What ended up being somewhat of a Week of Barbecue started out timidly enough. I'd slipped away to a cottage on Little Lake in Ontario without Michelle (when it comes to restaurant work, the show must go on, right?) for some Canada Day R & R. The Canada Day fireworks display in Bala got washed out due to torrential rains, but we made up for that the next day with some pyrotechnics on the gas grill. We had a couple of racks of spare ribs that we spent the weekend contemplating and visualizing before we finally decided to turn them into a batch of the Sticky Spicy Ribs featured in Gourmet's summer grilling issue in May. Those racks certainly lived up to their name, and they were so finger-lickin' good that six of us made short work of those short ribs, but as someone who's a steadfast "dry" when it comes to the "wet" vs. "dry" split on barbecueing ribs, I found myself thinking ahead to the next barbecue, and more than anything else I had my mind not on ribs but on North Carolina-style pulled pork barbecue. After all, we had to make up for those sandwiches we'd missed out on in New York.
When I got back to Montreal, Michelle and I got to talking barbecue. By the end of the week we'd settled on our menu and we'd decided to take our barbecue to the streets as a fundraiser for the nebulous Guerrilla Street Food Coalition and their ongoing battle against Montreal's insane bylaws regarding street vendors. Those of you who've been reading "...an endless banquet" for some time will know just where we stand on this issue, but if you need a refresher you can take a look here or here. Anyway, we consulted a whole host of recipes for pulled pork barbecue before picking two and finding a way to synthesize them in such a way that we could offer two different types of pulled pork sandwich from one cut of meat.
On Saturday morning we made our trip to see Vito and pick up the massive 11-lb. pork shoulder we'd ordered from him, along with some salt pork for my Down East Baked Beans. We love going to see Vito for all our butcher shop needs, but it's especially satisfying when we go in to get an uncommon cut of meat. On those occasions he seems particularly interested in what we're intending to make, so he prods us for a few details and he always asks us to come back with a full report. That day we both got the feeling there weren't too many others coming into Vito's and buying pork shoulders. I went back home, started my beans (I always bake them for about 8 hours to get them just right), and a couple of hours later, as I was heading back out to do some more shopping for our barbecue, I was literally stopped in my tracks by the Festival of India procession making its way along St-Joseph.
Here I was in the midst of preparing a Festival of Pork and who should I run into but a massive gathering of people trying to spread Krishna consciousness through vegetarian cuisine and workshops on yoga and meditation. I paused for a moment, but then somehow found comfort in the fact that one of the buses that was part of the parade hailed from a Krishna temple in Sandy Ridge, NC, right in the heart of North Carolina's Piedmont region. If anything, the smell of my hickory barbecue wafting across the festival site at Jeanne-Mance Park, just blocks from our house, would help make those Sandy Ridgers feel right at home. That was the theory, in any case.
By the time Michelle got home from work late on Saturday night, the beans were cooked, the cole slaw had been prepared, the homemade barbecue sauce was chilling in the fridge, and the pork shoulder was slathered with homemade barbecue rub, just waiting to cooked to perfection. The two recipes we'd chosen for our pulled pork were vastly different. The most basic one was a recipe that had shown up in Saveur in the June/July 2006 issue, a recipe that's a fixture of the buffet accompanying the annual Henagar-Union Sacred Harp Convention in DeKalb Country, Alabama (Fasola!). Like all good barbecue, it's cooked "slow and low," but this recipe didn't involve a rub and it's one that doesn't even require owning a barbecue. The other recipe was a more or less traditional North Carolina pulled pork barbecue recipe that we'd found in Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby's The Thrill of the Grill, a book that hasn't lost any of its charm in the 15+ years it's been in print. Not only did this version of pulled pork involve a rub, it also called for 5-7 hours of cooking time over a hardwood charcoal grill--it did claim to be authentic, after all. The other major difference between these two recipes was that one called for a "bone-in" pork butt (Alabama), the other a boneless butt (Eastern North Carolina). The final complicating factor was that we definitely wanted to do some grilling--some hickory smoked grilling, to be exact--but we were pretty sure our barbecue was not cut out for 7 hours of "slow and low" cooking. We've only got a beat-up, hand-me-down gas grill, not one of these new-fangled big-rigs you see in all the food magazines (and elsewhere) these days.
What to do? Well, as indicated above, we'd decided on the "bone-in" pork butt because we'd become convinced the flavor would be even better (and, after all, if it's good enough for Lexington Barbecue #1, it's good enough for us), and we'd decided to apply a rub to the whole cut of meat. We then decided to roast the shoulder in the oven for 8 hours in the manner outlined by the Alabama recipe to get the entire thing to that ever-so-desirable "falling off the bone" point. When that was done, we'd shred the meat, divide it in two, mix the Alabama half with its sauce and bake it for another 45 minutes, as per the recipe, while simultaneously finishing the North Carolina half on a hickory-smoked grill before mixing it with its wonderfully vinegary Eastern North Carolina sauce. This was not exactly going to be an honest-to-goodness North Carolina-style hardwood barbecue showcase, and we sure weren't going to be winning any prizes with our method, but then we're located about 700 miles north of the Mason-Dixon Line, and about 1,000 miles from the heart of North Carolina's barbecue country, so we weren't too worried about getting busted by the BBQ police. At the very least, we were pretty sure our pulled pork was going to be better than anything to be found in these parts, and we were hoping that our sandwiches might help tide us over until we get a chance to make that BBQ Odyssey we've been dreaming of.
So at 12:45 a.m. we wrapped our spice-laden pork shoulder tightly in aluminum foil, placed it in a water bath in our massive concave roasting pan and slid it into our pre-heated oven. Then we set the alarm for 4:45 a.m., when one of us would have to get up to see if the water bath needed to be replenished, poured a couple of bourbon and waters, and sat out on our back porch to take in a summer breeze or two and unwind before hitting the sack.