Friday, April 17, 2015

Family Reunion Barbecue

Barbecue has come a long way in the past twenty years or so. Barbecue is featured on prime time television, haute BBQ is found in swanky restaurants, and competition barbecue is as popular as ever. Barbecue is a growth industry of equipment, rubs, and sauces. There is nothing wrong with any of that, I love to see the celebration of barbecue. But I recently got to do a cook that stripped all of that away and reminded me of something. The real magic of barbecue happens in the VFW halls, community centers, and back yard covered dish suppers across the country every weekend. The smoke of family and community barbecues brings families together, connects generations, and refreshes aged bonds of friendship.

smoked pork, chopped pork, BBQ sandwich, cleaver, pulled pork, pork BBQ,
Who knew that the BBQ pork sandwich had so much power?

When my sister visited us in January, she had the wonderful idea that she and I should cook BBQ for our big family reunion in North Carolina. I thought it was a great idea because we hadn't been to one of these since Trevor was a baby. We used to meet every year or so at a farm house around Thanksgiving and share a meal with our extended family. Then my grandmother passed away, life got in the way, and we just didn't make it back.

My grandmother holding Trevor (yes, that same Trevor who is now a big high school football player).  She passed away before the reunion the following year.  Take advantage of your family while you have them.

This is in a very rural part of North Carolina where my brother, sister, and I often spent Summer vacations running barefoot and wild on our grandparents' farm. It's where I learned to shoot a rifle, split firewood by reading the grooves, and fish. It's also where had my first real taste of barbecue from the local volunteer fire department's community fund raiser. I fell in love with the piquant, vinegary taste of that chopped smoked pork and I was hooked for life. 

I have to admit that I was more apprehensive about cooking BBQ for our North Carolina family than I have been about cooking for any competition judge. Cooking for a judge is just about a number or result. This was about family - family that knows good BBQ and has specific ideas of what that should be.

People with a true love of BBQ have two kinds of family - family by blood and family by smoke. I didn't want to haul my kamados 6 1/2 hours across the Smoky Mountains and my sister didn't want to drag hers up 500+ miles from Florida. When barbecue people hear about other barbecue people in a stitch, they step up and provide.  My sister went to work on Facebook and through a cousin found a couple of strangers in Whiteville (20 miles from where we were staying) who had a Big Green Egg.  Randy and Bonita didn't know us from Adam's house cat but they opened up their home to us like family - family by smoke.

A common question in the BBQ forums is "I'm cooking BBQ for X event, how should I do that and get it there?"

So our game plan was this:

We had 60 people confirmed with several pending so we estimated for 80 people, we would need about 27 lbs of pork so we would need about 55 lbs of raw pork shoulders to begin with.  (Estimated 1/3rd pound per person, if we were doing two meats, I'd drop that estimate to a quarter pound per person for the pork.  80/3 = 26.6 lbs of cooked pork. Assuming you'll have about 50% shrinkage during cooking and processing, double that to 53.2 lbs).  Not ever wanting to run short, we planned to make more than needed to have a reserve batch.  If we didn't use it, it was already sealed and refrigerated so we could freeze it and eat at home later.
Wed night - Cook 40 lbs of pork butts in Knoxville overnight from 6pm to 6am.  Break it down, vacuum seal it, and refrigerate it and haul it to NC in coolers.  This would be our reserve batch.  If needed, we would heat the sealed bags in hot water and then freshen it up with a little rub serve.
Fri night - Cook 40 lbs of pork butts in Whiteville overnight from 8pm to 8am.  Pull at 8am Saturday morning, hold in a Cambro, transport to the community center in Lisbon and chop it onsite to serve as the first batches.
That gave us about 3 extra hours in case the Friday night butts ran longer.  If they weren't close at 6am, we planned to bump the Egg cooking temperature up to 300°F to speed it along.  
It worked out pretty close to how we planned.  Please excuse a lot of the pictures.  Once on the trip, we were only shooting with our mobile phone cameras and often in low light situations.

First round of four 10 pound pork butts.  I came home at lunch and prepped them.  Prep consisted of trimming, injecting with Chris Lilly's injection plus 1 cup of water, and then seasoned with....

We used my signature BBQ rub .  Note that we have updated that recipe increasing some of the sugars and adding a few new things.  

Flame Boss, Big Green Egg, Big Green Egg controller
Even though I had plenty of kamado grills available, I cooked all 4 butts in one Large BGE with an adjustable rig because I wanted to make sure I wouldn't run into any problems using the same set up in Whiteville on Friday.  In theory, cooking 4 butts shouldn't take any longer than 1 butt as long as they aren't pushed up against each other.  But 4 butts in one cooker seemed crowded so I wanted to make sure. The Adjustable Rig set up worked perfect and the butts were done right at 12 hours, slightly more than 1 hour per pound.

big batch of pulled pork, smoking pork for party, pulled pork how much
The pork finished at 6am on Thursday so I was able to shred it and vacuum seal it before leaving for work that morning.
I serve my pork "naked" or without sauce, because I don't like covering it up with sauce.  But we like to give our guests options so we made a BBQ sauce bar.  Since this was North Carolina we had an Eastern NC vinegar sauce and a Western NC piedmont style sauce.  We also made our regular sweet, a sweet and spicy, and my sister made her acclaimed mustard BBQ sauce.  I highly recommend doing this when serving large crowds because everyone has their preferences about BBQ.

