Photo by Tommy Feisel

King of Pork

It’s the perfect summer day. In the middle of a sweaty August, this is the first day the heat has taken a knee and left the clear, brilliant day alone. Little fluffy clouds curly cue in the lapis sky and everyone is in a smiley mood.

Over in Franklinton, the Relentless Mules pluck a bluegrass melody, while a couple sits, shaded from the bright sun, for a wet-plate photo op with Ed Gately. Friends stand around in small groups drinking cold beer, or meet up at round tables, and children play hide and seek amongst the maze of adult legs. Whole roasting hogs send up a lusty aroma that winds its way throughout the area.

This could be a throwback to times gone by, but with the proliferation of photo-snapping iPhones, the hulk of the Por’Ketta food truck throwing a shadow, and the setting of Land-Grant Brewing Company puts us squarely in the here and now. And right now what’s happening is the Whole Hog Throwdown, a sold-out head-to-head match up between beloved local Ray Ray’s Hog Pit proprietor and heritage pork breeder, James Anderson, and Carl Blake, the international-known heritage pork breeder and inventor of the American Hotbox, a stainless steel box cooker that allows for roasting a whole hog in four hours, instead of the usual 15-20.

Both men have barbecue sauce running through their veins and have garnered national acclaim. Anderson’s ribs were called the best in the country by Esquire magazine, while Blake has appeared on The Colbert Show and Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods. Both raise heritage hogs – albeit Blake has been at it for longer, having created the pug-face-looking Iowa Swabian Hall swine, and, as Anderson calls him, is the “number one pig farmer in the nation.”

Blake is a giant of a dude – in physicality, in personality, and in reputation. He jokes with the onlookers, and walks around with his grinning baby boy tucked into his arm. Standing next to his shiny Hotbox, emblazoned with HOT CAUTION HOT on the sides, Blake chats about pork, Anderson, and the business of breeding a heritage hog.

“Pork in the United States sucks,” he proclaimed.

The splayed hog roasting away is one of Blake’s own Iowa Swabian Halls, a mash-up of the Chinese breed Meishan and a Russian wild boar, replicating the successful 1821 experiment of Germany’s King Wilhelm 1. “The [Swabian] meat is dark red and the fat is pure white,” he explained, standing next to his roasting box. Blake picked up a Russian wild boar at a hunting preserve and found the Meishan pigs at Iowa State University. “They had all these theories,” he laughed. “But I thought, put the f*ckers in a room and let ‘em breed, I’ll taste it and let you know. There was trial and error, but don’t tell me I can’t do it.”

A computer tech for 30 years and the inventor of the MacAquarium (you know, the old Mac desktops upcycled into desktop fish habitats), an accident in 2007 led to Blake doing physical therapy on a pig farm. A combination of being “sick and tired telling people to restart” and the realization that he could make a better pig set the farmer on the rollicking road he travels today.

“It’s so hard to find guys that do what I do,” he said. “And Jamie – what that guy does is superb, he just rocks – we’re developing and learning a lot and we want more guys to follow in our footsteps.”

Make no mistake though, all the love is also accompanied by a fair amount of smack talk. “All this bluster and bullshit is fun, but Jamie, he’s a Southern Gentleman,” smiled Blake. “And what we’re trying to do here is not just about us, this is how we make a model.”

At the other end of the site, the hometown favorite just finished raking his coals as the crowd watches. Anderson’s

Bershire Mulefoot pig is sizzling away, the skin a kaleidoscope of caramel colors as it crisps up in the heat. “The Berkshire gives it gorgeous marbling, and the Mulefoot is very rich, a deep red color,” said Anderson, a wiry Jack Spratt to Blake’s  Weeble.

“I challenged him on the telephone,” explained Anderson. “We’ve been doing BBQ for 15 years, ribs and brisket, and now we’re doing whole hogs and what better way to let people know? Challenge a nationally-known guy.”

Anderson and his partner in porcine, Dan Varga of the Hungarian Butcher, start breaking down the hog, handing out bites of sweetbreads and cracking off bits of the stained-glass skin.

“My favorite is the belly,” Anderson said. “And no, I absolutely never get sick of pork, I eat it everyday … doing R&D for charcuterie with Dan, trying out exotic breeds, raising ‘em, cooking ‘em, tasting ‘em.”

As Anderson hacks away and reaches in to pull apart the steaming flesh with arms tattooed with his parents’ likenesses, as well as a U.S. Inspected shield, he talks about the secret seasoning being sprinkled on the pile. “It’s my dad’s base, modified,” he said. “My dad did a lot of barbecue, but I’m the first farmer in the family – my kids are definitely interested in farming … my son drinks BBQ sauce.”

As plates are taken to the judges – Gallerie Bistro’s Chef Bill Glover, Por’Ketta owner Tony Layne, and Chef Alfonso Contrisciani, Director of Hospitality, Hocking College – pans are being piled with the fresh-off-the-bone meat to feed to 300 strong crowd. The lines are long and the beer is cold.

No one knows whose pork is whose, but this is an all-Jamie Anderson, all-day crowd. “I’m honored,” he said. “The local culture here participates and I like that a lot – I’ve got one truck and one farm, I’m gonna stay small, doing what we do.”

“I wanna keep a good reputation,” he continued. “I don’t want to be average, I want to keep it at a high level.”

As runners come back with empty pans and the pork juices fly as food is taken back to the clamoring pack, Anderson steps back under a tree for a moment. “It’s important that I am proud of what we do,” he said.

Today, Jamie Anderson has one more thing to be proud of: In the Whole Hog Thrown of Jamie Anderson versus Carl Blake, Anderson claimed the pork prize.

Like Ray Ray’s Hog Pit on Facebook to learn about upcoming events, such as classes and future throwdowns.