The Abstracted Labor of the Whole Pig Roast
Like many ambitious home cooks, I have a culinary bucket list that I’ve been slowly chipping away at for years. That list contains everything from gourmet dishes from across the world to some that represent critical moments in the development of American cuisine. I’m particularly interested in exploring dishes from the kitchens of preindustrial America: Amelia Simmons’s pumpkin pudding, Lydia Child’s “curry fowl,” and especially Mary Randolph’s recipe for whole roast pig in her 1824 cookbook, The Virginia Housewife.
Randolph’s pig roast seems intrinsically American because of the contradictions it contains. It is visually spectacular, tied to specific social etiquettes and political aims, and requires a multitude of contributors. Yet the deeper one reads into Randolph’s recipe, the more it becomes an example of the erasure of labor, especially the labor of enslaved actors, in the service of the illusion of one household’s singular largess and influence. As exemplified by Randolph’s recipe, the turning of the spit by invisible hands reveals the central premise of the American culinary myth: the idea of abundance from nowhere.
Randolph was a Virginia lady of the highest order, part of the class of elite women that she called “proverbially good managers,” able to enumerate every detail involved in the preparation of a meal. Randolph enjoyed all the comforts that came with her membership in one of Virginia’s most political and economically elite families, which included her distant cousin Thomas Jefferson. But Randolph’s status quickly changed when Jefferson was elected president and her husband, a member of the Federalist Party and a vocal critic of Jefferson, was removed from his appointment as US marshal of Virginia in March 1801. To maintain her family’s standard of living, Randolph converted her talent for entertaining into a profitable boardinghouse business, and the acclaim for her meals led to the publication of The Virginia Housewife. Jefferson responded with enthusiasm to Randolph’s book, calling it a “valuable little volume” on “how to employ to our greatest gratification the means we may possess, great or small.” Randolph’s book documents the everyday and elite foods of southern cuisine, a guide to other Americans on dishes that showcased the largess of a household and the skill of its mistress and the staff she directed. She included a recipe for a true southern pig roast for this exact reason. Such a feast was prepared by enslaved people but managed by someone like Randolph—and treated as proof of the hostess’s social, political, and economic influence, as well as her technical ability as a keeper of the house.
Randolph’s recipe becomes an example of the erasure of labor, especially the labor of enslaved actors.
Randolph’s recipe, titled “To Roast a Pig,” lacks several details common to modern cookbooks, namely specific cook times and quantities of ingredients; such details would not become commonplace in cookbooks until The Fannie Farmer cookbook in 1896. But what she does include reveals the imagined reader of The Virginia Housewife: well-heeled women like herself, with an enslaved labor force to whom the work would be delegated. Randolph does not specify where to source a pig, instead just submitting a generalist request: “very fat, nicely cleaned, and not too large to lie in the dish.” To butcher and clean the carcass, Randolph assumed readers would be familiar with the technique explained in Hannah Glasse’s 1747 cookbook, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, which details the process of killing, bleeding, and cleaning the pig. Randolph elides the details of the butchering process, suggesting a simple stuffing of liver meats with breadcrumbs, parsley, and butter, then instructs the reader to “spit” the hog over a “clear fire,” using a long metal or wooden spike thrust through the pig’s cavity and turned by a hand crank during cooking. Given the hierarchical structure of the southern household—in which, as Thavolia Glymph has detailed, white women acted as managers of enslaved laborers, delineating the refined labor of hosting from the unrefined labor of slaughtering, harvesting, and cooking—Randolph’s instructions were designed to be abstract, to be handed from a white mistress to the enslaved people who would prepare the hog.
