Is America on the Verge of a Whole Hog Revival?

Once on the brink of extinction, traditional whole hog barbecue is now poised for a remarkable comeback.

By Robert F. Moss

Sam Jones chopping barbecue at the 2015 Whole Hog Extravaganza, Murphsboro, IL
Sam Jones chopping barbecue at the 2015 Whole Hog Extravaganza, Murphsboro, IL (Robert F. Moss)
Just a few years ago, it looked like whole hog barbecue was headed for the ash heap of history. In West Tennessee, once a hotbed of the style, many older restaurants had closed their doors. Those pitmasters who remained had increasingly switched to using pork shoulders, leaving just a single whole hog joint in the region, Scott-Parker Barbeque in Lexington. The cooking of whole pigs remained more entrenched in the eastern parts of the Carolinas, but many cooks there had given up the laborious work of tending smoky pits in favor of more convenient gas-fired cookers.

Restaurants aren’t the only places where people cook whole hogs, of course. In rural areas, farm families have long barbecued a pig or two on homemade pits for family reunions and holiday celebrations. But the number of family farms has been shrinking for decades (and the average age of farmers rising), and as more and more of the children of farm families move away or turn to other professions, the tradition of cooking pigs in the backyard has faded, too.

At the same time, the Texas style of barbecuing—brisket, sausage, and ribs slow cooked on offset smokers—has been on the rise. Boosted by high-tech smokers, cable television shows, and an avalanche of media hype, that style can now be found everywhere from Manhattan to the Pacific coastline. It’s even making inroads into the Carolinas and Tennessee, where new barbecue restaurants are far more likely to serve slow-smoked brisket on metal trays lined with butcher paper than they are pulled whole hog.

But it’s not all doom and gloom for whole hog fans these days. In fact, the past two years have seen a flurry of new interest in that old cooking style. A younger generation of dedicated pitmasters are now opening restaurants with menus featuring whole hog cooked over live-fire pits, and diners have been flocking to them. And they’re doing it in places that haven’t previously been home to the tradition, expanding the geography of whole hog barbecue for the first time in over a century. We may well be witnessing a full-on whole hog revival.

Reviving a Dying Art

The reasons for whole hog’s decline were many. It’s a tedious, laborious way to cook—staying up all night, bending and stooping, carrying one shovel of glowing coals after another from burn barrel to open pit. It takes a mountain of hardwood to create those coals, and starting in the 1970s that wood started to become increasingly expensive. Whole pigs got harder to come by, too, as pork production became a commoditized, highly-centralized industry and local slaughterhouses began to disappear.

At the same time, most customers still thought of barbecue as an everyday food and didn't want to pay big bucks for it. Barbecue joints competed not with steakhouses and fine dining restaurants but with hamburger and fried chicken chains. The hours were long, the margins ever-shrinking—little wonder that so many of the children of old-school barbecue families decided to pursue other careers.

But just as it seemed the last glow of orange light was about to fade from the burn barrel, new breezes came along and stirred a flicker of life.

In January of 2015, I found myself in a seminar room in Murphysboro, Illinois, watching Sam Jones, who had come all the way from Skylight Inn in Ayden, North Carolina, as he stood over a whole hog on a stainless steel table, using a hatchet and hammer to split the backbone of a carcass he was prepping for the pit. Several dozen eager students—most of them barbecue restaurateurs—watched intently, some asking questions, others making notes on small pads.

Sam Jones demonstrates how to prep a pig for the pit at the Whole Hog Extravaganza, January 2015
Sam Jones demonstrates how to prep a pig for the pit at the Whole Hog Extravaganza, January 2015 (Robert F. Moss)

It was the fourth annual Whole Hog Extravaganza, a three-day educational event staged by Mike and Amy Mills, the father/daughter team behind 17th Street BBQ. In addition to their two restaurants and a competition team, they do a brisk consulting business advising other restaurateurs on how to succeed in the trade.

Cooking whole hog poses many commercial challenges. For starters, Amy Mills says, the whole animal doesn’t yield nearly as much finished meat after cooking as, say, a pork shoulder. It also takes more labor and more space. “If you weren’t set up for that originally,” Mills says, “it’s hard to retrofit. While you are cooking [a whole hog] in the pit you can’t cook anything else unless you buy more equipment.”

Tough barriers, indeed, but if the dozens of restaurateurs who had come from as far away as Alaska were any indication, a growing number of entrepreneurs were ready to take them on.

