Let’s get something out of the way up front. I’m here to bring people together. To unite the unwashed masses who consider a four-course combo (just $10.99!) at Applebee’s fine dining with the dressed-to the-nines crowd who won’t eat anything without foie gras or black truffles and refuses to wash that decadent meal down without some coffee produced from a bean that’s, um, processed by a mammal from Southeast Asia.
Listen, I get it. Some people are picky eaters, actually regressing from the strained fruits and vegetables they ate as infants to a diet that consists of animal by-products formed into dinosaur shapes and passed off as chicken nuggets at fast-food chains. Others have a silver spoon of caviar pate jammed so far down their throat that they refuse to even acknowledge a meal that doesn’t consist of at least 14 courses each served on plates slightly smaller than your average tin of Altoids.
I’m trying. Trying to find something that can satisfy the palate of Long John Silver’s First Mate of the Month and the guy who is dying for someone to accompany him to Morton’s so he can fill out his “Buy 9 chateaubriands and get the 10th free” card. And I’m pretty sure there’s one meal out there, one item so simple and delectable, so juicy and salty and satisfying that you can wander down to your local bar and find one or suit up, grab your favorite foodie friends, head to the trendiest spot in town and still spot it on a menu.
I speak, of course, of the pulled pork sandwich.
It’s one of the best edible examples of worlds colliding. What is pulled pork made of? Almost exclusively a shoulder cut, which should set you back somewhere around $2 a pound. There’s actually two types of “shoulder” meat – the Boston butt, which is located nowhere near the pig’s ass, and the picnic shoulder. The Boston butt typically comes with a shoulder blade in, while the picnic shoulder features a front leg bone and joint. I went with the Boston butt, but either will work. As long as you see “shoulder” somewhere on the packaging, you’re ready to cook. Slap all that knowledge on the next friend who tries to sell you on the benefits of buying Beluga caviar for $300 an ounce. Or really just stop hanging out with that person, because who actually enjoys the company of someone who spends a decent chunk of an average person’s mortgage on a spoonful of fish eggs?
At the same time, you can turn that modest cut of meat into a gourmet delight with the right bun, the proper toppings and some patient cooking. Is it a $1,000 frittata of lobster and caviar? Not quite. If you buy a four- to five-pound pork shoulder, own a slow cooker and can scrounge up the remaining basic ingredients from around your kitchen you should be out about $10. That leaves you $990 leftover to lavish the friends you’ll be inviting over to indulge in the delicious sandwiches you’re about to create with expensive, elaborate gifts, but you won’t need to. They’ll be the ones patting you on the back, chanting your name and having enough fancy Brookstone massage chairs delivered to your home to ensure they’ll be invited back for the next time you decide to take 10 hours and 10 minutes out of your day (active prep time: 10 minutes!) to satiate their craving for a rich, scrumptious piece of pig between buns.
Let’s get started.
Your local grocery store should have pork shoulder available, pre-cut, in the meat department, but in case they don’t, the butcher should be able to help you out. Again, you should be paying somewhere around $2 a pound, and we’re looking for anything more than three pounds and less than whatever the largest thing that will fit in your crock pot is.
Speaking of crock pots … dig yours out of the farthest-reaching crevice in the cupboard you last opened when Compuserve was providing your dial-up Internet service. Once you’ve dusted that off, wash it thoroughly with soap. Rinse it, and wash it again. Smell it, and wash it one more time to make sure you’ve completely eliminated the dust, food crumbs from the Clinton administration and the bugs who were once the patriarchs of an entire colony of other bugs, but have since succumbed to being stuck in a crock pot without oxygen for a decade and a half. (Also, once you get cooking, go back and clean out that cupboard to ensure you’ve also wiped out his still-surviving descendants).
I’m about to ask you for six ingredients, five of which you should be able to find within three to four and a half seconds in your pantry. We’ll also be requiring a whisk and a measuring cup, though neither is entirely necessary. Out in the cold on these two? Get a spoon. You’ll be just fine.
