True Confession: Sometimes it takes me a long time to keep my promises. This one’s for you, Dad.
A handful of years ago my mom became a Southern Living magazine subscriber. I imagine that one of her nephews presented her with a lengthy spreadsheet, in size 4 font, of every magazine ever printed. From that list she chose Southern Living. No doubt her $19.99 subscription earned a school 77 cents toward their fundraising goal. It’s a subscription like any other, but it’s for a good cause! She’s an avid supporter of good causes, my mom. To further justify the purchase, she vowed that she would start making a new recipe from the magazine each month. “I certainly didn’t take a vow, and I haven’t done it every month.” She’d say. But I can tell you she has, on many occasions, cooked up elaborate desserts and side dishes. Well done, Southern Living. You’ve got a blue collar girl from Baltimore whipping up all manner of fruit crisps, salted caramel doo das, and garlicky potatoes. Arguably the most adorable part of the Southern Living Subscription, now many years old, is that both of my parents read it. My mom finds the recipe she’ll bring to the next family gathering, and my dad reads the articles about places and things. A bit over two years ago, the editor wrote his prelude to the summer issue. Within his meager, one-page editor space, he reminisced about being a kid in the summer when his family would cook a whole pig and invite the neighborhood. The ensuing magazine was peppered with articles about barbecue, sauces, sides, tips and more.
“Hey did you see this month’s Southern Living?” my dad asked me. They gifted me my own subscription years ago. “Yeah! All that pig roast stuff seems awesome!” A sly, boyish smile spread across his lips. “Do you think we should try it?” Without thought or pause, “YES!”
We are suckers for a regional cooking adventure my dad and I. And we can dream up some plans. He and I have similar ideas of a good time, so we make a great team, AND he’s willing to do the heavy lifting to make every one of these things happen. He and I (mostly he) cooked some beans in a hole in the ground following a trip to Maine where I learned about Bean Suppers. We borrowed some huge cookers and had a low country boil for Easter one year. He made a massive pot of crab soup to serve at a Heaping Bowl New Year’s Eve party. We have big plans for a paella feast some day. And I still have the special flour in my cabinet and the coffee can in my drawer where I was supposed to make brown bread in a can the weird and wild New England way.
One Thanksgiving I asked my dad what his favorite holiday was, and with confidence he answered, “The Fourth.” As a kid and a member of a close-knit Finnish community, the Fourth of July was a huge party day at his Uncle’s farm in Millersville, Maryland. Friends and family would gather for a picnic table full of steamed crabs, cold beer, games of horseshoes, and fun. His Uncle Reno would go out early the morning before the gathering and buy the crabs right off the boat. He remembers this as one of the highlights of the year–a time to eat and run around with his brothers, cousins, and friends.
The Fourth of July seemed the perfect occasion and the Sparta house the perfect location for our first ever pig roast. We had been going to Sparta, a small town an hour and a half east of Atlanta, on the weekends for nearly four years, and we knew barbecue was big there. The only real-looking restaurant we would pass on the drive along highway 15 was a BBQ place (only open on Fridays and Saturdays). And closer to our house stands the local favorite, Straw’s BBQ, housed in a cinderblock building on the outskirts of town also with sparse opening days and hours. We were sure there was a place to get a pig, and we knew just who to ask, the neighborhood know-all, Mr. Tommy.
Mr. Tommy meets Monday-Saturday (far more regularly than a BBQ restaurant is open) at a small building behind Subway called “The Board of Directors” where the sign above the door reads “We’ll Direct Anything.” I have never been to one of their “meetings,” but my dad has, and the story goes that a handful of men, the ones with time and breath, meet and have coffee and shoot the breeze. They pay dues in order to finance the coffee, filters, and utilities on the place. My dad had more than one or two stories after his visit with The Board.
Mr. Tommy lives across the road from our house in Sparta, and so he knows everything that we’re up to. He probably knew we were looking for a pig before we asked.
“Tommy, we are thinking about cooking a pig for the 4th of July. Do you know a good place to get a pig?” “Yeah, I know a fella.” That was it. Mr. Tommy never comes out with the whole story that easily. “Well, we’d like to talk to him about getting a pig for a 4th of July pig roast.” “Uh huh.” Another pause. “Could you tell us his name and how to get in touch with him?” “Uh huh, Moonpie. Call up Moonpie and get you a pig.”
