As a teenager, I went to my first pig roast. It was strange to see a whole pig stuck on a rotisserie, cooked until the skin was crispy. Yes, it had an apple in its mouth. And the meat was delicious; I recall picking bits of dark skin off and eating them.
I couldn’t get enough.
When I heard about Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint and its whole-hog barbecue, I figured it was something similar. Turns out that it is, and yet it isn’t. Whole-hog barbecue is a regional thing, found mostly in Tennessee and the Carolinas, that involves splaying an entire hog on a grill over a fire and smoking it for 12 hours or more. Sometimes it requires a full day to pull off, and cooking the various parts of the hog evenly is what requires the most skill.
So it was that I went to Martin’s on Barret Avenue in the former home of Lynn’s Paradise Cafe, hell-bent on trying whole-hog barbecue. I was determined to try anything they served me but the face.
I ordered the whole hog platter, which comes with a pair of sides, but I have to be honest in saying I wasn’t sure quite what to expect when my meal came out. What part of the pig will I be served? Will it be random hunks of hog? Will it be carefully selected or just plucked off the pig randomly?
When my platter arrived, it was clear the answer was much more the latter than the former. Literally, it was just a pile of pig flesh with two pieces of white bread. Make a sandwich if you want, or just grab a fork and dig in. I grabbed a fork and dug in.
Pretty quickly, I found a big, meaty piece of pork that was the “other white meat” type of pork, the kind of meat you pull from a pork chop, hearty and delicious. It had light-smoke flavor and was seasoned with a vinegar-based sauce. Absolutely mouth-watering, and I was quickly happy with my decision to go whole-hog.
As I continued to dig in, I found various other pieces of pork, with varying hues and textures. Was it back? Was it shoulder? Butt? Neck? I had no idea. I just knew it all carried a delicious flavor and was fork-tender and juicy, to the point that the spicy-meets-tangy, vinegar-based Jack’s Creek Barbecue Sauce on the table wasn’t really necessary.
I found myself alternating between bites with the tasty sauce and bites without, while also wondering what cut was on my fork at any given time. At one point, I speared a big piece of fat that many probably would have set aside. To be honest, it may have been the most flavorful couple of bites of the entire meal. In other words, whole-hog barbecue really is what it says it is — eat it all, because it’s all good.
Owner Pat Martin told me recently that he knows of just over 20 restaurants in America serving whole-hog barbecue and that the west Tennessee style his restaurant makes usually is served on a sandwich with coleslaw. (In Louisville, there is another Martin’s on Indian Lake Drive.)
I’m glad I went for the platter, because it provided much more of an adventure.
Anyway, as I made my way through my meal, I came across what I can probably best describe as a capillary — basically a lump with seven or eight veins protruding from it. I thought, “When they call it ‘whole hog,’ they aren’t kidding.”
I showed the thing to my girlfriend, Cynthia, who was nibbling on broccoli salad and a brisket sandwich.
She had to cover her mouth.
I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting that many veins in my lunch. Nevertheless, I poked it with my fork a few times, then I cut it up and ate it. Whatever it was didn’t quite have the tenderness of the rest of the meat and it did have a bit of that rich, internal organ flavor to it, but it was just as tasty as the rest of the pile of pig on my tray.
Anyway, for $12, my taste buds were happy and my belly was full. And I got to finally try something new — well, new to me, at least. If you’re into random meat, some of which you may not even be able to identify, I recommend the whole-hog experience. And don’t be afraid to eat the capillary, because you only live once.