For James Villas, it would be the height of discourtesy not to invite a pig to his Memorial Day barbecue.
A native North Carolinian, he bows to no one in his esteem for the humble porker, whose delectable iterations have graced Southern tables since Hernando de Soto introduced the first 13 pigs to North America in the 16th century. Southerners, goes the saying, eat every part of the pig except the oink.
Villas' new cookbook, Pig: King of the Southern Table (Wiley; $34.95), lists 300 recipes, half of them from the kitchen of his late mother, Martha Pearl Villas. Others come from all over Dixie. The recipes include Arkansas Black Barbecued Ribs and Aunt Bunny's Bacon and Sausage Souffle.
"You have to understand I eat pork every single morning of my life," Villas says. "I either eat sausage, bacon, or country ham. My memories of Memorial Day and the beach really go to the odor and the smell of sausage and country ham frying in the morning."
He has the chops to address the subject. He's the author of the highly acclaimed The Bacon Cookbook (Wiley, $35). He was food and wine editor of Town and Country magazine for 27 years, and his stories have appeared in Esquire, Food & Wine, Gourmet, Bon Appetit, and Saveur magazines, among others.
This weekend, Villas encourages folks to trade up from hamburgers and hot dogs to the succulent glories of a pulled-pork sandwich, spare ribs, or pork shoulder.
Ideally, Southern barbecue is done by roasting pig in a pit, but Villas tried that at his Long Island home, and the police came and said he was making too much smoke.
A good-quality backyard grill will suffice, he says.
One caveat: It's a slow process. When Villas barbecues a pork shoulder for guests this weekend, he expects it to take at least six hours, on low heat. Enjoy the ritual, he says. Have a cocktail with your friends. What's your hurry?
"If you don't have any patience, then don't try to fiddle with pork barbecue," he says. "Throw a hamburger on the grill instead. That includes ribs, too. Ribs should be cooked very slowly. All pork really should. Pork does not lend itself to quick cooking."
To fire up his grill, he uses charcoal briquettes and hickory chips. He soaks the hickory chips in water for 30 minutes, then puts two handfuls over the coals.
"Try to have as few coals directly under that meat as possible," Villas says. "What you're getting is indirect heat."
A barbecued pork shoulder also will yield "cracklin'," strips of crispy skin from the pig. It can be used to flavor salads or stews or eaten as is.
When barbecuing ribs, parboil them for about 20 minutes, drain them and let them dry before putting them on the grill, he says.
Villas still makes regular trips to North Carolina to stock up on sausage and bacon, much as his mother used to drive hours to a working farm market and bring back country bulk sausage, back bacon, livermush, and hand-cured hams.
Don't blame the American obesity epidemic on the pig, he says. Blame it on the fact that people eat like one.
"I'm really very weary of that stupid argument, because it has no foundation whatsoever," he says. "There's nothing more unhealthy about eating pork than eating anything else."
A Yankee who visits a butcher shop or supermarket in the South would be astounded at the pork products on display, he says. The pickings are a bit slimmer north of the Mason-Dixon line, but Pennsylvania does better than most, Villas says.
"All I know is I traveled through Pennsylvania quite a bit and I've seen pig farms and I've seen advertisements for pig products," he says. "They make sausage out there. They do some pretty good hams."