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While researching for his new book, The One True Barbecue, Rien Fertel spent time with twelve whole-hog pitmasters in Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Mississippi, and New York. All of them were men.
“I grew up the grandson of a really powerful female restaurateur,” says Fertel, referring to his family’s chain of Ruth's Chris Steak House restaurants. “She opened her first restaurant in ’65, and by the time she passed away in 2002, she had this massive empire of restaurants. My mother ran the franchise in my hometown of Lafayette, Louisiana, and I grew up in her kitchen.” For this reason, says Fertel, he looked forward to meeting female pitmasters and restaurateurs. “Helen Thomas, who runs Helen’s in Brownsville, Tennessee, makes some of the best barbecue I’ve ever had.”
But Thomas isn’t a whole-hog pitmaster, the breed of barbecue chefs that’s the focus of Fertel’s book. In fact, there is not one female member of that particular tribe in the entire country. Below, Fertel and I talk about this male-exclusive part of the culinary world, and whether change is in its future.
What's the difference between being a pitmaster and being a whole-hog pitmaster, or whole hogger, as we’ll call it for the purpose of this interview?
If the pit house is traditionally a masculine space, the whole-hog smokehouse is more so. Whole-hog cooks spend all night with their hogs; they’re in the pithouse or just outside the pithouse from dusk to dawn, building the fire, tending it, shoveling coals every 20 minutes, ultimately flipping these 150 pound animals at around three in the morning and cooking them a bit more. Ricky Parker, owner and proprietor of Scott-Parker's Barbecue in Lexington, Kentucky, famously did this six days a week. It’s what did him in.
Most of the whole-hoggers featured in your book are above middle age.
There used to be many more whole-hog barbecue restaurants. Some of them closed, some of them switched to gas or electric cookers—which my whole hog guru Ricky Parker dismissed as inauthentic—and some of them switched to specific cuts of the hog. It’s easier to procure shoulders and butts, since packing plants increasingly don’t want to send hogs, and it’s easier to lift those onto a pit. I met one pitmaster in Henderson, Tennessee, who switched over to pork shoulders because he got a hernia from lifting whole hogs. He was an older guy. So these places are just phasing out.
And not one of them was female?
Correct. After I met Ricky Parker and saw what he did, I didn’t expect to meet any women doing this anywhere in the country. Granted, Ricky was extreme—it was a very, very masculine persona that he presented, and liked to say “I’m more married to my restaurant than I am to any of my wives”—but the work of the pithand or the pitmaster is male-dominated. It’s all about tradition. The historical records, while they’re sketchy, show men cooking hogs for the community, for the plantation, for the farm, on weekends, for holidays, for Christmas, for the new year. It would always be men; this, historically, was a male activity. This was also a form of male social bonding; staying up with the fire and with their pigs, drinking, cussing, telling stories. And you still see a bit of that in the pits.
Walk me through your average whole hogger’s work day.
The best kind of example would be Keith Ward, who goes by the name Pop. He shows up at Wilber’s Barbecue in Goldsboro, North Carolina at around five in the afternoon, after spending most of his day resting for the coming night. When he gets to work, he starts building a wood fire in a kind of trench. At Wilber’s, they use big, thick, hickory and oak logs, and Pop will have spent time throughout the previous night splitting them with an axe. While the fire is burning, he’ll go lift the hogs out of their coolers, load them into a wheelbarrow, wheel them to the pit, and load them onto the pit. Once the fire has burned down, he scatters the glowing red coals under the hogs. That’s the rest of his night. He spends the night, into the early morning hours, building fires and shoveling coals.
