The Pig and The Magic Rock
I was overwhelmed with pride seeing the culinary intern cleaning up the kitchen, really “tech'ing it out", as we say. It therefore was astonishing to witness her pulling a landscape rock from the equipment drawer, studying it, and asking “Chef, do you know what this is for?", with wide, nervous eyes. I had to spend a moment to rack my brain and try to recall, and fight back the urge to make up something silly, (don’t prank the intern, we don’t do that anymore, chef!), it was then that the story came, like an avalanche, overtaking me entirely, and I cackled at the reply that I knew I was about to give. Trying to ignore the sideways stare that I was receiving from everyone, (ok, we do still prank everyone from time to time), I said “oh, make sure that we keep that, it’s my lucky rock.”.The effect that this claim had on the crew was lost on me, as I had crossed the room, grabbed the rock, clutching and caressing it, lost in the tale, the legend if you will, of the beast this stone helped me vanquish once upon a time.
It should've been obvious that I was setting myself up for madness based only on the facial expression she had that morning. The sales director, (insert ominous musical theme here), pulled me aside after the daily morning meeting to ask me about an “interesting” request. Side note: the word “interesting” in the culinary field is almost always associated directly with negative, challenging connotations, (“wouldn’t it be interesting to offer fried ice cream on the room service menu??”). The guest’s need? Apparently, this group has an annual party that goes on over the course of several days, culminating in a whole pig roast. The expression on her face when I non-chalantly accepted the challenge was one of glee mixed with disbelief. I had cooked whole animals, (including pigs), before, so, frankly I was feeling a little impressed with myself about being able to rise to the occasion so readily. Ambition can quite often blind one to difficulty, and the plans that I was developing in my mind were glorious in their creativity, and my hopes for this event were ambitious, in the absolute definition of the word. This event was several months away also, so the commitment was that much easier to make. One can make plans of total world domination when the plans don't start right away.
Needless to say, the date of the pig roast was visible on my calendar way too soon for comfort. My swagger and ego were rapidly replaced with a nervous frenzy to get this plan into action. I had done this kind of thing before, yes, but in a locale over a thousand miles away, and in the south, where cooking a hog was not unusual. Oh, and also, the last time that I performed this particular culinary magic trick, I had experienced helpers, and it was over 16 years ago. The nervous sweat beaded on my brow as this realization dawned on me. Every detail had to be attended to, and my dreams at night became inundated with images of pig faces, turning around and round on a spit, snorting and squealing, seemingly laughing at me.
Few cooking tasks require unique, single use equipment, but a whole, large animal, that is definitely one of them. This would require an actual “pig roaster”.Yes, that is the true name of this device. Almost entirely custom made, they are large enough to require a trailer hitch, and come with or without a motorized rotisserie. Knowing that this cook would be a solo endeavor, as one can assume that this couldn't possibly be on a day when the business levels are slow, the rotisserie was not optional, but instead essential. Being from the south, it never occurred to me how difficult it would be to locate and rent this specific cooker. After calling over a dozen different businesses, and actually completely exhausting every plausible lead that I had found, I had a company mention to me that their “sister” company might be able to help me. I wasn't feeling very confident, after seeing the website proudly displayed and boasted about the plethora of construction equipment that they rented. Upon calling them, amazingly enough, the gentleman that I spoke to immediately exclaimed, “oh yeah, we got one of those!”.If I could've leapt through the phone line and hugged this man, I would've taken that option without hesitation. I reserved it, babbling about how important and essential it was all the while. It was in Denver, a full hour plus away, and needed to be picked up with a specific trailer hitch, but that mattered not to me, as I was so proud and relieved to have procured this miracle item.
Purchasing a whole hog is an “interesting” (there's that word again!), endeavor. Because the demand for whole porcine adult animals is not much of a thing in today’s society, they are very often considered a “special order” from commercial food distributors, so advance planning is key to make sure to get one. These honkers are huge also, so the storage of said piggy can be problematic to say the least. After jumping through the proverbial hoops and calling in a few favors with the food vendor mafia, so to speak, I found myself face to snout with a 137-pound porker.
