Go Whole Hog

The timeless tradition of pig pickin’.

Photography by Tyler Darden

A plume of smoke lingers in the humid air, scented with the savory smells of charred hickory and roasting pork, heralding a Southern tradition that dates back to Colonial times: It’s a good old-fashioned pig pickin’. Never has a gerund been so wont to lose its ‘g’ than in this case, the kind of event that favors festivity over formality every time.

A small crowd gathers around a 7-foot folding table. A little girl perches on her dad’s shoulders, holding a stuffed bunny in one hand and sucking her thumb as she watches the proceedings with wide, curious eyes. In the middle of a table is an 80-pound pig, charred to a deep muddy color—all dressed up with no place to go but onto the plates of the people hovering in anticipation. This is dinner, the star of the show and the result of nearly 12 hours of well-controlled cooking and more than 200 years of tinkering.

Craig Hartman, chef-turned-pitmaster and the owner of BBQ Exchange in Gordonsville, knows this scene well. Hartman paid his dues in the fine dining kitchens of Virginia, most notably Keswick Hall, before hanging up his toque and pulling on a cayenne-smudged apron. He had always dreamed of having his own barbecue joint—something simple, he would say to his wife Donna, a place where he could work in the sun for a change, sweating over the smoldering coals of a barbecue pit instead of under the hot lights of an expo line. In 2010, Hartman found a little building that would house his vision, and BBQ Exchange was born. 

On this lazy summer Sunday, perfect for a pig pickin’, you can hear the twang of banjos and the sound of pork drippings sizzling on the hot coals. Kids run underfoot, and good friends share old stories, their mason jars of sweet iced tea sweating in the August heat. It seems as though it’s always been this way. And with the exception of the people posting their pig pics on Instagram, this could be almost any time in American history. 

The Backstory

Craig Hartman

Pig Pickin’ is a tradition that has grown with the country. First an aristocratic affair, closely tied to the politics of the early republic, these gatherings eventually became more egalitarian, changing to reflect the times. During the 1820s, the men who participated in these barbecues would read the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution aloud and toast to the virtues of the young country with long speeches. 

Pig pickin’ was often used by political candidates looking to ‘treat’ voters, and were thus dominated by land-owning men. 

Because hogs were the easiest and most efficient livestock to raise due to their ability to roam and forage for their own food, pork was plentiful at this time, and pork barbecue became the standard. 

These events were also known for attracting a rowdy crowd, and drinking and fighting were commonplace. 

But pickin’ reformed during the 1830s, as women were welcomed to the table—seen as a way to influence their husbands to vote for a particular party—curtailing some of the unsavory behavior that had characterized the events’ early days. 

As the country approached the Civil War, slaves were often the pitmasters, creating many of the techniques and oral recipes that have been passed along through the years.  

Big on the Pig

In the quest for Virginia’s culinary identity, you have your hams and your peanuts, and then there’s barbecue. From the first moments of the nascent nation state, the practice of cooking slowly over a low-burning fire has been a part of Virginia’s culture—American barbecue was born in Virginia, after all. But unlike the smoked brisket of Texas and the saucy ribs of Kansas City, Virginia barbecue is more elusive, more difficult to pin to a single concept. Rather, the common thread seems to be the meat itself. Though chicken, beef and even goat were all on the table in the early days, pork has always been king. Other recurring elements include a simple salt-and-pepper rub and a slightly sweet, moderately spiced sauce, added at the diner’s discretion.

This tradition informs the barbecue for which Hartman has developed a reputation and a following. “For us, we feel like the historic part is a very neutral cooking method for the pork, instead of getting real fancy and doing spices, rubs and injections,” he says, “and then we put the sauces on the table and let folks dress it up how they like it.”

John Norwood holds meat fresh from the smoker at BBQ Exchange. 

A self-taught culinary historian, Hartman is constantly seeking a cuisine that is uniquely Virginian, and for him, that means barbecue: “We wanted to have a restaurant that really fitted with the landscape.” Hartman takes that literally. Just as the barbecue pits of colonial days were dug out of the earth, so too is The Beast, BBQ Exchange’s smoker, which rests in an old charcoal bin dug into the ground back when the property was still an electrical plant. 

When it comes to The Beast, everything is done by hand. There’s no automation, no buttons to push, just charred wood fed into the smoker every 45 minutes. When a hog roasts overnight, a cook is there, on-site, opening and closing the dampers, feeding the fire, and waiting patiently. “When you’re in a pit cooking, there are all kinds of outside elements fighting you—snow, rain, wind, low pressure, the wood itself,” Hartman explains. “Sometimes the wood comes in six inches thick. Sometimes it’s smaller with more bark. To master that pit is a chore and super challenge. It’s all the little things it takes to keep that fire going.

What that means, says Hartman, is “when you’re cooking barbecue, every time, you’re cooking from your soul.” 

As the sun sets on this particular Sunday, I watch a young man go back for seconds or maybe thirds, scooping a glistening mound of barbecue onto his heavy-duty paper plate. He drops a square of cornbread on top and squeezes a stream of Hartman’s Virginia Sweet sauce over everything. He doesn’t know that the sauce has been plucked from history, revisiting a recipe that Hartman discovered in a cookbook from the 1800s. All he knows is that the combination of sweet Virginia apple butter and roasted onions with the juicy, smoky pork makes for some darn good barbecue, just like it always has. 

This article originally appeared in our Smoke & Salt 2018 issue. For ideas on the perfect side dishes for a pig pickin’, click here.

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