The Pretty Pig is America’s gold standard for a perfectly barbecued whole hog. Barbecuing a whole hog to that standard requires a mix of skill, art and luck.
In Chow Town we love barbecue brisket, burnt ends, prime rib, short ribs, spareribs, loin ribs, rib tips, shoulder, ham, turkey, chicken, lamb, mutton, steaks and sausages. Our major barbecue restaurant omissions are cabrito (goat), pig snoots and whole hog.
Whole hog barbecue is available in Chow Town — Fritz’s, Smokehouse and Bichelmeyer — but unlike eastern North Carolina we don’t have barbecue restaurants that specialize in whole hog. No pig pickin’ in Chow Town except at private parties and special events.
Two out-of-Chow-Town options for finding and eating a Pretty Pig are taking a barbecue road trip to eastern North Carolina or judging whole hog at the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.
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A North Carolina barbecue roadtrip is your best bet. Judging whole hog at Memphis in May requires certification as a Memphis in May or Memphis Barbecue Network judge, plus the luck of the draw after you are accepted as a judge.
You get your judging assignment — blind or on-site; ribs, shoulder or whole hog — after you check in on judging day. Of the 26 times I’ve judged at Memphis in May, I have judged whole hog on site only five times.
Eastern North Carolina is rich with whole hog barbecue. Many places have switched to gas, but you can still find whole hogs cooked in the traditional manner with wood.
If you can only make one stop, swine dine at The Pit in Raleigh. Ed Mitchell, the original pitmaster, has moved on, but the standards Ed set for top quality whole hog barbecue at The Pit are still in place.
North Carolina barbecue expert and “Minister of Barbecue Culture,” Bob Garner, calls eastern North Carolina-style whole hog barbecue “the original American barbecue.”
I highly recommend his book, “North Carolina Barbecue — Flavored by Time” (1996) as a basic primer and reliable guide to many of the state’s best barbecue restaurants. Sadly, some — A&M in Mebane, for example — have closed since the book was published, but that in no way diminishes the value of the book. For the most recent guide, get “Barbecue Lover’s the Carolinas” (2015).
My go-to North Carolina barbecue books — Garner’s “Flavored by Time,” Jim Early’s “The Best Tarheel Barbecue” (2002), and “Holy Smoke — The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue” (2008) by John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed with William McKinney — do not mention Pretty Pigs, nor do they define a Pretty Pig.
Leave it to a Chow Towner to craft this working definition:
Pretty Pig: A North Carolina icon for more than half a century, this pig is barbecued to perfection in every detail. The skin patina is golden, brown or mahogany. All external body parts are not torn or burned. The meat is tender from head to tail, not tough or mushy. The flavor is a perfect balance of sweet pig meat complemented with peppered vinegar or mustard and a kiss of smoke.
Please note that competition barbecue is changing the flavor profile of whole hog. Instead of sour complementary seasonings, many teams inject and mop with sweet seasonings, catering to the judges’ sweet tooth. Candied hogs are all the more reason to take a road trip to North Carolina before it’s too late.
May you find at least one Pretty Pig on your barbecue adventures.
Ardie Davis founded a sauce contest on his backyard patio in 1984 that became the American Royal International Barbecue Sauce, Rub & Baste contest. He is a charter member of the Kansas City Barbeque Society and an inductee into the KCBS Hall of Flame. He has been interviewed on food shows and writes for barbecue-related publications. His most recent release is “America’s Best BBQ (Revised Edition),” with chef Paul Kirk.