Find some vinegar, ketchup, mustard, brown sugar and water. Ideally you’ll have apple cider vinegar and some sort of spicy brown mustard to further enhance the flavor of Babe: Pig in the City’s shoulder, but if you don’t, there’s no reason to hop into your car and run to Whole Foods.
Here’s where the measuring cup – or spoon! – comes in. Keep in mind, we’re dealing with somewhere around a four- to five-pound pork shoulder for these proportions. Or don’t keep that in mind, because this isn’t baking. It’s inexact, and that’s what’s great about it. Toss about a half-cup of apple cider vinegar and a third of a cup of ketchup and brown mustard into the crock pot. Fill that half-cup back up three times with water to coat the bottom of the pot, then take about three spoonfuls of brown sugar and add that with your vinegar, ketchup, mustard and water.
Ahh, but I told you we’d require six ingredients! We still need about a spoonful of molasses, and if you can’t find that in your cupboard, or notice that it expired in July 2003, don’t panic. Think of the oldest person you know who lives within a block of you, grab your keys and go knock on their door with a smile on your face and a twinkle in your eye. They will have molasses. Bring a vessel to carry that spoonful of molasses back with you so you don’t have to make a return trip, because they’ll then ask you questions about what you’re making, and you don’t have all day.
(Actually, you do. But depending on which neighbor we’re talking about, you could wind up regretting your lack of molasses vessel preparation).
So you have your molasses. Dump that into the crock pot, take a whisk – or that versatile, trusty spoon – and stir until you’re left with nothing but a smooth liquid.
Head back to the cupboard, grab a small bowl and get ready to grab a few more ingredients. You didn’t put that brown sugar away, did you? Good, you’ll need it again. Drop a few more spoonfuls of that into the bowl. Head to the spice cabinet and grab paprika, cumin and garlic powder. Take about a teaspoon, or perhaps a little bit more, of each and add them to the brown sugar. I assume you have some sea salt and black pepper sitting around because after all, we live in a society and we’re not gnomes parking ourselves under a bridge at night. Sprinkle about a tablespoon of salt and a teaspoon or so of pepper into your mix.
You don’t need a whisk for this. Shake it around in the bowl, stir it with a spoon, a fork, your finger, a fire hose or some other sort of elongated object until it looks like the spices have formed one big, happy spice family.
Unwrap your pork shoulder from the refrigerator and set it on a plate. Dump about a third of your spice mix on top and start rubbing it in to coat the meat. Flip it over and take another third or so to put on that side. Flip it back over and take the remaining mix to get any areas you may have missed or look generally unhappy because they don’t have delicious salt, pepper, cumin, garlic power, heroin, paprika and brown sugar all over them.
(Heroin? How’d that sneak in there??!? Just making sure you didn’t give up after your journey to find molasses.)
Take your pork shoulder and slowly drop it into the crock pot, which should have the liquid we so competently whisked together resting in the bottom. Drop the lid on. Plug it in. Turn it to low.
You now have 10 hours free to do what you wish. From Chicago, I can drive to St. Louis, grab lunch and drive back, but why would I want to drive to St. Louis? So take in a movie. Get a massage. Finish that cross-stitching project you started in the fall but haven’t gotten around to since because cross-stitching just isn’t that interesting. Or, you know, go to work.
But there are three minor but SO, SO MAJOR tasks you’ll want to complete before that 10-hour window expires. Here goes:
1) Buy buns. Not shitty, disgusting hamburger buns that multiply like mosquitoes on the table at your average summer cookout. Real buns. Buns that can hold up to the sloppy and disgustingly delicious pulled pork you’re about a Ken Burns documentary away from being able to taste. You should be able to find a bolillo or telera roll at your local grocer. They’ll set you back around 60 cents apiece and be worth every last penny. Oh, and buy lots. You’re gonna have a lot of meat.