The danger with whole hogs is that they’re constantly dripping grease, so you have to watch them closely; if a new fire starts, you could catch the pig on fire, and once a pig is on fire, your pit’s going to be on fire, and then it’s all over. I’ve been told these conflagrations can happen in minutes. So when Pop’s not shoveling, he is sitting near the pit, separated by just a screen window and door, smoking cigarettes and watching for “little flickers of flame,” he calls them. If those happen, he gets up and tamps them out with his shovel. That’s his night. About three quarters of the way through the cooking process, he flips the hogs; they’re heavy, they’re slippery, and they splatter grease on him. All pitmasters carry scars on their arms from this grease. Anyway, he flips them, he cooks them some more, and he makes sure they’re done. I’ve never met a pitmaster who uses a thermometer or a temperature gun; it’s all by sense. They’ll feel if the leg bone can slip out of the meat and the joint. Some of them kind of drum on the skin, and listen for a certain kind of hollow sound. He delivers the pig to the kitchen when he feels it’s done.
Why do we associate these things with masculinity? I know plenty of women who like physical work, who like to be alone, who like to be up at all hours of the night, but perhaps that’s because I’m part of a privileged generation that’s living post-feminist revolution.
Yeah, well, women are still fighting to gain entry into the professional kitchen, to hold a place on the line, to not just be a pastry chef, right? There is no equality there yet—still. But with barbecue, there’s something about the savagery. Larry Dennis who runs Bum’s Restaurant in Ayden, North Carolina, compares what he does with meat and fire to what cavemen did.
You mentioned to me via email that Larry believes that his family restaurant must die with him because he did not produce a male heir—but he does have three daughters.
It’s all about the family tree for him. Larry traces his pitmaster lineage to the 1800s, when Otter Dennis was a man on the run. He was an outlaw—a bandit, a bad dude—and, fleeing the authorities, he ended up in the swamps surrounding the present day town of Ayden, North Carolina. He settled down there and other people kind of joined him; it became a sort of bandit commune. Otter then produced a male heir whose name was Skilton M. Dennis, and Skilton became the first official Dennis pitmaster according to family lore. Larry likes to think that Otter was cooking pigs, too, but Skilton becomes this pitmaster, and Skilton passes the practice of barbecuing pigs onto his son, whose name was William Bryant Dennis but went by Bill. Family lore says that, Bill, now a second generation pitmaster, started selling barbecue in downtown Aiden as a side business. Bill’s son was John Bill, John Bill’s younger cousin was Bum, and Bum’s son was Larry, and both Bum and Larry work at Bum’s Restaurant today.
I can’t imagine the idea hasn’t crossed Larry’s mind that one of his daughters might take on the restaurant.
Every time I ask him about the future of the restaurant, he says “It dies with me.” For him, the telling is that his daughters are too smart to do what he does. But in this pamphlet that hangs in the restaurant called "A Brief History of Bum’s Restaurant," it talks about a gift that’s born inside the Dennis men, a barbecue knowhow that no one else has. So right there, it’s all about Dennis men—like it’s encoded in their DNA. The interesting question is, if Larry had a male heir, would that son be pushed into the barbecue business? Probably so. Or at least that door would be open to him. It’s completely closed to the three daughters.
So it’s not all accounted for in the whole “they’re too educated” answer.
Right. I mean, there’s also a way to be smart and take over the family business. There’s also a way to be smart and play with history. There’s also a way to be really smart and be the owner of a restaurant from afar and just hire the right staff. So any one of his daughters, who are all married, could bring this restaurant to another generation. But for Larry, it dies with him. For Larry, there is no future.
You believe that eventually there will be a female whole hog pitmaster. What leads you to think that when it seems to be so ingrained in this culture that it’s a male dominated thing, and also that whole hog pit-mastering, if that’s a word, is dying out?
Barbecue is hot, cooking with fire is hot, and whole hog is also very trendy right now, and when trends happen, the diversity of the people exploring those trends increases. It becomes a more beautiful, hopeful, I’d like to think American thing. There are barbecue restaurants being opened by people who have no barbecue in their blood. They might come out of the CIA or chef-y kitchens. They might be James Beard nominees, like Elliot Moss, who just opened a whole-hog place in Asheville called Buxton Hall. Tyson Ho, who is not from the South and who is a Chinese American, has a Carolina-style whole-hog restaurant in Brooklyn now. That’s exceptional! So eventually, there will be a female whole-hog pitmaster.