Downtown Raleigh’s Whole Hog: Friendly Rivalries, Great Food, for a Good Cause

Thomasi McDonald, News & Observer //

 — The Whole Hog State Championship is to barbecue what the Daytona 500 is to stock car racing, what the ACC tournament is to basketball, what Picasso is to modern art.

Well, sort of.

Starting Friday and through the night into Saturday, 30 of the state’s top pig cookers gathered in downtown Raleigh wearing aprons and wielding assorted hog-basting tools in front of their hulking grills for the 29th annual event. The task at hand: Cook a 100-pound beast all night long to win top honors as the state’s best pig cooker.

The N.C. Pork Council sponsors the event and held it in Raleigh in conjunction with “Wide Open Bluegrass,” the street festival portion of the “World of Bluegrass” event. Organizers thought banjos and barbecue seemed like a perfect marriage.

“We met with city officials and asked them about holding the competition downtown. They readily agreed,” said Harris Vaughan, a pork council spokesman.

The 30 hogs cooked overnight were donated to the Interfaith Food Shuttle, whose volunteers chopped meat Saturday morning and made sandwiches for sale to the public at $4 each. The state pork council also donated part of the proceeds from the event to the International Bluegrass Music Foundation.

“It’s a great way to give back to the community with meat cooked to perfection and we give to the foundation,” Vaughan said.

The competitors at the whole hog championship are the best of the best. They qualified by winning or placing near the top in smaller competitions across the state.

“For these guys and girls, this is their golf,” Vaughan said. “It’s very competitive. It’s all about bragging rights. There’s cash, but they want the trophy.”

A big truck arrived downtown about 9 p.m. to deliver each contestant a headless hog. The chefs inspected each to ensure that there were no blemishes or broken bones, in much the same manner a rental car customer checks for dings or dents. By 11 p.m. the hogs were sitting on the platoon of grills that had been set up between the Raleigh Marriott City Center and the Duke Energy Performing Arts Center.

One of the judges, Pat Adams of Snow Hill, said that when choosing a winner, she looks for a combination of things: good skin and color, its taste and the sauce. She said most of the chefs in the competition use vinegar-based sauces popular in the eastern part of the state, though a few slather with the tomato-based varieties favored by their western cousins.

Adams waxed poetic about the glories of a well-cooked pig skin. “You roll that pig over and you hear it crackling and can see the steam coming from it,” she said. “You know it’s just right.”

The contest is more than a culinary competition. The judges also select a showmanship winner for the cooking group that has the most elaborate tent.

And that’s where the competition gets down and dirty.

Consider John Kearney, who owns Haulin’ Hog Catering in Goldsboro. He set up his firetruck-red grill in one tent and transformed a larger, second tent into a music venue with red benches and blinking red lights.

“Hoggy Bottom Theatre presents Ted Jones & The Tarheel Boys,” announced a wooden marquee. A pink wire-mesh pig sporting a straw hat greeted visitors to the tent. “That’s my Christmas pig,” Kearney said. “Got him from Walmart. The only thing he won’t do is sing ‘Jingle Bells.’ ”

Two volunteers wearing pink rubber pig masks served as ushers for visitors to see banjo, upright bass and guitar players strumming and picking inside the tent most of the night.

Kearney was hoping for a top-10 finish in the culinary competition but for a far better place in the showmanship competition.

His biggest competition?

“Roy Parker,” Kearney spat out. “Me and Roy is very competitive. I’ll just leave it at that.”

Turns out Parker, of Zebulon, had a six-piece bluegrass band – the Heartland Express out of Johnston County – playing up a storm at his tent, too.

“We compete everywhere we go,” Parker said of Kearney. “He’s got the bullet. I’m the target.”

The competition seemed friendly. But it is a competition.

“They’re buddies now. Buddies,” said Tommy Pike, Kearney’s friend. “But they won’t speak to each other for two or three weeks after this is over. Then somebody will finally throw in the towel and call.”

In the end, Arthur Williams, a former state lawmaker, and his Trade Mart Traders team out of Washington took home top cooking honors. Williams won $2,000, a trophy and a navy-blue, fleece-lined championship coat.

And Kearney won the showmanship award.