Later that fall, I was invited to the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans to speak at a different sort of whole hog event. Howard Conyers cooked a pig and gave a talk about the science of whole hog cookery, and I shared some of the history behind this centuries-old American tradition. The attendees got to sample Conyers’s barbecue, and for many of them it was first time they’d tasted the whole hog variety.

Howard Conyers cooking a whole hog at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans, 2015
Howard Conyers cooking a whole hog at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans, 2015 (Robert F. Moss)

Conyers grew up on a farm near Manning, South Carolina, where he learned to cook barbecue from his father. By the time he was a teenager he was tending the pits all night for family reunions and gatherings of the local Future Farmers of America (FFA). But a love for science took him far away from the farm. He earned a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and material science, and he now lives in New Orleans and works testing rocket engines at NASA’s Stennis Space Center on the Mississippi-Louisiana border.

After arriving in Louisiana, though, Conyers started to miss his family's style of barbecue. “I realized I had left something back home that is unique and special,” he told me. So he tracked down a whole pig, improvised a pit, and cooked barbecue for his friends for a Super Bowl party. He did it again at the Hogs for the Cause barbecue competition in 2014. That led to a side project called Carolina QNOLA, a pop-up that has served traditional South Carolina-style barbecue at various events and seminars in and around New Orleans. (On January 29th, Conyers is going really old school and cooking a heritage breed Red Waddle hog at Mahaffey Farms outside of Shrevepoint—and he’s going to do it in a pit dug in the ground.)

During the Q&A session after our talks, an audience member asked us whether we thought whole hog cooking would rebound in the future. Despite his passion for preserving the tradition, Conyers was pessimistic. “It’s just so expensive,” he said, noting the cost of the wood and the pigs themselves as well as the time and labor required.

But I was more sanguine about the outlook, for I had recently encountered others who were starting to cook whole hogs the old burn-barrel way for special occasions like fundraisers and Memorial Day parties. I had even come across a few enterprising folks who were opening brand new whole hog barbecue restaurants.

The first were Bryan and Nikki Furman, who opened B’s Cracklin’ BBQ in Savannah in October 2014. Like Conyers, Bryan Furman grew up cooking whole hogs in rural South Carolina. (In Furman’s case, it was on his grandparents’ farm near Camden.) He start doing catering in and around Savannah and had enough success that he and Nikki took a gamble and opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant—and they went whole hog with it, cooking heritage breed pigs over hickory and cherry wood and serving them with sides made using old recipes and fresh local produce. Bryan even puts cracklins in his cornbread, the way his grandmother did.

The Furmans suffered a huge setback less than a year after opening when their original restaurant burned to the ground, but the community rallied around them and they bounced back, opening in a new location a few miles down the road. In 2016 they took another leap forward, opening a second location in Atlanta, the first whole hog joint in Georgia’s capital city.

B’s seemed an outlier at first, since all the other new barbecue joints opening up around the South were focused on mastering Texas-style brisket. In the summer of 2015, though, I met Wyatt Dickson and Ben Adams from Durham, North Carolina, who had come down to Charleston to cook a pig for a special event, and I learned that they were in the process of opening a new restaurant called Picnic. Dickson was having a custom pit built for the restaurant so he could cook three 225-pound hogs at a time.

Just a few weeks later Elliot Moss, who had made a name for himself as a chef at the Admiral in Asheville, opened the doors at Buxton Hall, where he cooks whole hogs in two big metal pits right inside the restaurant’s open kitchen. Three months after that, Sam Jones, whose grandfather Pete Jones founded Skylight Inn in 1947, held the grand opening for his own restaurant, Sam Jones BBQ, in nearby Winterville, complete with a big pit room on the side where he and his crew cook whole pigs on cinderblock pits the same way his grandfather did.

A whole hog on the pit at Summerville's Swig & Swine
A whole hog on the pit at Summerville's Swig & Swine (Robert F. Moss)

The openings kept coming in 2016. The second location of Anthony DiBernardo’s Swig & Swine opened in Summerville in the fall, and it included a pit room with the capacity to cook three or more whole hogs a day, seven days a week. (We profiled DiBernardo and the new Swig & Swine back in December.) The whole city of Charleston has been abuzz with the news that Rodney Scott, whose father founded the legendary Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, South Carolina, in the 1970s, announced that he was opening a new restaurant smack in the middle of downtown Charleston. At the time of this writing, Rodney Scott Barbecue is expected to open for business within a matter of weeks.

