Editor's note: The Southern Foodways Alliance delves deep in the history, tradition, heroes and plain old deliciousness of Southern food. Today's contributor, Virginia Willis, is the author of cookbooks "Bon Appétit, Y’all" and "Basic to Brilliant, Y’all." She is a contributing editor to Southern Living and a frequent contributor to Taste of the South. She also wrote Eatocracy's most-commented post of all time.
In this series for the Southern Foodways Alliance, I'm examining iconic Southern foods that so completely belong to summer that if you haven’t relished them before Labor Day, you should consider yourself deprived of the entire season. My plan is to share a little history and a few recipes that I hope you will enjoy.
This week, I’m finishing up with a recipe for a barbecued pork butt, sharing a bit of history and a practical recipe for those who want to go low and slow, but don’t have the time or patience for a professional Memphis-in-May competition pace.
I was born and raised in the South, and I trained as a chef in France. I’ve cooked with the chefs of some of the finest kitchens in the US, as well as Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe. I can cook fried chicken—and poulet—with the best of them, but when it comes to pork, I have grilled more than barbecued. I’ve left that very special skill set to the pitmasters like Helen Turner, John Ivory and my grandfather.
I grew up eating home-cooked, whole-hog pork barbecue. When I was a child, my grandfather would cook a whole pig at least once or twice a summer. It wasn’t his profession, but he was an honest-to-goodness country boy and knew what he was doing with a pig and a pit. When I was a girl, the grown folks would primarily choose Memorial Day, July 4th, or Labor Day for our summer barbecue feasts. They were all fantastic events, the huge beast split and spatchcocked on a large metal grate, slowly cooking above a pit of cement blocks and split logs of pecan wood.
My grandfather would sit up all night under the trees, sipping on coffee -- maybe some of his homemade muscadine wine -- furtively chewing tobacco (and hiding both of these forbidden sins from my grandmother). He would make a basting mop out of a bent branch and a bunch of rags, patiently basting the pig’s skin with a potent combination of vinegar and salt, letting the heat and wisping smoke slowly transform that pig into a moist, tender delicacy. To this day, I can close my eyes and hear the sizzle of the fat as it dripped upon the white-hot coals.
There is simply nothing in this world that tastes like pig kissed by fire and bathed in smoke. However, urban barbeque has somewhat limited the possibilities of low and slow cooked pork to smaller cuts of pork cooked on familiar Weber kettle grills and Big Green Eggs, rather than cement block pits carved into red Georgia clay.
Here enters the Boston butt. Pork butt, despite its interesting name, does not come from anywhere near hind end of the pig. It is instead, a cut of meat from the upper shoulder on the front leg. (A picnic shoulder is the triangular lower part of the shoulder and contains the front leg bone and joint. A picnic shoulder is normally sold with “skin on,” whereas the butt only has a small fat cap.) Boston butt is the better cut used for “pulled pork,” the very delicious staple of Southern barbecue. This part of the shoulder is intensely and richly marbled with fat, making it an excellent choice for low and slow cooking. As it cooks, the fat melts into the meat, resulting in tender, moist, and flavorful pork goodness. It’s the weekend warrior of the barbecue world.
Shouldering the Name Butt
So why “butt”? A butt is defined as a unit of volume equal to two hogsheads, roughly the equivalent of 126 US gallons. What on earth is a hogshead, much less a butt? According to the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, a hogshead was a system of measurement equal to 54 to 130 gallons and was used to hold tobacco, liquor, beer, flour, sugar, molasses, and other products. During colonial days, New England butchers would often take less prized cuts of pork and pack them into “butt” barrels for storage and transport. This particular shoulder cut became known around the country as a New England specialty, and hence it became the “Boston butt.”
Bad to the Bone
Look for a Boston butt with the bone, not boned out, for two reasons: First, the bone conducts heat poorly and, in effect, protects the meat and acts as an insulator against heat. This means that the meat surrounding it stays cooler and the pork cooks at a slower, gentler pace. Second, bones have connective tissue attached to them, which breaks down during the cooking process into rich, delicious gelatin—which helps the roast retain moisture. (That’s the goodness part.)
Bringing it Home
In preparing for this post, I decided I wanted to share a recipe for a less imposing method than cooking the pork the better part of a day. My personal goal as a chef and food writer is to share “chef-inspired” recipes that regular folks can do at home. I knew I’d have to gear up and get my game on for a 12-16 hour grill watch, so I can only imagine that non-culinary professionals would feel even more pressure.
The deal is that all the experts recommend cooking a butt at least an hour a pound, sometimes two! I knew I wanted it on the bone, not boned out and loosely bound in webby netting. It was then that I had a flash of brilliance. Instead of cooking an 8 pounder for 12 to 16 hours, why not have the butcher cut my Boston butt in half so I could halve the time? I could have the bone, a shorter cooking time, and a half butt to freeze for later. Sounded good to me.
I swapped out my grandfather’s pungent vinegar wash for a spice rub to better serve the skinless meat, but I was able to recreate his low and slow pork goodness to a more manageable time. It’s also very agreeable amount of meat for a smaller gathering as a full size Boston butt will easily feed 12 to 15 people. I assure you, there’s nothing half-assed about it.
Bon appétit, y'all!
Nothing Half-Ass about this Butt
This rub makes about 3/4 cup. You may not need all of it, depending on how well you rub it into the meat. It will keep in an airtight container for a few weeks. My rub recipe calls for one of my favorite spices — Piment d’Espelette, a red chili pepper from France. It is a more delicate alternative to cayenne powder, but cayenne is certainly a fine substitute.
4 pounds pork butt, on the bone
2 Tablespoons canola oil
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup paprika
2 Tablespoons coarse kosher salt