I am not a chef. At best, I’m an enthusiastic home cook with a healthy interest in culinary arts. I enjoy eating, the experience of dining, and the myriad of ways that food is integral to our lives. After an incredible 20 course lunch at Noma with wine pairings, I had nachos and beer for dinner at a neighborhood pub in Copenhagen. Danish customs officers obviously did not confiscate my red neck.
If I’m good at cooking anything, it’s Southern pork bbq (aka BBQ) following a simple formula: rub with salt and secret spice, smoke at low temperature over hardwood logs, pull/chop the meat, and serve with vinegar sauce. My bbq is good not because I’m a dedicated pitmaster with a tuned eye for smoke color, wood selection, secret tricks, and a master of temperature control. My bbq is good, because I cheat.
I start by using some of the best pork in the world. It’s deep red color and the healthy layer of fat comes from rare pigs fed a special, unique diet. The smoke flavor of my bbq is distinct and comforting, because of the special, unique wood that feeds the flames.
No one else in the world can make BBQ exactly like mine. It is nearly impossible to recreate. If you want to taste it, you have to visit my home at the exact right time. It’s a transient Southern experience like fireflies spied at the edge of the woods during dusk; a moment that creates a sense of comfort and identity constrained by geography and time.
I am able to cheat because I am a stockman raising seven species of rare breed livestock in a mixture of pasture, pines, and hardwoods on my farm, LJ Woods Farm, located in Screven County, Georgia.
The Ossabaw Island hogs are raised from birth. The little piggies are fed a mixture of locally grown corn, oats, and soybeans. They live in lots built on an old logging deck and hardwood edge habitat that supplements their diet with insects, tubers, muscadines, acorns and the occasional snake. The wood logs are a mix of different varieties of oak, hickory, cherry, and pecan. I collect wood when I need it which leads to different levels of dryness and soil pH influences depending on where I find downed trees. Pigs are harvested at a size and age that matches the occasion or whoever loads up on the bus to the abattoir first.
My farm is an ongoing experiment in creating a Southern grazing, hunting, and farmstead environment inspired by the pineywoods landscape and culture that existed before The War Between the States. The animals I raise are breeds that have been in the South for 500 years brought by Spanish explorers and tended by yoeman stockmen of Scottish, Irish, and West African descent or anyone else eschewing city and plantation life by embracing the bittersweet lifestyle of the Southern Longleaf range.
Being a new and relatively young farmer (40), this life is a luxury and privelage. It was designed and implemented by the mind of software architect who spent half of his 20 year career focused on building multi-layer holistic computing systems. Additionally, my grand experiment is largely funded by a tech company founded 8 years ago after I left the corporate software world in California to chase the freedom of open source web development while returning to my Southern roots. Although the farm generates some revenue through wholesale meat sales, financial sustainability is just a bearing for my work, which for the past two years has been a large scale experiment in mise en place.
Three years ago, I was landless. Six years ago I was a vegetarian of 18 years. Things have changed drastically and will continue to do so as the land and I mature together.
Sometime in early August, Josh Keeler, the chef and owner of Two Boroughs Larder in Charleston, asked if I would like to join him in smoking some meat for an event called Cook It Raw happening in October. After a quick web search and skimming the CIR site, my response was a resounding “hell yeah”. As time passed, I researched and studied more about Alessandro Porcelli’s work, the previous events, and the philosophy behind the organization. I bought the book and learned more about the chefs whose names were foreign. It became vividly clear that a very special opportunity was before me.
In my web travels, I discovered the Cook It Raw Community (#rawcommunity) described as “an online forum for top-tier, ambitious and dedicated chefs, producers and artisans, who are arbiters of sustainability and culinary excellence and champions in their own communities.” As someone that works with animals and land, I’m not terribly risk averse. I decided to apply by creating this Tumblr site, sending an intro email, and a link to Chris Dixon’s amazing article about the farm and my adventures.
A couple anxious days later, I received a note and reblog welcoming me in the #rawcommunity. From there, I found out that Alessandro and Arlene would be in Levy, SC visiting Turnbridge Plantation and we arranged to meet at the Pink Pig BBQ joint. After a nice lunch with them, my 8 year-old son, and the good folks from Turnbridge, I was extremely excited about the event as well as figuring out how I could participate since I wasn’t a badass chef or a photographer. The hamster wheel started spinning.
A few weeks later, my fiancé, Catherine, and I took a Nordic gastro tour of Sweden and Denmark. Alessandro who lives in Copenhagen coincidentally had a meeting at Noma right before our lunch reservation. We spent 30 minutes talking and ranting about food and culture as well as being introduced to the nice folks at the Nordic Food Lab. I could chat with him for hours if given the opportunity. His passion is a powerful catalyst.
The night before we had met up with #rawcommunity member Brandon Baltzley at Mikkeller & Friends bar and spent the evening drinking old Cantillon and Drie Fonteinen geuze reminiscing about the Savannah metal scene that we both had intersected 10 years ago. We were at the same shows, knew the same people, but had never actually met. Yet, both of us are now stockman arriving from radically different paths and exploring our job with different goals. I lived the life of a tech entrepreneur and he travelled a challenging road as a chef. Now both of us spend a portion of our lives trying to keep our Ossabaw hogs from tearing shit up.
My connection to the spirit of Cook It Raw was clear, but how could I be involved beyond just a meat delivery guy with an interesting story?