Our new home came with a backyard covered in overgrown juniper, geraniums, carpet grass, newly-planted Chinese Elm trees and an old garden shed. We ripped it all out to reveal an expansive yard shaded by an orange and two Japanese maple trees on one end, and a whole ton of space leftover for entertaining. I looked at it and realized that the time had come to realize my ultimate food dream: host a pig roast. I had the benefit of consulting with this post and my chef friend, H, on the logistics and considerations of holding an event like this. Neither of us had done it before so it was all very exciting, especially as practically everyone on the invite list (all 75+ of them, including a handful of vegetarians/vegans) were going to show up. It really does take a village!
The week of the event, there was a sentimentality in addition to the apprehension of pulling off this party. I found myself thinking about the pig that was bringing us together – where it was raised, what sort of life it had, when it had been slaughtered, etc. We collected the hog at the Marin Sun Farms office in San Francisco, and I was certainly caught unaware when one of their butchers appeared with our order slung over his shoulder. I didn’t quite expect it to be so big. But what was I expecting? Something that would fit in my grocery bag? The sheer size of a whole hog that we were about to prepare evoked something in me. I was acutely aware that in order for this carcass to get to us, somebody expended the effort in raising this animal and giving it a good life, before passing it on to someone else who slaughtered and cleaned it up. And now the torch was in our hands, to cook this hog responsibly, in a way that would honor the work of those who came before us and the life of this animal. I was at a whole new level of reverence for my food and the journey it took/will take to get to my plate.
As we approach the anniversary of getting the keys to our first home, I wanted to share my insights from hosting a party of this scale for other adventurous entertainers out there. And for the benefit of the wonderful friends who showed up to celebrate with us. Just in case someone would like to repay the favor….
- Order the Pig
Any good farm or butcher offering pasture-raised pork will need the time, often a minimum of two weeks, to process your order before you pick it up. After slaughter, the carcass needs to hang for a few days before it’s ready for you. We ordered a 75-lb roaster from Marin Sun Farms and timed it for a pick-up the day before the event (this timing is important – see next reason below). This rotisserie rental site in Connecticut has really good guidelines on how much to order for the number of people you’re planning to serve, as well as helpful info like useful equipment, how to stuff the pig and suggested cooking times.
- Store the Pig
We picked up the pig the day before the event and, after prepping it, left it on a table covered in tarp and clingwrap, in our garage overnight – thank goodness for cool late summer nights! Timing it this way had two benefits: (1) it avoided having to store the pig in our bathtub with bags of ice – which was not an option, and, (2) we didn’t need to bring the meat to room temperature before putting it over the coals.
- Prep the Pig
How does one prep a whole pig? Certainly not the same way you would prep a whole chicken. Your cooking process will determine what you need to do. We roasted ours over an electric rotisserie (rented from this company) and so there was a need to secure the pig to the rotisserie rod in a way that would last the entire seven hours of roasting. After piercing the skin all over and generously salting the inside and out, we used pliers to thread 16-gauge wire through the meat and skin to secure the rod along the spine of the hog. You’ll want to do this so that the pig won’t fall off the rod while cooking. This is quite possibly the least enjoyable part of the process (just ask M), requiring a ton of patience as you wrangle wire and pliers through raw meat and skin. We then stuffed the cavity with a mix of grapes, fennel, chestnuts and bay leaves, before sewing it up, again with metal wire. We wrapped up the hooves, ears and tail in foil to prevent burning, then carefully wrapped the whole pig in cling wrap and tarp. We put the pig on the coals at 6am the following morning to be ready for carving at 2 in the afternoon.
- Ask for help
Get strong help, for a number of reasons: (1) stuffing rotisserie hooks through raw pork and pig skin is quite a workout; (2) so is wrestling with metal gauge wire through raw pig skin; (3) Once stuffed and prepped for the rotisserie, your (already heavy) 75 lb roaster is now at least 10, if not 15 lbs, heavier. Unless you want to risk dropping the whole thing between your storage location and the grill, it would be wise to ensure you have ready help on hand to safely transport your roast to its final destination.
Unless you’re an experienced meat carver, you’d also need help with breaking down the whole animal before serving. This was one area I absolutely did not plan for, so I was utterly grateful to have H and her husband (both private chefs) on hand to break down the meat for us. It took them almost two hours to do so! This step may sound unnecessary – after all, you could get your guests to help themselves to the meat, especially if it’s falling off the bone, but getting everything carved up makes clean-up a lot easier and ensures that happy guests go home with bags of leftover pork.
Over-estimate how much time it will take to cook and rest the meat, and how much of everything you need. I got most of our supplies from the restaurant supply/bulk goods store: foil, clingwrap, charcoal, salt, cutlery and plates, napkins, etc. Also over-estimate the number of guests who will show up – a pig roast draws the crowds!
- Get guests to contribute
Because we were expecting 75 people for the party, I put out a call for contributions early on. Not having enough food was one of my biggest (and unfounded) fears, so in addition to the pig, I slow-roasted a 10-lb pork shoulder and prepared a farro salad to supplement. To avoid duplicates, some menu-planning is crucial here, as is constant communication about the dishes that others are bringing. Our guests really rose to the occasion with their contributions and we ended up with a lovely variety of appetizers, salads, carb dishes, bread, condiments/pickles and dessert.
- Party Logistics
It doesn’t need to be fancy, but if you’re having a large group of people over for an afternoon soiree, there will have to be some dining set-ups, trash stations and water stations so that you don’t end up with a situation where people are waiting 15 minutes just to get a drink. We rented tables and chairs and set up three long communal tables each with cutlery stations and water. The food was set up buffet-style on our screened porch, and in hindsight, I wish I had the bandwidth that day to set up little placards with the names of each dish. Next time perhaps!
- Enjoy It!
When I started planning for this event, I was most excited about the prospect of gathering some of our favorite people together for a big feast in our backyard. The planning process wasn’t entirely stress-free given that we were doing this for the first time, but everything worked out perfectly, as they always do with good food and company. Till this day M and I can’t quite believe how we managed to bring together over 75 people for a party. How do we know so many people?! For a couple who moved here knowing just a handful of folks six years ago, this exponential increase in our social network is certainly something to marvel at. There are many things in our life that we are grateful for, and the people in our lives here are a big part of that. This will be one party to remember for some time to come.
**Special thanks to Emma Christensen, Charlene Tan and Mike Evangelist for taking photos of our prep and the details of the day while we took care of everything else!