Barn It All

It wasn't turning out to be a very good day for Wilbur. That morning, he'd been happily snuffling in the dirt, his pale pink skin caked with mud, just the way he liked it. By that evening, he was being lowered into a deep pit, his skin the next day to be crispy and crackling, just the way people liked it.

Being a pig usually has its inevitable end. But at least Wilbur could take some solace in his demise: He gave his life so people could appreciate how extraordinary a pit-cooked pig can be. Small comfort, perhaps, but the 225-pound porker finished his time on Earth as the star of a Slow Food event, rather than as a case of plastic-wrapped wienies.

For about 30 members of the Phoenix chapter of the European-based Slow Food organization, Wilbur was wonderful.

Members of the group gathered recently to celebrate their philosophy that "dining should be celebrated as a center of pleasure, an homage to culinary tradition, and an opportunity to appreciate a more relaxed, harmonious life." Translation: In a time when technology and lack of time have made a mess of most people's eating habits, Slow Food advocates quality food over mass production, emphasizing the handcrafted work of local farmers, artisans and chefs. Periodically, the group gathers for a picnic, such as this gala at One Windmill Farm in Queen Creek.

Slow Food events often take place in storybook settings; menus are always sumptuous. For this feast, members indulged in a voluptuous orgy of pit-roasted Wilbur, grilled sweet potatoes moistened with chili vinaigrette and crème fraîche, beet salad with fresh goat cheese, sautéed beet greens, apple crisp with heavy cream, and lots and lots of wine. No cans or boxes allowed -- vegetables were plucked from the gardens of One Windmill, the apples came from Willcox, and the cream was delivered straight from a cow living in Lehi.

A relaxed life? For the eaters, absolutely. This day on the farm was a taste of heaven. For organizers, though, such events can be hectic. The team this time consisted of local chapter founder Chrysa Kaufman (Rancho Pinot Grill and Nonni's Kitchen), One Windmill owner John Scott and his son James, and they spent several days making lunch happen. Hence the name Slow Food, and the group's logo, a snail.

Slow doesn't mean boring. Wilbur had other plans for his future, leading James on a rambunctious chase across the property of a friend's farm in Willcox before finally being entrapped. Then things got even more interesting -- dad handed James the keys to the backhoe, naming him captain of digging the pit in One Windmill's front yard, a task for which James temporarily reverted to teenage Dennis-the-Menace-type behavior. Manning a backhoe is great fun; eventually dad came running out to drag him off the machine. The thrill of churning soil turned a requested four-foot-deep trench into an eight-foot canyon. He would later wish he'd tossed some of that dirt back in the hole.

James was instructed to have the fire ready for Chrysa when she arrived at 5 p.m. to marinate Wilbur and plop him on the coals. She would need to work fast to scramble back to her Scottsdale restaurant and feed some 160 guests expected that evening. Yet the wood intended for a four-foot pit looked embarrassingly skimpy in an eight-foot abyss, so James added more, a little more, and then a little more. An entire mesquite tree was sacrificed by the time he was finished.

At 5 p.m., a towering inferno was raging, a sea of flames licking the clouds. Chrysa wasn't charmed; it would take four hours for the blaze to burn down to pig-readiness.

But Slow Food is an obsession. Chrysa called her husband, Tom, and told him he was on his own at the restaurant. Our porcine pal was marinated Tuscan style, in a bath of olive oil, garlic, fennel seed and rosemary. His belly was stuffed with veggies, then he was wrapped in foil, burlap and fencing material.

There was nothing to do but wait until the roiling sheet of fire subsided. The nearest Circle K was five miles from the farm, and that's where Chrysa and James landed, buying beer from the store and tamales from a fellow in the parking lot. The two then sat in the nuclear glow of the pit, drinking brewskies and eating masa bundles.

A pig normally is lowered into a pit with a special pole -- one intended for a four-foot ditch. So James grabbed a welder, and squinting his very best, attached chains in a manner that would be considered straight by someone who had consumed just enough alcohol. Wilbur was wired to the chains, then the pole. Two giant metal plates were dropped into his more-than-human-size grave.

There, under a charcoal, moon-licked sky, two tipsy people lowered a huge hunk of dead animal into the hellish hole, the carcass swaying treacherously from uneven chains on a too-short pole. Wilbur finally went under about 9 p.m. Saturday, followed by a hosing down with water, beer and wine. The pit was then sealed with metal roofing material and dirt.

When Wilbur was unearthed the following afternoon, his fat wasn't quite crispy, so parts of him were tossed onto a mesquite grill to finish. He ended up on our plates and in our bellies swimming with wine (bottles were opened with the tines of a rake). It was a gourmet Green Acres, feasting at long tables on the lawn, settled under trees and savoring the true joy of cooking.

When the gorging was done, members settled back in their chairs, and listened to James give a talk on organic farming. A nonprofit, educational organization, Slow Food encourages its members to share the secrets of their trades. Remarkably, after all that work, Chrysa and James were still smiling.

Slow Food welcomes new members, at $60 a year. Events cost a little extra -- just $20 per person for the pig roast, with past themes including Friulian (northeast Italian) food, a beer-and-sausage gig and a farmhouse brunch. For information look for slowfood.com on the Internet or call 480-367-8030.

Tell them Wilbur sent you.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet