In his “Dissertation on Roast Pig,” English essayist Charles Lamb painted a vision of the ancient Chinese burning down houses just to have roast pork. In my own life, I’ve seen many a conflagrational contact between pig and fire.
In the ‘70s, some friends of mine decided they wanted to barbecue a suckling pig. A news photographer who’d been famous during the Vietnam War for wading into the goriest part of the fighting offered to build the fire for us, “the way we did it in ‘Nam.” He stayed up all night lovingly tending a bed of coals.
In the morning, when we put the pig on those coals, they turned out to be so hot its skin practically burst into flame. As I recall, we ended up having to divide the scorched porker into chops and grill them all separately. And way off to the edges of the coal bed.
One weekend in the ‘80s, I was up in Bishop recovering from one of the hideous flus that were going around at the time. There was a move to have a barbecue party, and when the question came up of what sauce to use on the ribs, two brothers urged us to try their father’s recipe, which was simply an emulsion of rum and melted butter, applied via ketchup dispensers.
So in my flu-weakened state, I had to watch helplessly as these cackling pyromaniacs squirted their inflammable mixture over and over onto the grill, starting one roaring flare-up after another. You could just about read a book by the light of them.
The truth is, pork likes rather gentle heat. Sufficient to cook it, of course; but pork chops, in particular, overcook easily. If you don’t want chops to come out dry, cook them just until they stiffen. Take one off the grill and slice it. The flesh should still be very faintly pink inside.
Pork can be pretty mild tasting, but marinades can be used to add flavor. Yogurt is an effective marinade for any meat; it’s a common chicken and lamb marinade in Afghanistan and India. Of course, pork is rare to nonexistent in those countries, but that needn’t stop us from swiping the idea. Yogurt has the additional benefit of being one of the few marinades that actually tenderizes; scientists speculate that it has something to do with the nature of lactic acid. Pork is not a tough meat, anyhow--unless you somehow come across free-range pork, otherwise known as wild boar.
With ribs, the question is scarcely ever toughness. The meat is well basted with fat by nature, and gnawing the last tasty morsel off the bones is one of the great attractions of eating ribs. More than chops, ribs cry out for a sweet-sour sauce to play against the rich meat flavor, even a bit more sweet than sour.
The usual American rib sauce is tomato sauce simmered with vinegar, hot pepper, a sweet ingredient and other flavorings until thick and flavorful. Most supermarket barbecue sauces use molasses as the sweetener, but the secret ingredient of many a homemade barbecue sauce is grape jelly or peach preserves. Apricot-pineapple preserves work beautifully too, and apple butter will enrich a molasses-based sauce.
Not every fruit suits barbecue sauce, though. Ask the man who hoped to invent the world’s first blackberry barbecue sauce. Blackberries are for serving on ice cream--they don’t agree with pork, much less tomato sauce. Based on this experience, I’ve also given up my plan to invent blueberry and strawberry barbecue sauces.
There are lots of ways to put the pig to the grill. Pork is a generous, easygoing meat and terrific party food--if you practice safe fire, that is.