Eventually, my dad got Moonpie’s number and could not wait to tell me that he had found our pig. He had found our pig with a man called MOONPIE! We had many practice conversations about placing a phone call to a man named Moonpie. “Hi, I am calling to speak with Mr. Moonpie. Or is it Mr. Moon?” The man’s name is really Mike, and everyone in town really does call him Moonpie or just Pie for short or is it for short-short since it’s a nickname of a nickname. My dad called Mr. Moonpie and placed an order for a small pig. Based on some internet searches and a preliminary headcount, we thought a pig around 40-50 lbs would be enough to feed us and to have plenty of leftovers.
My dad and I set to work on our areas of expertise. He researched brines, recipes, techniques, and time tables. While I was called and texted invitations, bought patriotic napkins, and laughed every time I heard the name Moonpie. After sifting through a lot of sources, my dad had a legal pad full of notes with a recipe for a rub and a timeline for each stage: brining, marinating, and cooking. I used my amazon prime account to make the two strangest purchases of my long and diverse internet shopping career: a sauce mop (basically a mop too big to go into a dollhouse but far too small to clean anything) and a meat injector. Imagine the syringe a cartoon doctor would hold up and squirt threateningly before injecting it into the rear end of Bugs Bunny, and you have a meat injector. Those two things, a tiny mop and a nightmarish syringe, rolling around between folds of bubble wrap in the bottom of an Amazon prime box.
Word of the pig roast spread and folks said “yes.” The party was on. Mr. Tommy agreed to loan us a set of racks from the local school to cook the pig. My dad bought a truck bed full of cinderblocks–apparently one of the ingredients of good bbq, and he and Riley built us an Alabama Microwave! A cinderblock box to hold coals and cook the beast. It took the men a couple of tries to get the blocks arranged just so, and my mom and I remain a bit puzzled by the chosen location (right in the middle of everything) but there stands our monument to meat, our carcass cooker, the cinder wonder.
My dad arranged to meet Moonpie to pick up the pig between 5 and 6pm. Over the phone he mentioned that unfortunately, the 40 pounder we had ordered turned out to be a 65 pound porcine prize. We laughed and got all the more giddy about it all. We couldn’t wait to lay eyes on this Moonpie whose face and location remained a mystery. We piled into my dad’s truck, my mom, dad, Riley and me. It was one of those moments where we could just feel a story coming on.
There are three roads that lead into Sparta, one called 15 and another called 16, so we never get confused when people tell us where stuff is. (ha!) And we’ve noticed that when you drive by and see someone that you know out in their yard or driveway, it is common practice to stop and chat awhile. Riley says it’s a three minute drive into town, unless you see someone you know. As we pulled out of our driveway, we saw Mr. Tommy across the way. We turned into his circle drive to share with him our excitement about heading to pick up our pig! “Mr. Tommy! We are heading to Moonpie’s to get the pig!” There was a brief pause, Mr. Tommy’s aftershave wafted into the truck cab. “He aint there.” A slight raise of his mustache hinted at a joke. “What do you mean he’s not there? We are going to meet him now. He said between five and six, and it’s 5:00.” “I can tell you where he is.” “Where? Did you see him earlier?” “He’s over playing the video machines.” “Video games? Where is he playing video games? What are you talking about Mr. Tommy?” I try to cut to the chase with Mr. Tommy, and it doesn’t usually work. “Out yonder at the Lil Roundup. I just come past there.” “What’s the Lil Roundup?” “Tween here and his place. Just outside town.” “Where, Mr Tommy? Past the Farm Supply?” “Uh huh.” “Wait. How do you know he’s there? Were you in there with him?” “I just come past there.” I started to laugh and said, “Did you see him at the machine next to you. What’s going on Mr. Tommy?” “He in there.” I have never found Mr. Tommy to be wrong, but his methods are a mystery. “How do you know he’s in there?” “Drive past there and you’ll see that 4-wheel drive Chevrolet.” We had never heard of the Lil Roundup, had never met Moonpie, and certainly had no idea what car he drove. None of these details lead to more direct answers from Mr. Tommy. “But what do we do if we drive past and see a 4-wheel drive Chevrolet?” “He in the back on the video machines.” “He’s gambling? At the Lil Roundup?!” I couldn’t believe it. Story gold. We milked Mr. Tommy for a couple more details and headed to round up Moonpie from the Lil Roundup. My dad parked the truck. I joked, but not really, that Dad was going to have to take it for the team and go in after Moonpie. This was Dad stuff. Who else was going to go into a rundown convenience store to pull a man we’d never seen off of a (probably illegal) slot machine? My dad knew he was the one, the one for the task. He walked slowly toward the Lil Roundup shoulders slightly lowered. He passed by the Chevrolet as he headed in. Walk of shame pictured below:
He entered the gas station and there was no one there but the man behind the counter. He asked, timidly, “Is, uh, Mike here?” The man simply gestured toward a back hallway. Down a dark hall my father walked, slinking passed boxes of merchandise piled on the floor. He turned a corner and saw a dark and dingy room full of slot machines. There were a few players with their backs turned. He cleared his throat so as not to scare any one. “Ahem. Uh, Mike?” A large man turned around. There in the makeshift casino they exchanged awkward greetings. Moonpie said “Tween 5 and 6, I thought you meant 5:30.”
