The art of Whole Hog

Damn it was hard to leave the Bay area. Beautiful weather, great food, and people who let you merge on the interstate. After a lovely week, we came home to 100 degree heat, insane humidity, and just plain rude drivers.

A break in the heat helped, but it took a documentary to make me happy to be home. Thanks to Leslie Kelly, we knew to go to Brooks Museum of Art to see Whole Hog, a barbecue documentary co-produced by the Southern Foodways Alliance. Whole Hog focuses on a small group of barbecue pit masters in west Tennessee who spend 20 or more hours a day smoking whole hogs. While most barbecue in Memphis and the surrounding area is shoulder and ribs, these men choose to smoke all 190 pounds or so of whole dressed hog.

The film interviews several pit masters, a hog farmer, and the owner of the local slaughterhouse. The star of the show is Ricky Parker, owner of B. E. Scott‘s Bar-B-Que in Lexington. Ricky was on hand to talk about his life in the barbecue business. Even better, he brought his incredible barbecue along with him. All of the pit masters shared a warm, folksy humor. No doubt the humor helps when you work the hours these men do to feed their customers.

Aside from recording the whole hog culture, I thought the film’s most important message came from Dennis Hays, owner of a barbecue place and the local slaughterhouse. At one point, a worker is shown pointing a rifle into a holding pen with two hogs. The film cuts away before a hog is killed, but Hays does discuss their method. A .22 rifle is used to kill the hogs. He says, and I agree completely, that it is important for people to know where their food comes from. “People go to the Kroger… and they see that meat there on the shelf. And they think it was raised right there on that shelf. Well, it ain’t.” It’s important for people to realize that those cute little piglets at the beginning of the film will be someone’s dinner one day soon. I am not against meat at all, but if you are going to have it, you have to respect where it comes from.

The foil of the film was the manager of a restaurant supply business in Jackson, Tennessee. He practically oozed exasperation from trying to sell shoulders and gas and electric equipment to the barbecue masters who insist on the traditional ways. He is not a fan of the barbecue pit, sharing his opinion that the pits are dirty, greasy fire traps that will one day be regulated out of existence. Eventually, my twisted humor had me expecting to see him say, “Ricky, I’m your father.”

Ricky’s actual father figure was my favorite person in the film. Mr. Scott reminded me of my great grandfather, someone who has seen many years and has lived them with a quiet dignity. Mr. Scott was soft-spoken and gentle in his humor. Ricky summed him up best with one story. Ricky had been working at the store from 9 until 1. “I had made about 1500 sandwiches that day,” he says. Mr. Scott comes to him and asks if he is tired. When Ricky say he is, Mr. Scott immediately closes the store and tells everyone to come back tomorrow. That’s love. That’s family.

Before the film started, Joe York, the director, reflected, “As I was driving up here, I was thinking about coming to an art museum. We’re showing a movie about barbecue in an art museum. This is a town where barbecue is an art. You have to love that.” I do love that.

I think Ricky would approve when I say damn it’s good to be home.

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