Barbecue is all about location. Enthusiasts generally pledge their allegiance to one of the big four barbecue regions — Texas, Memphis, Kansas City and the Carolinas — but this weekend it's all about New Orleans, where pitmasters, chefs and weekend warriors gather at New Orleans City Park's festival grounds for the seventh annual Hogs for the Cause cookoff and fundraiser.
"Everybody's kind of set in their opinions of barbecue, but one thing that sets [New Orleans] apart is we season better than anybody out there," says pitmaster Neil McClure. "That's part of Creole and Cajun cooking, and I think that's transferring to our rubs and flavor profiles."
McClure opened McClure's Barbecue on Magazine Street in 2013 and is a regular competitor at Hogs for the Cause. This year he's joining the Hog Dat Nation team, and he'll cook ribs. McClure says his rib rub "comes straight from the Creole background," a blend of seasonings that he traces back to a stint at Commander's Palace. By adding local flavor to traditional methods, McClure believes New Orleans might eventually develop its own regional barbecue style.
A variety of regional styles and personal approaches will be represented by the 85 cooking teams participating in Hogs, which raises funds to help families with a child fighting pediatric brain cancer. Teams begin cooking whole hogs Friday afternoon, and there's food and music on two stages on Friday and Saturday. The lineup includes Drive-By Truckers, Strand of Oaks, Tab Benoit, George Porter Jr. and Runnin' Pardners and others. There's also a Mediterranean-themed gala fundraiser Thursday night. Visit www.hogsforthecause.org for details.
Leslie Roark Scott of Ubon's Barbeque of Yazoo (in Yazoo City, Mississippi) is another Hogs regular. She credits Hogs for the Cause co-founders Becker Hall and Rene Louapre for their role in expanding New Orleans' barbecue palate.
"With the festival being rated one of the top barbecue festivals in the country and people having access to really good barbecue, it makes everybody else in town up their game because normal, everyday people are finding out what really good barbecue is," Scott says.
In 2013, the Ubon's team, overseen by Scott and her father, pitmaster Garry Roark, won second place in the whole hog competition. Their whole hog is cooked "racing style" — belly down with the front and back legs positioned forward, like a hog getting ready to run. Their approach is straightforward, using a peppery citrus rub and plenty of smoke (preferably white oak). Based on Scott's great-grandmother's recipe, their signature sauce is a tangy tomato version that falls somewhere between a Memphis style and a North Carolina vinegar sauce. The end result is a deep mahogany-hued pig with crispy skin and moist, tender meat.
"If you've never done a pig-picking of a whole hog, I would definitely go to Ubon's first," Hall says. "I'm kind of adventurous on the whole hog. Rene and myself are both huge fans of pig cheeks. We like to get in the face area, and then in the belly after that."
The "porkpourri" category is an opportunity for festival attendees to get adventurous, and it gives teams a chance to get creative. The dishes range from chef-inspired small plates to over-the-top tailgate creations. McClure nabbed sixth place in 2012 for a Vietnamese pork belly dish. Last year, the Ubon's team placed fourth in porkpourri with a deep-fried pig ear topped with coconut curried pulled pork and pickled red onions.
"That's one of the weirdest things we've ever cooked," Scott says. "Porkpourri is such a wide open category, the weirder the better, and that sort of evens the playing field."
Hall and Louapre hosted the first cookoff in 2008 to raise money for the family of 4-year-old Ben Sarrat Jr., who had been diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor. Ben's legacy lives on through the annual event and a second Hogs in Charleston, South Carolina. Hogs for the Cause has become the premier funding source for pediatric brain cancer outreach services in the United States.
"This is really about gathering with friends and doing what we can to help the community," McClure says. "It just helps that we're cooking delicious, delicious barbecue."