Seeing as we had met up with Moonpie a bit earlier than expected, we were able to follow him to his place. You can imagine how eager we all were to hear all there was to hear about Lil Roundup. We rode a couple miles through pecan groves before turning down a street toward Moonpie’s. Two moss covered concrete pigs adorned a sign at the end of his driveway. He pulled the truck alongside a white cinderblock (!) building and opened the place up. It wasn’t much to look at it, but we entered with nervous excitement.
There was a metal table, long spools of sausage label stickers, and an old cash register. He opened a latched freezer door and went in after our pig. There were quite a few other pigs there. “Y’all want the head?” a muffled voice from the freezer asked. We all looked around nervously. Did we want the head? “No, that will be alright. I don’t think we need it.” Again, Dad being the dad. “But can we see it?” I added quickly. It was all so new, so crazy. We paid cash for the pig. They accept cards but the machine only works if they drive back into town to run the card. We put the pig into the cadaver sized cooler we had borrowed and drove back home. We laughed all the way—delighted to be cooking a pig, thrilled to have pulled Moonpie off a slot machine to close the deal, and enamored with the it all.
The pig was oggled at by all of us. I mean, just look at it. Would ya look at it? It was brined, rubbed, injected, and laid out to smoke.
We were all so excited each time the plywood cover was peeled off to reveal the color-changing pig inside. Each time we looked it was darker and more edible looking. It took most of the day, but word spread quickly that Papa was calling it, the pig was done. He cut off a sample. It was delicious. Smoky, warm, a little chewy on the outsides. The pig was hoisted off of the smoky rack and laid out on a plastic table to be “pulled.” The flies promptly sent out a memo, and they were ALL reporting for duty. The pig had to be taken inside. I had no idea how long it would take to cut and prep that much meat. My dad stood over the beast, cutting and pulling and filling aluminum pans for well over 45 minutes. He was sweaty and his arms were getting tired. Guests started arriving with desserts and side dishes. We gathered around a beautiful spread of food and ate! It was America. It was beautiful. We washed the food down with colorful Jarrito sodas in glass bottles and plenty of Miller Lite. It was one of Southern Living’s Best Ideas yet.
This year the guest list was longer, and the pig was even better. We had folks driving from Atlanta, Augusta, and lots of local friends joining. When we gathered to pray over the food, the people stretched from the kitchen, thru the hall, and into the formal living room. The huge farm table my dad made a few years ago couldn’t hold all the kids and they spilled over onto a card table. After dinner, the yard games (wiffle ball, ladder golf, badminton) and jar-garitas kept the party in full swing. The rain sent us running inside earlier than I would have liked, but it was the perfect excuse to start the 2nd Annual Freedom Skee Ball Tournament to determine who would take home the Solar powered Uncle Sam bobblehead. Sam had spent the last year on our friends’ windowsill. It was an exciting match with my eleven year old looking like the winner, then a potential upset by a friend claiming to never win anything. But, our quiet and exhausted hero, Papa, came in with a solid finish. Uncle Sam in his for the next year. His name the second one written in sharpie marker along the base. Larry 2018.
We didn’t get to see Moonpie this year. There was a note, scrawled on butcher paper,
and taped to the shop door. His brother met us and sold us our pig. Heck, we might even change things and cook ribs and chicken next year. In a few weeks, my parents will be full-timers in Sparta. I can imagine that will lead to a longer guest list. A year is plenty of time for change, but Southern Living continues to be a reliable guide to what’s good about the South. That’s Sparta on the cover, y’all.