And if that’s not enough, Pat Martin, whose first Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint opened a decade ago in Nolensville, Tennessee, added his fifth and sixth locations in 2016, one in Louisville, Kentucky, and another right in the middle of downtown Nashville in a two-story building with three whole-hog pits.

By my tally, which I’ve captured on the BBQ Hub’s “Whole Hog Barbecue” map, there are now 26 restaurants in the country that specialize in whole hog barbecue.

Finding a Market

Admittedly, two dozen restaurants aren’t quite enough to justify removing this traditional form of cooking from the endangered barbecue species list. But it is a start.

I asked Amy Mills, who is preparing to kick-off the 6th annual version of the Whole Hog Extravaganza on January 16th, if she anticipated that a lot more restaurateurs would open whole hog joints in the near future.

“It’s hard for it to be totally whole hog-centered,” she says. “I see it as an addition, not the whole thing, unless you start that way and can really make a go of it.”

Indeed, there is one commonality among all the new whole-hog-all-the-time restaurants that have opened up in the past few years: they are all large format enterprises. The new Swig ‘n Swine in Summerville has a 1,500 square foot pit room, and it’s a full-service restaurant complete with a hostess and a cocktail menu. The 130-seat Buxton Hall has a cocktail list, too, along with a full time pastry chef, Ashley Capps, whose resume includes stints at Eleven Madison Park in New York City and 5&10 in Athens. Though Skylight Inn is known for its simple menu of chopped pork, cornbread, and slaw, Sam Jones’s gleaming new place in Winterville occupies 5,500 square feet and offers smoked chicken, turkey, ribs, and wings along with fried catfish and nine sides.

In October 2015, Sam Jones from the famous Skylight Inn barbecue family opened a new 5,500 square foot whole hog restaurant in Winterville
In October 2015, Sam Jones from the famous Skylight Inn barbecue family opened a new 5,500 square foot whole hog restaurant in Winterville (Robert F. Moss)

The fact of the matter is that it’s really hard to make a lot of money off whole hog itself.

“It’s a labor of love,” Amy Mills says. She and her father serve whole hog once a week at their two 17th Street BBQ restaurants—on Sunday in Murphysboro and Tuesday in Marion. It’s proven to be a huge hit with their regular customers. “There are families who come in every week,” Mills says, “and they won’t order until the hog comes out. It’s becoming a tradition with their family, which is what we wanted to have happen.”

The attendees of the Mills’s Whole Hog Extravaganzas have not rushed back to their restaurants and converted them over to all whole hog cooking, but many have started to cook pigs for special occasions and have added them to their catering operations, for which they’re a big money maker.

Mike Mills gives pig cooking tips at the 2015 Whole Hog Extravaganza in Murphysboro, IL
Mike Mills gives pig cooking tips at the 2015 Whole Hog Extravaganza in Murphysboro, IL (Robert F. Moss)

And that means we’re starting to see whole hog barbecue in parts of the country where it was never part of the local style before—even down in beef-centric Texas. Todd David at Dallas's Cattleack Barbeque, for instance, now opens his restaurant one Saturday each month (it’s normally open only on Thursday and Fridays) and serves whole hog alongside his acclaimed brisket and pastrami.

Whole hog in Texas? Two years ago I would have thought you were crazy if you even suggested such a thing were possible.

Boom or Blip?

This past November, I spent two days hanging out in the fields at Green Button Farm just outside of Durham, North Carolina, watching heritage breed pigs rooting through the high grass and smelling the smoke drifting over from a 10-foot-long barbecue pit dug right down into the dirt of the pasture.

It was an event staged by the owners of Picnic, a restaurant that’s a three-way collaboration amongst a barbecue man, a fine-dining chef, and a hog farmer. The barbecue man is Wyatt Dickson (he’s not a fan of the term “pitmaster”), who parlayed his initial forays into cooking whole hogs for football tailgates into a catering career. The chef is Ben Adams, a veteran of noted kitchens such as McCrady’s in Charleston and Piedmont in Durham, who brings fine dining touches like fresh market fish and bacon-braised collards. And the farmer is Ryan Butler, our host at Green Button Farm, who raises the heritage breed hogs that wind up on the pits at Picnic—a throwback to the way pigs were raised back before the days of giant agribusiness.

