As another holiday season fades into relief, I’m reminded yet again of how important food traditions are to the way people celebrate. For some, the Feast of Seven Fishes and honey-baked hams define the Christmas spirit, while others look forward to roasted lamb or a golden holiday goose.
In a small railroad-tied city called Burlington, North Carolina, one family has cultivated a holiday tradition centered on the joys of communal cooking and eating. Each year on the night before Christmas Eve, oysters are roasted inside their shells on an open grill, beers are passed around a fire, and a group of friends and family—larger with each passing year—gathers to pay homage to every Southerner’s favorite protein: a prized pig.
The swine gets thrown onto an old-school smoker—a behemoth contraption that has no temperature gauge and is fueled solely by burning wood chips. The pig is slow-cooked from around 11pm until the following morning, when anywhere from 50 to 100 people will gather to tear sweet, smoke-inflected meat directly from the burnished carcass. It’s quite literally a “picking” of the pig: You grab handfuls of pork and dunk them into buckets of tangy barbecue sauce.
The cooking process is also one to be shared and cherished. The fire used to fuel the grill also warms the bodies of all of those who brave the crisp Carolina chill, sitting around and drinking while the feast is being prepared.
Above, you can see photos from the pig pickin’ party I attended a couple weeks ago. Chairs were strewn all over the place, and the hosts—father and son team Craig and Andrew Harrell—took turns feeding the flames, crisping the skins of the porcine sacrifice. If you find yourself in the area next year, drop in. You’ll find a welcoming crowd full of pork and pride, the two things any good pig pickin’ should have in spades.