At Hogs for the Cause, the work and the fun start Friday afternoon at the festival grounds in New Orleans City Park, when more than 70 teams start slow cooking whole hogs, each weighing a minimum of 40 pounds.
"You gotta be there when it starts on Friday night," says chef Michael Ruoss of Salu and Byblos restaurants, "As soon as the smokers start getting lit, the entire field is covered with smoke. That's when the big show is."
Barbecue and roast pork won't be ready until Saturday, but the Friday event features music by Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk, Rosco Bandana and Earphunk, food vendors offering pork dishes and other items and drinks from NOLA Brewing, Cathead Vodka and Bayou Rum.
This is Ruoss' third year participating in Hogs for the Cause. On Saturday, his team will serve Hawaiian pork shoulder, smoked bratwurst, fried pig tails, ribs, macaroni and cheese, pork and pinto bean tacos, brownies and a "porkpourri" dish.
This year's event features hundreds of pork preparations by 90 teams competing for the titles of best whole hog, shoulder and butt, ribs, beans and "porkpourri" preparations. Chefs leading teams include Donald Link (Herbsaint, Peche Seafood Grill), Stephen Stryjewski (Cochon), Tory McPhail (Commander's Palace), Nathanial Zimet (Boucherie), Alon Shaya (Domenica), Sue Zemanick (Gautreau's, Ivy) and Justin Devillier (La Petite Grocery). There also are backyard barbecuers and competitors putting their family recipes to the test.
"The category that everyone wants to win is 'porkpourri' or anything pork," event cofounder Becker Hall says. "That's where the creativity comes in and you see everything from bacon snowballs to pig ears."
Some of the other creative items to look for include pork beignets and bacon ice cream.
Hogs for the Cause also features expanded musical offerings. The lineup on Saturday includes Hurray for the Riff Raff, North Mississippi Allstars, Pat Green, The Hold Steady, Shamarr Allen and The Underdawgs, Treme Brass Band and others. There also is a gala seafood dinner Friday evening.
Hogs is the creation of childhood friends and New Orleans natives Hall and Rene Louapre. When they got together one afternoon six years ago to roast a hog and drink some beer, they invited 30 friends. The crowd grew by a couple hundred as passersby joined in to watch the enormous pig slowly cooking over the fire.
"New Orleans is a foodie town, but at the time, there weren't a lot of places to get whole roasted hog or barbecue," Hall says. "We saw a great opportunity to raise some money for people that need it."
Together, Hall and Louapre started Hogs for the Cause to raise money for children with brain cancer and other illnesses. Last year, the barbecue and music festival drew more than 20,000 attendees and grossed $700,000. All proceeds went to help more than 100 families pay medical bills.
"I love all things about it, but number one, the charity itself is a great cause," Ruoss says, "Out of pocket we have to buy all the tables, the ice chests, the tents and the T-shirts. That's not including the food. It's a labor of love, it really is."
"Saturday is like a big barbecue you would have at a friend's house," Loupre says. "People grab food and find a spot in the yard or by the stage. They eat and then go get more food or grab a drink."
Chef Ryan Prewitt of the Fatback Collective chalks up the fast growth of Hogs for the Cause's two-day event to the rising popularity of barbecue in the city.
"New Orleans has never had a long history of barbecue like Texas or Kansas City," Prewitt says. "We've seen it sort of arrive in full force recently. I think there's something inherently pleasant about the care and time it requires, and there's been a renewed interest in the craft involved."
Louapre says locals still have to figure out what their regional stamp on this Southern culinary tradition is going to be.
"There's a lot of techniques and flavors that people use in this city, but we don't really have an idea of what New Orleans barbecue is and we're trying to figure it out," Ruoss says.