2) Make coleslaw. Or buy it premade. It can be more mayonnaise-based or more vinegar-based. It doesn’t matter, because it’s merely going to complement the delicious hunks of pig you’ll be putting between those two pieces of bread. You’ll notice it, and it will make your sandwich better, but you won’t remember if there’s creamy cabbage, tangy cabbage or Tuscan dark chocolate in there by the time you’re three bites in.
3) Get pickle chips. Again, what kind you opt for is entirely a personal choice. If you can’t find chips, get spears and slice them up. If you can’t find dill pickles, get garlic ones. The pickles are simply here to add some crunch and a bit of acidity to your sinful swine delight. Literally anything that’s been pickled will enhance your sandwich.
Alright, you’ve completed the above tasks, watched C-Span for a while, checked up on the soap opera you ignored since Sabrina starting sleeping with Carlton’s evil twin, returned the molasses to the neighbor who can’t remember who you are (because you forgot to bring your molasses vessel!) and mastered most of Rosetta Stone’s Swahili software. It’s time to eat.
Remove the wonderful-smelling pork shoulder from the crock pot and set it on a cutting board, or really any surface that people don’t walk on. Take the remaining liquid and dump it into an appropriately large skillet – I said LARGE – and turn to a medium-high heat. Do this until it boils, then turn it down to simmer for 10 or 15 minutes.
You pork shoulder has cooled? Wonderful! Start pulling it apart, either with your hands or with your hands and a fork. Or you could just use a fork, because you invited over lots of friends and family to share your dinner with and they don’t want your disgusting hands touching their food. Shred into chunks no larger than you deem appropriate, because you’re a human being and you’ve eaten plenty of pulled pork sandwiches and therefore know approximately what the average chunk of pork in a pulled pork sandwich should look like.
When you’re done, drop it in that LARGE skillet you’ve been using to heat the juices from the bottom of the crock pot. Toss the pork around, make a juvenile, sophomoric That’s What She Said joke, and you’re ready to serve.
One final note before assembly. You will not need barbeque sauce for this meal. I know, you’ve read almost 2,000 words hoping to see the words BARBEQUE SAUCE and nothing but those words. You’re now disappointed that you even took 10 hours out of your day to make this dish, because all you wanted was a rather large hunk of pig to serve as the vehicle to your genuine thirst for barbeque sauce, because dousing pork in barbeque sauce and then eating it is a more socially acceptable way to consume barbeque sauce than drinking it out of the jar.
Turn your mind back 10 hours. Remember all those wet ingredients we mixed up in the bottom of the crock pot? Other than a little liquid smoke, that’s essentially a barbeque sauce right there. I’m not saying you can’t add outside barbeque sauce to this meal. I’m not saying I’ll mind if you use it. But you don’t NEED it. The liquid your pulled pieces of pork shoulder are now sitting in is more than enough flavor to suffice. If you’re not sufficiently satisfied that this is REAL BARBEQUE because It lacks the requisite smoky flavor you’re used to getting from every barbeque joint that’s sold you a pulled pork sandwich, too bad. The one you’re about to eat is going to be better than any pulled pork you’ve had previously.
Cut your bun in half, warm it in the oven and pile on enough pork to fill the bottom of that bun. Then add some more. Maybe just a BIT more. Add some cole slaw. I trust you to eyeball it at this point. Grab three or four pickle slices and spread them out across the top, or grab a few more if you’re a true American and are on board with pickle chips being the most delicious things you regularly consume.
Put the top of the bun on. You can cut it in half or just leave it as is. You won’t need a napkin, because shirt sleeves are far more functional and way better for the environment. But before you sit down, crack open an ice-cold beverage and take that first double-fisted bite of the astonishing creation some sweet vinegary liquid, a salty, flavorful rub and the silent art of a slow cooker has provided you, grab a fork.
You’re gonna need it.