Afternoons spent giving shoulders backyard rubs

October 13, 2004|By ROB KASPER

SOMEWHERE IT IS written that when the leaves start to fall, the air should smell of wood smoke and sizzling pork.

Recently I spent a few October afternoons out in the back yard, rubbing shoulders, slowly cooking two pork shoulders that had been coated with two different spice rubs.

The first one, which I will call Rub I, was a wet rub flavored with lots of cumin, garlic, cilantro and mustard. It made for a mighty-fine pig supper, and several subsequent chow downs.

The second one, called Rub II, was a dry mix, composed of brown sugar, garlic, paprika and a handful of peppery spices. It produced a slightly sweet, yet amazingly moist piece of pork, a meal a man could be proud of.

I used Rub I after being surprised one Saturday morning when a 9-pound piece of pork, a picnic cut, was placed in front of me. My wife, who was responsible for the pork placement, explained that she had seen the slab on sale at the grocery and knew I would be delighted to fix it for supper that night.

Delighted, yes - why is man put on earth if not to cook over a wood fire - but I was also unprepared. You don't want to be presented with a primal piece of pork when your wood is not wet and your store of hickory chips and pecan logs bone-dry.

Right away, I filled a five-gallon bucket with water and dumped in pieces of hickory and pecan wood that had been sitting in the "wood library" in my basement. Some people collect wine, I collect wood chunks. The longer pieces of wood soak in water, the smokier the fire, the better the pork.

I paged through a cookbook, License to Grill (Morrow, 1997) by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby. This is the duo who has authored a series of barbecue books, including their 1990 classic The Thrill of the Grill.

I met Schlesinger years ago in a bar during the Memphis in May barbecue extravaganza. He was smoking a cigar, sipping whiskey and holding forth on the dietary habits of hogs, saying that what a pig ate determined the quality and flavor of the subsequent pork supper. Ever since then, I have trusted him on the subject of swine.

This particular rub, Schlesinger said in the book, hailed from Puerto Rico, an island where the residents are quite familiar with the pleasures of pork flesh.

As the wood soaked, I went to work on the rub, tossing in the tablespoons of cumin, garlic, fresh cilantro, pepper, salt, vinegar, yellow mustard, chili pepper and olive oil.

The result was a goopy, faintly yellow mixture that tasted very salty. So salty, in fact, that after doing the finger test - dipping my finger in the goop, then licking it clean - I checked the recipe to make sure I had put in the correct amount of salt. I had, 2 tablespoons.

Later I realized that if I had used coarse-grain salt, rather than the fine-grain that I had poured in, it would have been less salty.

Nonetheless, once I had slathered the pork with the rub and let the meat cook over charcoal and wood for most of the afternoon in the indirect style - meat on one side of the kettle cooker, fire on the other, lid on, air vents cracked - it emerged looking glorious and tasting terrific.

It possessed that much-sought-after mixture of smoke and spice. Schlesinger recommended serving it with two dipping sauces, a sour made with lime juice, oregano and garlic, and a sweet sauce made with molasses and rum. I made the sour sauce, but substituted a store-bought sauce for the sweet. It was very good pig, so good that the mammoth piece of pork disappeared within two days.

A few days later, I rubbed another shoulder with Rub II, a spicy brown-sugar mix. I got this recipe from Dan Fesperman, my colleague at The Sun and a devotee of the well-smoked pig.

I had telephoned the Fesperman household in search of the rub recipe on the Saturday morning that I had been presented with the 9-pound picnic. He wasn't home. Instead of following his customary weekend routine of barbecuing in his back yard, Fesperman was in San Francisco on a book tour, promoting his new novel.

Days later, when Fesperman got back in town, he gave me the rub recipe. He grew up in North Carolina and, being a good Southern boy, ceded credit for the recipe to his mama. His mama, I later learned, had obtained the recipe from a $10 booklet published by Southern Living magazine called Bar B-Que, Our Ultimate Guide.

Late one afternoon, I tossed the mix together in a big batch, then applied about one-fourth of the mixture to a 4-pound pork shoulder. Once again, I cooked the shoulder, using the indirect cooking method, over a slow fire of charcoal, hickory and pecan. Once again, the autumn air was filled with the balm of wood and pig flesh.

This time, however, instead of sitting outside by the fire, I went in the house, watched the vice-presidential debate on television and fell asleep. Hours later, when I checked the shoulder, the meat was dark and crisp on the outside, yet still moist inside.

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