Heritage-breed pigs snoozing away the afternoon at Green Button Farm, Durham, NC
Heritage-breed pigs snoozing away the afternoon at Green Button Farm, Durham, NC (NC BBQ Revival/Eric Waters)

We were out at the farm for the inaugural North Carolina BBQ Revival, an event that celebrates North Carolina’s long whole hog tradition and recognizes the importance of heritage breed pigs and the land upon which they are raised. The featured guests included many of the pitmasters behind the new crop of whole hog restaurants that had been opening around the South, like Sam Jones, Bryan Furman, and Elliot Moss. Tyson Ho was there, too, one of the most intriguing of the new generation of pitmasters bringing back an old art. Back in 2014, after leaving a career in finance, Ho had opened a North Carolina-style whole hog barbecue joint called Arrogant Swine—and he did it all the way up in Brooklyn, New York, a remarkable indication of whole hog's expanding reach.

The weekend included various dinners and seminars (including an introduction to whole hog butchery and a primer on sustainable farming), and on Saturday night the pitmasters all pitched in to cook several whole hogs in an in-ground pit, which were served the next day at a big outdoor feast. During the event, a gleaming golden shovel—the essential tool of the whole hog cook—was presented to octogenarians Stephen and Geri Grady, the proprietors of Grady’s Barbecue in Dudley, North Carolina, for their long commitment to the art of traditional barbecue.

An hour before the pigs were served, the featured guests took the stage for a panel discussion on the ins and outs of whole hog barbecue. Toward the end, the conversation turned naturally toward the question of what the future would hold: will this flurry of interest in whole hog barbecue prove a lasting trend, or is it just a blip?

The panelists discuss barbecue past and future at the North Carolina BBQ Revival in Durham, November 2016
The panelists discuss barbecue past and future at the North Carolina BBQ Revival in Durham, November 2016 (Courtesy NC BBQ Revival/Eric Waters)

“I think it will be a blip,” Sam Jones said, speaking from a position of experience. After all, he not only grew up in his family’s barbecue business but also launched his own large-scale operation and cooked at festivals and events all over the country. Jones said that he sees himself as something of a whole hog evangelist, carrying the gospel of the old ways out into the world, but he knows how hard it is to make the dollars and cents work. “Most people just aren’t willing to pay what it costs to cook this way,” he said.

Indeed, some recent news has suggested that while whole hog can draw an initial crowd, it isn’t a guarantee of long-term success. Lamar Lounge, chef John Currence’s venture into barbecue in Oxford Mississippi, closed its doors in October to retool its format, leaving Mississippi without a single whole hog joint. The burger at the Lamar Lounge, it turns out, outsold the barbecue four to one.

And that’s where we left it on that sunny November afternoon: our nostrils filled with the scent of pork finishing on the pit, our bellies grumbling for the feast to come, our hearts guardedly hopefully for many more such feasts in the future.

Sam Jones (left), Tyson Ho (center), Wyatt Dickson and Bryan Furman (right) pulling the pig at the NC BBQ Revival in Durham, November 2016
Sam Jones (left), Tyson Ho (center), Wyatt Dickson and Bryan Furman (right) pulling the pig at the NC BBQ Revival in Durham, November 2016 (NC BBQ Revival/Eric Waters)

The reports of whole hog’s death, it seems, were greatly exaggerated, and for that we can be thankful. I suspect we’ll see more restaurants adding it to their lineups in 2017, and it will likely continue to pop up in more and more parts of the country where it was previously unknown.

No, whole hog probably won’t eclipse prime-grade brisket as the new hot thing on the barbecue scene, but that’s okay. Historically speaking, it was always a special occasion thing anyway. As long as we have it around for special occasions in the future, I’ll consider that a victory.

Want to Learn to Cook Whole Hog?

The 6th annual version of the Whole Hog Extravaganza is about to get underway, starting on January 16 at 17th Street BBQ’s Warehouse facility in Murphysboro, Illinois. In addition to Mike Mills, the pitmasters leading sessions include John Lewis of Lewis Barbecue in Charleston SC, Carey Bringle of Peg Leg Porker in Nashville, Elliott Moss of Buxton Hall Barbecue in Asheville, and Barry Sorkin of Smoque BBQ in Chicago plus writers, photographers, and a range of other industry insiders. If you want to go whole hog yourself, there are a few tickets still available, which you can find here.

About the Author

Robert F. Moss

Robert F. Moss is the Contributing Barbecue Editor for Southern Living magazine, Restaurant Critic for the Post & Courier, and the author of numerous books on Southern food and drink, including The Lost Southern Chefs, Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Southern Spirits: 400 Years of Drinking in the American South, and Barbecue Lovers: The Carolinas. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina.

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