Written By David S. Shields
Originally Published in the Rice Paper Newsletter, Fall 2014
The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation (CGRF), while devoted to the restoration of the crop central to the Lowcountry rice kitchen, has taken as its mission the restoration of the co-crops of Carolina Gold, and the other ingredients that made up classic Southern cuisine. The Wilmington, Charleston, Savannah, and Jacksonville markets before the 20th century were filled with fruits and nuts, beginning with loquats in March and continuing around the calendar to Christmas oranges and January tangerines. The autumn bounty of chestnuts coming from the hill and mountain country was a regular feature of these foodways, until the coming of chestnut blight and phytophthora, twin plagues that wiped out the vast eastern forests of American chestnut and decimated its dwarf cousin, the chinquapin.
The CGRF has been greatly interested in reviving the chestnut foodways that had once been common in our region. This chestnut legacy has been reduced to holiday “chestnuts roasting o’re an open fire” and chestnut stuffing for the Thanksgiving turkey. We have recovered recipes for chestnut grits, chestnut skillet bread, chestnut soufflé, and chestnut pudding (with rose water). But as glories of the southern table went, none of these dishes competed with the most cherished dishes — chestnut-fed pork barbecue and chestnut-fed venison.
When word filtered up from Florida that two wild pigs had been seen grazing in a widow grove of Dunstan (a hybrid American-Chinese chestnut popularized as edible landscape in the 1950s), Glenn Roberts, president of the CGRF, sent a request that they be penned in. And so two pigs gorged on fallen nuts until they had grown sufficiently fat to warrant a truck trip southward. Glenn hauled two ornery fat pigs into South Carolina, and on November 14, 2013 they were handed over to 601 Deer and Hog Processing in Fort Motte, S.C., for butchering. One of the pigs would be handed over to Chuck Ross and James Helms for barbecuing. Master charcutier Craig Diehl drove up from Charleston to take charge of the second pig for curing.
I arrived at 601 Processing on the afternoon of November 15 and found the son of the proprietor and Craig deep in a consultation on the quickest way to cut certain venison joints. These weeks in November constitute the crush time of 601. In the 20 minutes I was present, two and a half deer were disemboweled, skinned, and broken down. The bloody skeletons lay stacked in a corner crying out for a chef’s stock pot, but because of the game sale laws, no go. I did, however, learn that a substantial portion of the deer harvest is donated to Harvest Hope. That charity does not waste its materials.
The hog had been skinned when we arrived. (Alas, no cracklin’s for the guests.) Craig was tremendously enthused about the fat quality of the pig. It was admirable, and the meat itself robustly red-pink. Craig sliced through it quickly, his knife work singularly precise and quick. I told him to do his curing of the meat in ways that seem appropriate to the quality he found. We parted, and the proprietor commented that quite a number of chestnuts grew on a nearby ridge and that he has seen wild hogs in the vicinity. He then informed me that he is one of only four processors given a state permit to process wild pigs.
On Saturday morning of the barbecue I made three of the four barbecue sauces — the standard Lowcountry mustard, the classic Hemingway, S.C., vinegar and pepper, muscadine vinegar sorghum tomato and pepper, and there was blueberry as well. I wound up using Joseph Trapp’s sorghum rather than the Lindler. I brought several jars of Bradford watermelon pickle. I also made a cucumber, tomato, dill, and onion salad dressed with benne oil and good madeira vinegar. I arrived at Oldfields Plantation in Hopkins, S.C., the site of the barbecue at noon. Mike Davis of Terra Restaurant was already present with the chestnut skillet bread.
The pig had been smoking for a good while and the compound was fragrant with the smell of smouldering chestnut husks. Much of the next two hours was consumed in setting up water stations, scrubbing down the tables, laying out the food displays. Chuck had begun the process of cutting the meat off the lustrously browned hog. He was the soul of self-control, refusing to taste until I, James, and Heidi Cooley, the head of the film crew, had partaken. Glenn Roberts, the provider of the pig, alas, was out in the field, unable to be present. So I had to report long distance that there was a distinct quality to the meat, an earthly basic flavor, a fine, almost floral fatty sweetness, and a long finish in the mouth. It was moist, tender, and the caramelized portions startling in their nuttiness.
There was, of course, hash with Carolina Gold Rice.
The first guests to arrive — some of host Ted Hopkins’s friends — were fascinated with the stories connected with the food, and ready with their cups when I broke out my sake bottle. (Sake is better than beer or bourbon as a complement to barbecue). Nathalie Dupree, her husband Jack Bass, and their passenger, Hanna Raskin arrived precisely at 2:00 and Nathalie went directly to the cutting station, going for some gnawing bones. For a half an hour the guests arrived, milled about, ogled the food (the panniers from the Palmetto Pig were covered, but the salads, cured loin I brought, and pickles were available for nibbling). Most guests gravitated to Michael Peterson’s chestnut basket where he peeled and hand fed a cluster of eager eaters. After Ted Hopkins arrived at 2:25, we were ready to begin. By this time there were approximately 50 persons present, including numbers from the press.
After a blessing, the panniers were uncovered, the lines quickly formed. The rhapsody on chestnuts and chestnut-fed pigs had people’s gastric juices percolating. Chad Carter appeared suddenly bearing a number of Bradford Watermelon pickle varieties and gummi-treats.
James Helms made sure a portion of the meat and sauce were secured for pig provider Glenn Roberts upon his return. There was not much left at the end of the feast. We had gauged the invitations to food ratio well. It took a little over an hour to clean up. A splendid sunny day turned to dark slowly with a spectacular sunset over a wonderful countryside.
Southerners had tasted that day the first chestnut fed barbecued pig available in the South in a century.