2000s Archive

Five Men and a Pig

Originally Published June 2002
When an old-fashioned southern barbecue goes whole hog, Pat Conroy learns the limits of friendship.

When I moved my family to Rome from Atlanta in 1981, a group of men I had cooked dinner for once a month planned a party in honor of my imminent departure. The novelist Terry Kay came up with the idea of barbecuing an entire pig in Cliff Graubart's woodsy backyard. Terry—the author of To Dance with the White Dog—loves playing redneck more than any white southerner I have ever been around, and he can talk for longer than anyone has any reason to listen on such arcane topics as the burial of a good mule and the proper way to plow a cotton furrow. I find such conversation tedious in the extreme, and I do all I can to keep Terry's mind from drifting back to those far-off days of his childhood when he and 12 siblings grew poorer and poorer with each passing year. It's my belief that by the time I reach the age of 70, Terry Kay will have discovered that he did not even manage to survive his hookworm-ridden childhood. In spite of that, we let him cook the pig.

Terry dug the pit in Cliff's backyard and stacked up concrete blocks three feet high. He then fashioned a makeshift grill by weaving strong baling wire through rebar. When I arrived late Friday afternoon, Terry had already started a fire using several cords of dried hickory, whose smell can induce Proustian reveries in southerners everywhere. Terry stacked the wood on a grate in a fire barrel, and, once the fire was raging, shoveled out the red-hot ashes that dropped to the bottom. Those burning coals, spread evenly about the pit, would cook the pig. It was a continuous process that would go on all through the night.

"Where's the pig?" I asked as I walked up to the fire.

"It's in Cliff's bathtub," Terry replied.

"Cliff's Jewish," I said.


"It is my experience that Jews and Muslims are funny about finding pork in their bathtubs," I said.

"It wouldn't fit in the refrigerator," Terry explained.

We watched as Cliff drove up with Bernie Schein and Frank Smith, and they walked into Cliff's house carrying wine and groceries. A moment later, we heard a scream that was both primal and terrified.

"Cliff found the pig," Terry said.

"Hey, Kay!" Cliff shouted from the back porch. "There's a pig in my bathroom."

"I know, Graubart," Terry said.

"Did you see the one in your bed?" I asked.

"Do you know that I shower in this tub, Kay?" Cliff said. "Tell me the truth. During that hokey, poverty-stricken, chicken-raising, cotton-picking, country-song- singing, grits-eating childhood of yours, did you ever put a pig in your parents' bathtub? Or were you too poor to have a bathtub in north Georgia?"

"We had the creek," Terry said, winking at me. Then we heard wild, hyena-like laughter coming from the house.

"Bernie found the pig," I said.

That night, we learned all the secrets of barbecuing a pig from Terry Kay. After the pig had cooked for three hours, he began to sop the slowly browning meat with a mixture of water, apple-cider vinegar, and salt. With his country-boy knowledge, Terry had made a sop mop by tearing up an old T-shirt and tying the strips around a broomstick. Terry proved to be a vigorous and relentless sopper.

"You've got to keep the meat moist, boys," he said to us. "The rest of the night is going to be dip and sop, dip and sop."

"This is the most boring thing I've ever done," Bernie said.

"I think this might have been the worst idea any of us ever had," Frank said. "I vote that we throw Kay out of the group. All in favor?"

All four of us raised our hands in favor while Terry dipped and sopped to his heart's content. We then raised our glasses and made promises that we would gather in Italy for a reunion. For an hour, we talked about what our group had meant to us, and the pleasure we took in each other's company, and the respite it gave each of us from families and jobs and the great pressures of modern life.

"It hasn't been all roses," Bernie said. "This group has had its share of rough times."

"Name them," Cliff said.

"There was that time you found a pig in your bathtub," Bernie said.

"Yeah, and it's been agony hearing about Terry's deprived childhood," I said.

"I don't know how any of those poor Kay kids survived," Bernie said.

"They got by like they always did—dipping and sopping. Just dipping and sopping," Frank said.

"I get weepy when I think of Terry and his poor family," I said.

"It's enough to break a man's heart," Bernie added.

Terry roared at us in his gruff, theater-trained voice: "You boys leave my family be."

At midnight, I stood up and announced, "Boys, this has been a pleasure, and I have enjoyed every moment of it. But I went to college so I wouldn't have to stay up all night barbecuing a hog. If you need me, you can find me in Cliff's guest bedroom."

"Why am I sitting against a tree when I could be sitting in a nice armchair in Cliff's house?" Bernie asked, rising to join me.

"I'm Jewish," Cliff said. "I'm outraged to find a Methodist cooking treyf in my backyard."

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