Randolph’s insistence on a “clear fire” runs throughout The Virginia Housewife, a point of ensuring that fires burn without producing excess smoke. While woodsmoke is a major selling point of contemporary barbecue joints, even the slightest hint of smoke in Randolph’s time of genteel cookery was considered far from pleasant. As a result, barbecues would take place at a significant distance from the living quarters of the main house, and even from the location of the diners, to obscure the work required to prepare the feast. The labor of the pig roast was substantial, not just in the construction and management of the fire out of sight, but in the repeated basting of the pig with a “lump of lard wrapped in a piece of clean linen.” Randolph’s recipe gives no specific cook time, as it would have ranged significantly depending on the size and quantity of hogs being prepared. But it could easily constitute an entire day’s work—as barbecue expert Steven Raichlen has documented, a 50-pound pig would require no fewer than five to seven hours to prepare. In Randolph’s time, a pig roast would often include up to 12 pigs across a full trench of pits, with enslaved cooks on constant duty—basting, turning carcasses, and keeping fires at a steady clean burn for hours on end.
A reading of the recipe alone reveals that barbecue could never be the endeavor of a single cook but was an undertaking of an entire labor force, i.e., enslaved men of African descent. And although Randolph claimed the recipe as her own, it was undoubtedly informed by the techniques of several skilled pitmasters, either enslaved by or hired by the hosts of the barbecue to facilitate the event. According to historian Adrian Miller, Black pitmasters were the pioneers of the American barbecue tradition, adapting Indigenous techniques for elevated cooking of meats above smoking embers into an art form and a regional delicacy. “Though what these Black barbecuers did often absolutely fit the definition of culinary craft,” Miller has argued, “it was rarely presented that way to the larger public.” Though barbecues were large social gatherings, they were predicated on the exploitation and erasure of the very people who made the feast possible.
How could pork barbecue require so much public work and pageantry to become such a popular tradition in the United States, while the people who facilitated its successes went without public acknowledgment? Historian Robert Moss has suggested that such a tradition could only have emerged in the American South, only sustainable in places where there was an abundant source of labor, livestock, and well-established communities to attend feasts. “Barbecue as an institution,” Moss wrote, “was not feasible on the frontier, for it required not only large amounts of food but also a concentrated enough population to gather for a feast.” The barbecue also embodied a particular American ideal anchored in the tenets of agrarian democracy. As historian Andrew Warnes has noted, Thomas Jefferson would have understood the fundamental social purpose of a good barbecue, to create a symbolic tie to “the farm and, in the process, sheltering democracy” from the cancers of urban life.
Can we think of anything more quintessentially American, or more disquieting in its digestion?
Though for many small butchers and restaurateurs whole hog roasts are a thing of the past, large-format cooking has made a resurgence in the last two decades, as restaurant cooking has taken on the status of a spectator sport. It has also gained in popularity as chefs adopt a waste-free attitude to animal proteins, preparing “nose-to-tail” feasts that put every bit of the animal to work. The labor of barbecuing also has been lightened by new cooking technologies such as self-contained smokers and automated spits. However, the symbolic power and spectacle of the pig roast suggest its continued value as an expression of—or misplaced desire for—a return to an imagined American pastoral, a return to the land of Cockaigne in which the greatest of meals come together, labor (and laborers) unseen.
Randolph concluded her recipe with serving instructions with a casualness that would make Sweeney Todd blush: “When the pig is done, take off the head, separate the face from the chop, cut both in two and take off the ears.” The animal was then reassembled in the dish with the head, ears, and feet all placed on the sides, with the stuffing and drippings mixed into a side dish and the remaining juices served in a gravy boat. Such a classical French style of presentation, adopted for a dish rooted in Indigenous techniques and prepared by skilled African-descended pitmasters for the benefit of European-descended settler colonialists—can we think of anything more quintessentially American, or more disquieting in its digestion? Though the pig may have been devoured with glee at Randolph’s table, it was the hidden hands of Black chefs—working, as food scholar Michael Twitty wrote, “over pits in the ground covered in green wood, much as in West Africa or Jamaica”—that trussed, turned, and perfected the art of barbecue.
Jessica Carbone is a doctoral candidate in the American studies program at Harvard University, where she studies American food history and culture in the 19th and 20th centuries.
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