This was not the first time that I had a pig in my cooler, (there are at least two more stories to be told.), so not much about the situation was new or shocking. The unique, creative, and frankly morbidly sardonic sense of humor that runs through the minds of pretty much all cooks comes out into the light and practically frolics in it when a whole animal is in the walk in fridge. As the leader of the team, the chef has the woeful duty of trying to suppress the behaviour that will naturally follow. Picture the pig posed in any possible comical way, ass in the air, leaning back and lounging, with mouth stuffed with everything from cigarettes, to fruits,vegetables, bottles of beer or booze. If you’ve never seen a whole dressed hog with sunglasses on, than I would venture to guess that you’ve never had one stored away and plenty of cooks having access to it. Every single time that I’ve had a full carcass of some kind in the kitchen, there has come at least once, the sad, sad moment when I’ve had to chastise a cook or multiple cooks for spending too much time screwing around with it, and neglecting the actual work at hand. Even more shocking is the slight pang of guilt that I’ve felt after doing so, and feeling the strong temptation to embellish their efforts with a little prank of my own. Invariably, it gets a name and becomes a topic of conversation as if it’s the “new guy”. No matter how bad it was to be the newbie, at least you weren’t going to be roasted and eaten.
Once the day of the actual roast was a day away, it was time to pull the beast from the cooler, cart him out to the kitchen, and get him “dressed” for his big day. Up until this moment in time, the face of this swine was one of comical joy, all bright eyed and piggy tailed, with it’s Hawaiian shirt, sunglasses, and assorted other accessories.
Now, once stripped bare of this, cleaned up, and about to go under the knife, his countenance was one of seeming surprise and horror. It was quite obvious that this was it’s final hours with us. It was on pork death row. And so it was with a wince that I began trimming off unnecessary fat, wired it’s chunky legs together, and brutally stabbed it over and over again in order to insert garlic cloves and slivers of ginger into the flesh just below the skin. Reaching into his belly cavity, I slathered a paste of onions, lemongrass, and oil. He was then ready to be bagged up, like a corpse on it’s way to the morgue, and rolled back into the frigid walk in unit.
What is it they say about our best laid plans? Something about hoping in one hand, and defecating in the other? I’m getting ahead of myself. The day had come. I arrived to work so prepared. I had sunglasses, super high spf sunblock, and even a sun shade in the form of a collapsible canopy, (the weather was calling for it to be a scorcher, and I had to stay with this beast all day long, not only to make sure that it cooked well, but for safety’s sake). I had a chair picked out, all of the utensils that I figured I could possibly need, and even a few fire extinguishers. What could possibly go wrong, right?
My buddy, Jonny the shuttle driver, had volunteered to go get the equipment from Denver, and he arrived with it right on time! He helped me hook it up to the gas and electric, we turned it on, fired it up, and it was time to load up the pig. I wheeled it out to the spit, feeling such pride, beaming a grin as wide as the proverbial Cheshire cat. After a little bit of a wrestle, we got it on the beam and turning in the sun. I couldn’t help but notice that the face on that sucker had shifted again. Now it seemed to have a defiant stare, one of those ones that follows you wherever you stand, glaring at you.
Jonny’s work was done. I gave him the bottle of booze that I had promised him for his assistance, and he was in the wind. Now I was truly on my own. The battle was dual in nature now, just me versus that damned pig. I smiled at it and watched as it went around and around on it’s roasting merry go round. I knew in that moment there was no turning back, I was committed, it was either that beast, or me, to the end.
The sun was getting higher in the morning sky, and I sipped my coffee, watching the temperature on the machine. I had noted earlier that it was unnecessarily complicated, having a speed knob for the rotisserie, and, (this is the weird part), an adjustable temperature knob for the flames. The speed knob kind of made sense, even though the speed could have just been set to “slow and steady”, and it would’ve sufficed. The temp controller was baffling. Was that supposed to be the temp of the heat being applied to the hog, and if so, it was suspended above the flames more than a foot, in the open air. How could that temp be measured accurately? I was pondering this, when i noticed that the flames hadn’t lit in quite a while. I looked around to get a better understanding of the mechanics I was looking at, and found the pilot light, or at least where the pilot light was supposed to be. It had blown out, and the machine wouldn’t work without it. No need to panic, I had brought a barbecue lighter out with me after all.
A little about lighting the pilot light on a piece of commercial equipment. They are all pretty much the same in design, a small knob to be turned to the proper position, and then pushed in against a spring that is always way harder to depress than anything operated by human hands should ever be. This allows the gas to flow in order to be lit, but needs to be depressed fully long enough for the thermocouple by the flame to heat up. If the coupler is not heated enough, the flame will go out when your thumb is pulled from the knob. The time/pressure that it takes to heat that thermo is almost perfectly aligned with the amount of time and pressure that it takes to make your thumb turn purple, and feel as though it is about to fall off. This pilot light was not an exception to this rule. After pushing, cursing, and repeating this process a few times, It lit back up.
