Standing next to a towering inferno late into the night on the inaugural day of summer, getting singed by the sparks that erupted each time a shovel of coal was extracted and fed to a fire that was sizzling from rendering fat from the hog above, I could already feel that the pig that would emerge the next day would be one of the culinary highlights of the season. Skill, authenticity, and anticipation—these are the defining attributes of the new weekend series, The Hog Days of Summer, New York City's newest foray into bringing in some of the best in barbecue culture from the American south.
While New York has brought facsimiles of Texas, Memphis, and Kansas City barbecue to its streets with varying degrees of success, North Carolina whole hog has remained absent—save for the one weekend a year where you can find this swine flowing at the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party. With a logistical conundrum in a city of tight spaces, and a large commitment of time and effort, it's no wonder whole hog hasn't popped up sooner, but these hurdles were not enough to stop one man's love for this tangy, smoky, and juicy pork.
That man would be Tyson Ho, whose first barbecue road trip was to North Carolina, where he instantly fell in love with the tradition of cooking an entire pig directly over hot coals. He's spent the last four years honing his craft by cooking in the driveway of his Flushing home, making many repeat trips to barbecue joints around North Carolina, and studying with the hog master Ed Mitchell. Now Ho is releasing the fruits of his labor on the inhabitants of the city.
Ho is hosting the Hog Days series—a joint venture with John Brown Smokehouse—under his moniker The Arrogant Swine. These events alternate in location between Long Island City and Greenpoint, and are split between afternoon and evening sessions, the first of which was held this past Saturday. The doors opened to VIPs at 45 minutes prior to its official start at noon, and 15 hours after the first hog went on the pit the evening before.
As guests flowed in, they were treated to all-you-can-drink beer provided by Founders Brewing Co. from Michigan, along with plates of crispy and airy pork rinds accompanied by sweet and spongy hush puppies. Around 1:30pm, when just about every guest was in attendance (and there were some light grumblings as stomachs rumbled), Tyson ceremoniously removed the hog from the cooker, explaining to the crowd the tradition in which it was cooked.
He then split the beast in two, and his team went to work chopping the entire first half, piling meat from each section of the pig into a large bin. Tyson then added in a healthy dose of pork rinds and soaked the chopped pig in sweet and spicy North Carolina vinegar sauce. The whole thing was mixed together into one glistening homogeneous sea of swine and portioned out to eager eaters, served next to a helping of mustard slaw and enjoyed with live bluegrass music playing in the background.
The pork was pretty outstanding and on point with what you'll find in North Carolina. The chop was of varying degrees in size, larger chunks of leaner meat mixing with more finely chopped fatty pork. It was slightly smoky, a little sweet, a little spicy, but not so drenched in sauce that the natural flavor of the pork was masked.
The hog was billed as all-you-can eat, but there was a limit to the amount of meat available, and after almost all had seconds, the crowd of 125 had eaten through the entire 200+ pound Gloucester pig. As with most new events, a hiccup or two like this would be expected, but the team already had things running more smoothly at the second session, and I'd assume the event will only improve as the summer goes by.
Not only is this, comparatively, one of the best food event values in town—the first two were sold at $30.99 a ticket, while that price will rise slightly for the remaining dates—but the series also represents the first attempt to bring traditional North Carolina whole hog to the city on a regular basis, and the fantastic product that Tyson Ho is offering, with such skill, sets a high bar, making The Hog Days of Summer an event you won't want to miss.