I came up with a great display idea for this.  I'll be doing a "DIY" post for that coming up shortly.

We drove over to Whiteville and Randy and Bonita couldn't have been nicer.  When I found that their Egg was surrounded by literally TONS of hardwood I took that as a harbinger of great things to come.  What better environment for a smoker?

The logs are actually for a wood furnace but still, it has to make the Egg feel happy.  
The only trouble we ran into was that the wire lead for the Auber controller/blower that I brought died an untimely death and my spare was 425 miles back at home.  No problem, we just went with the manual vents.  

We got the Egg loaded and then hung around to make sure it was stable.  We left around 9 and then came back around midnight.  The Egg was still humming along at 250F, just like we left it.  We switched the top rack out with the lower rack just to be on the safe side.

As you can see, I put a temp probe in one of the lower level butts and one on the top rack, just in case they finished at different times.  

Early in the morning and the butts were looking and smelling great.  They were mahogany and starting to form a nice bark.

Despite the horrible mobile phone's crappy camera and the blurriness, this is one of my favorite BBQ pictures I have ever taken.  It is my sister about 6am watching over the Egg and it looks like an old smoke house with the light beaming down through the smoke filled air.

This was another of my favorite shots - the sun peeking through the woods as night turns into morning and the Egg just doing its thing.

The internal temps bounced around a little at first.  One butt would be 10 degrees more cooked, then the other would catch up.  But towards the end, all 4 butts ended up finishing right about the same time.

Chopping the pork with my sister at the community center.  Photo Credit:  Ruth Grove

It was a lot of work but it felt so great to see our family enjoying the fruits of our labor.  This cook meant more to me than any I can remember in the last 5 years.  It was special because of family but also because of getting to have my sister as my co-pitmaster.  It was like we were kids again, staying up all night having fun while all of the "adults" were asleep.  I will remember this cook forever.

Photo credit:  Ruth Grove

Cousin Mike told me a few stories about my granddad that I never knew.  For example, he gave Mike several acres to farm as his own.  He also shared some special memories of my grandfather from when his health was declining.  I never would have heard those precious memories if it wasn't for this reunion.  Photo Credit: Ruth Grove

We ended up with 80 of our family members attending and it couldn't have gone better.  Special times with family and friends treasuring old memories and making new ones - that is what BBQ is about.  Photo Credit:  Ruth Grove

No family reunion is complete without a trip to remember those family members who are no longer with us, so we stopped by the cemetery.  I'm sad that Trevor never got to know his namesake, but it was good for him to hear the stories about his great grandfather.  Photo Credit:  Ruth Grove
While in Elizabethtown, my parents, sister, and my family stayed at "The Rivah Getaway".  It's a private home for rent through Tripadvisor. Located on the banks of the Cape Fear River, this home is beautiful.  It's outfitted with a tremendous amount of deck space, fishing dock, grilling gazebo, canoe/boat dock, hot tub, and more.  It's a great place if you ever want to book a getaway vacation.  Just be sure to have a four wheel drive as the road in can get in really bad shape during the Spring rains.

View from the grilling area.  Photo Credit:  Ruth Grove

View from the fishing dock.  Photo Credit:  Ruth Grove

My dad and sister taking out the canoe for a trip on the river.  Photo Credit:  Ruth Grove

View from the canoe.  Photo Credit:  Ruth Grove

View from one of the deck levels.

Trevor and me playing foosball.  This picture cracked me up because with my arms like that, hunched over, and the hoodie, I look like a T-Rex with short arms, don't I?  Raawwr!
I discovered two of my favorite foods of all time in the Cape Fear area as a kid.  The first is my first bite of real BBQ.  The second is an ATW ("all the way") burger from Melvin's (aka "the pool hall") in Elizabethtown. ATW means that it comes with slaw, chili, onions, and mustard. The flavors combine in a unique way to make the best burger I have ever had.  Back in the day, my grandmother told me that they had their meat ground specially by the meat department at the Red and White grocery store in town.  The grind included some bread and possibly some sausage. 

So while we were there, we got some Melvin's burgers.

Yes, that is one mess of a burger but that's one of the things that makes it so insanely good.

What a fun cooking adventure that I got to share with my sister. I know it won't be another 15 years before I get back here. Does your family do a big reunion every few years?  Do you usually attend?