Feeling relieved about that battle being won, I turned the temperature dial up, and awaited seeing the ignition of those pretty little orange and azure flames to flicker into being. I heard the click of the release valve, and then... nothing. I looked up, and i could swear that pig was having a chuckle at my expense. Marching to the side, fumbling with the latch, I looked... at the cold blank spot where the pilot just was. Smash my thumb again, light the light, turn the knob, and the pilot went out again! I figure it out, this machine was so poorly designed, that the main burners lit up just fast and hard enough that it would blow the light out, every single time. I tried in futility a couple more times, until I realized, it wasn’t happening, this machine was only efficient in frustration, nothing more.
The pig kept turning, just not cooking. Just taking a bizarre ride to nowhere. It dawned on me that I only had a couple of hours to get this sucker cooking, or it wouldn’t be safe to eat anymore.
It was with this in mind that I called the company,trying to keep calm and professional. “ The equipment that I rented from you appears to be faulty, and I require a working replacement to be delivered post-haste”. This was what i heard myself saying in a calm and reserved fashion. “I don’t know what to do or who to talk to, but I rented this peice of shit from you, it don’t work at all, what Cha gonna do about it? You wanna explain to the crowd coming to eat, or what?”. That was the eloquent phrase that erupted from my quivering craw. Thank goodness they were way more understanding than I had the capacity to be at the time, and they assured me that they will get one from a different company and get it to me forthwith.( I still wonder who they got it from, having called every place on Earth looking for one, and coming up with nothing). This led to one of the most nail-biting visits to the apex of stress that I’ve ever experienced, and I’ve been to that mountain top too many times.
During the wait, I had to keep my mind and body busy, or else risk pushing myself into “chef insanity”, the state that so many chef tv shows seem to glorify, but will put you in an early grave.I had limited options, being out under the sun on that day in June, guarding a pig, other than worry about it and incessantly take the internal temperature of it’s haunches. I decide that setting up the canopy my wife had bought for the occasion would be useful, as I was starting to feel an awful like an animal roasting over a fire myself.
Jokes have a tendency to relate themselves to facts, more often than not, facts that are tragic or maddening in nature. Here’s one that I've always felt a strong connection to, one that especially rings true in this recollection. “When I die, I want all of my sous chefs from my career to be my pall bearers. That way they can all let me down one last time.”. Why I recruited my sous chef to help me with the canopy, I can’t quite recall, (perhaps simply for the company? I think the truth lies somewhere between that and having a hunch that this might be harder than I thought, and having someone else to blame it on...), but here he was, and we both started into the process, ignoring the instructions, putting it together both backward and upside down while exchanging the usual self righteous commentary; “how does anybody ever get this done?, These instructions make no sense at all, in this day and age, you would think this would be easy!”. If we were creating soufflés or sauces thickened with blood, it would have gotten done, but being as that was not the task, the canopy is still, many years later, stored in my garage in a completely disheveled ball.
The hog’s facial expression seemed to be changing all over again with each passing moment. It looked like it was in a state of desperation, begging, pleading with me to bring it all to a close, to either make it delicious and toasty, or to end the suffering and deposit it into the dumpster. With no more distractions to keep my increasingly paranoid mind at ease, I was wearing my poor little digital thermometer out, checking every part of the animal for food safety, setting timers on my phone, and in general sweating the living shit out of this situation.
I began trying to call the poor, unfortunate cooks who were inside the kitchen, doing their best to plate up multiple meals for several hundred guests, with the daunting goal of getting their assistance with wrestling the beast off of the cooker, wheeling it back inside and placing it back under refrigeration.
Some of the guests for the dinner that evening came around to get a peak as to how things were going. Like a small child trying to keep his parents from seeing the mess that he'd made, or any source of shame, I began trying to shield them from the truth. "it's going great, just letting it spin for a moment, no big deal", I said, Knowing very well that it was an enormously big deal at that point. To this day, I have no idea if they could see through my subterfuge, and were just being kind, (most likely), or if they were that easily fooled.
The guests returned to their much envied free time, and the miracle I was hoping for came to pass. A truck pulled into the blaring hot asphalt expanse, towing a new cooker!! I guess the great chef in the sky still looked at me in kind regard.
After wrangling a couple of lobby attendants into helping out, mysef and the driver were able to get the beast onto the new machine, and turn it on. The heat and flames coming from it felt like blessed redemption. Go figure, this cooker had extremely simple controls, resulting in less to go wrong ultimately.
