoker on a trailer for catering and cook-offs. This year's plan is to brine the hog for several days in Rock Town Distillery's bourbon, Rebel Kettle's Working Glass Hero beer and spices. Then they'll rub it down with their house rub mix and smoke it as long as possible, using hickory and a Rock Town bourbon barrel to make their fire. "We wanted to include as much local stuff as possible," Leila King said.

The Argenta Buttrubbers

Charlie Hart with the Argenta Buttrubbers team said he's the "builder," tasked with constructing and maintaining the cinderblock fire pit where the team will cook their hog for the event. Veterans of the amateur Boston butt-only class at previous Times hog roasts, the team — which is sponsored by the Memphis lunch spot Blink SCO — will be moving up to the whole pig this year, with most of the cooking handled by barbecue purists Ricky O'Rourke and Josh Wills. Cooking a whole hog requires a different technique, Hart said, including not allowing the hog to get so hot that it combusts, making sure it cooks evenly, and carefully tending the fire through the night. Hart said the team did a practice run earlier this year over pecan and cherry, cooking an "Asian fusion" style hog on a pit designed exactly like the one they plan to use for the Arkansas Times Hog Roast. They went through a whole rick of wood, Hart said, which they pre-burn over a specially prepared barrel in order to harvest the hot coals for their pit, lined with firebrick for reflective heat. The result was, he said, perfect.

Flyway/Count Porkula Before Flyway Brewing Co. unveiled its tasty menu full of the likes of smoked duck and wild boar brats and bacon-wrapped quail, the brewery hosted "guest pitmasters" from time to time. That's how co-owner Jess McMullen got to know Kelly Lovell of the local food trailer eatery and catering company Count Porkula. One of the best brewery kitchens in town teamed with the barbecue champs of the food truck scene? We're expecting big things.

Four Quarter Bar

Conan Robinson may be best known for managing Midtown for many years and owning new North Little Rock favorite Four Quarter, just down Main Street from the event (after party!). But those in the know recognize Robinson as a longtime purveyor of delicious grub: burgers (natch), but also delicious pulled pork sandwiches, a Cuban and pulled pork nachos. A perennial hog roast participant, Robinson plans to brine his hog, slather on his signature Four Quarter rub and cook it in a cinder block pit.

Grumpy's Too

While other teams will be using smoke, glazes and rubs to set their hog apart, Chris Finkbeiner with Grumpy's Too plans to differentiate theirs by the cooking method. After thoroughly injecting their hog with the Grumpy's house marinade, they'll be using what's known as a "China Box," aka a "Cajun Microwave," an enclosed roaster that cooks the hog top-down by piling hot coals on the metal top of the box. Finkbeiner said the technique will cook their hog in about half the time of other teams, leading to a savory Cuban-style pork that's roasted rather than smoked. Another secret weapon will be chef Josh Smith, who Finkbeiner called his team's culinary expert. Smith recently won the award for student chef of the year at the UA-Pulaski Tech Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management Institute, and will serve as a co-captain of the Grumpy's Too five-person team.

Ristorante Capeo

Bryan Isaac of the Italian favorite Ristorante Capeo in Argenta was taciturn in his description of plans on how his team would prepare its whole hog. "We're just gonna cook a hog and have fun." How might they cook the hog? "Put it on some heat and then take it off some heat." But what about a touch of Capeo in the preparation and seasonings? "We don't serve whole hog at Capeo." So your guess is as good as ours.

Vault

Mike Easley (executive chef and visionary), formerly of Restaurant 1620 and Cache, and Cody Mayfield (sous chef) are busy putting together Vault, a new restaurant in the 1909 Citizens Building in Hot Springs, so it makes sense they'd want to keep it simple for the hog roast. But Easley says that's also so their Farm Girl Meats hog can speak for itself. They'll brine the hog with simple sugar and salt and use a cinder block rig. Easley said the Farm Girl owner Katie Short has done her part by raising the hogs in kindness; he'll respect the pig by doing as little as possible to the meat.

Easley has also worked with the James Beard Restaurant Rioja in Denver and trained under Jennifer Jasinski; he met Mayfield when he moved to Cache Restaurant in the River Market District.

click to enlarge cover_story2-1c-1c92f49f565ca500.jpg

Amateurs

Onebanc Roadsters also plan to participate, but weren't available before press time.

Smokin' Butz

Smokin' Butz team leader David Carpenter said his team's strategy is simple: Cook some great pulled pork. A veteran restaurateur who helped open several Central Arkansas institutions, including Sherwood's longstanding Zaffino's and Little Rock's new Main Street anchor Samantha's Tap Room & Wood Grill, Carpenter said his team plans to carefully select their Boston butt for a particular ratio of meat to fat, coat it down with a secret, homemade pork rub that is "a little unique," and then smoke it low and slow until it's done to perfection. Sides will be a little unique, too, including slow-roasted and smoked potatoes, along with breaded, deep-fried eggplant strips. As fitting with pulled pork, both sides will be decidedly Southern, Carpenter said, but with a twist.

Wilson's A1 BBQ

A veteran barbecue caterer, Alisha Pagan said that her secret weapon for the Arkansas Times Hog Roast will be her wood selection: a secret blend of carefully selected fruit and nut tree wood that allows for a strong smoke flavor while imparting a fruity sweetness to the meat. It's the same wood blend she uses when cooking pulled pork for her popular catering company, Wilson's A1 BBQ, which has been in business for two years. You can find them online at facebook.com/wilsonsA1barbecue. Also distinctive will be Wilson's signature rub, a secret blend of spices that Pagan is keeping close to the vest, but which she hopes will help her pull off a win in the amateur category. Keeping things very down-home, Pagan said her team plans to dish up a side of greens with smoked meat along with her family recipe cornbread, and then lay on the sweetness with candied yams.

AHH Townley

A former Navy pilot who came home to Arkansas a few years back to run the family business, Townley Pools and Spas, David Townley will be using the hog roast to show off the versatility of an item he sells a lot of in his store: the Big Green Egg ceramic cooker. Townley Pools and Spas offers the whole line of Big Green Egg products, which burn wood charcoal and can be used to cook everything from ribs to pies thanks to their unique, insulated design. Townley plans to cook his team's sides and pork butt entirely on Mini Max Eggs, a tailgating-sized version that's the smallest member of the Big Green Egg family. Townley's team will be utilizing rubs created by the Georgia-based Lane's BBQ (another product sold through his store) to start, then will smoke over a mixture of apple and peach wood to give the pork a sweet flavor. For sides, Townley plans to make what he called "sorta-white coleslaw," a unique take on slaw that utilizes Lane's BBQ's Sorta-White barbecue sauce, along with a classic cornbread.


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