Now, easy times ahead. That would be what it would seem. Just sit and watch it turn, around and around, crisping and blistering in the heat of the day, and from the heat of the fire. Turning, flipping over and then back again, mesmerizing me.
The old man and the sea, the old chef and the pig. The ancient struggle of humanity against nature and ambition, the ocean and the sun, sharks circling, praying upon the catch, the very hope and dreams of the old man. The roasting heat of the asphalt, sun, and the spit, threatening to roast me alive, to burn the hog, or leave it undercooked for the guests of the feast, coming soon to devour this thing that I’ve invested so much in. These are the imaginings that went through my stress and fire addled mind.
I was so completely immersed in this folly, that it wasn’t until I had been staring for quite some time before it dawned on me what was coming undone before me. Upon each rotation of the spit, the piggy had begun to actually cook and contract from the radiation of the burners, resulting in it starting to partially fall from the pole. It had started to perform a sickening dance of sorts, falling from and then mounting again on each turn. This couldn’t continue for much longer before it would either begin to burn on one end, becoming a “burnt ass pig”, or in the worst case, it would break in half entirely, become a macabre symbol of abject failure.
A solution dawned on me, or at least the beginning thought of one, which was indubitably more favorable than staring at it slack jawed, as I’d been doing. I texted my sous chef, asking him to bring me two wire coat hangers from my office. In a testament to his blind loyalty to me, (or perhaps to his dense grasp on things in general), he asked no questions, and arrived with them post-haste. Stopping the spin and going to work on wiring things up, within a few minutes I was able to re-set the fire and rotisserie the animal all over again. Now it looked as if it was wearing some kind of homemade prosthetic, but was no longer performing its death dance.
The countenance of the bovine creature had finally gone cooked. He was no longer showing any other emotion beside the resignation to being a meal for rich folks. I looked as deeply in it’s eyes as I could. All that stared back at me was now pork, not pig.
What transpired next was a strange and disturbing kind of a surprise. The group had decided that it would be “fun” to have some cocktails while gathering around to watch the last bit of the cooking. After the struggle that the day had been, I sincerely had hoped to be able to finish my struggle with this oinker, and disappear into the night, going home to lick my wounds. Instead of this bittersweet release, I found myself becoming the subject of pictures and enquiries, attempting to smile without breaking into tears or laughing like a madman, not being able to stop.
Posing for the 12th or 13th selfie with my nemesis cooking away towards it’s crunchy and fatty demise, I saw a sight that pulled all of the blood from my face, leaving nothing but pallid horror. The spit rod itself was working itself off! The scene flashed swiftly through my thoughts. The giant carcass bouncing down, ass first, onto the grill and then rolling onto the ground, taking out several screaming guests at the knees. The entire crowd would have to look on, powerless and terrified, as people wrestled with hot lard, ruined meat covered with pavement sand, and simply wallowing in the mess of it all.
Screaming for the celebrants to open a hole and let me through, I rushed through the mob, diving towards the landscape rocks lining the exterior of the lot and gripping one out. The seam in the crowd had not had a chance to heal, allowing me a clear shot of my goal. I held the rock aloft like the mythical knight with the excalibur blade. I rushed back towards the errant steel, squinting my eyes so as to site out my movement. Knowing that this would be my only chance, I pulled in my breath. Putting as much power and belief as I could into one downward blow, I made my desperate and determined strike. I could tell that a few of the onlookers had grasped the situation, and could feel their hopes for success giving me power.
The “ping!!” noise of contact made an indication of the success in my mission. The spit settled into it’s saddle and stayed there. A few guests clapped, and a few sighed in relief. Interestingly enough, most didn’t even notice the debacle at all.
After a small high temperature grapple, myself and a couple of exhausted cooks got the equally exhausted carcass onto a large serving cart. I took one last look at it, in pity, admiration, and mostly awashed in a profound sense of accomplishment and relief. I steeled my carving knife, and made short work of slicing it up. A strange kind of autopsy resulting in shiny, greasy, grinning feast-goers.
It was then that I saw my chance for escape. Like a ninja, I made my way directly to my car, and drove home, preferring the quick escape to my usual last tour of the kitchen. In my slumber that evening, I vanquished giant pigs over and over again with my fantastic rock. I only noticed that I had kept it upon getting to work the next day and seeing it resting on the passenger seat in my car.
And so it came to pass that a simple landscaping rock became one of my prized possessions. Reminding me of my friend and nemesis, the pig, and how he was ultimately defeated by yours truly and devoured by a mob of mostly indifferent, and completely oblivious, sloppy drunk rich white folks.