The Spectacle and Savagery of a Pig Roast
Despite the draw of Frontier’s strange, varied cuisine (turtle bolognese, fried alligator legs, and so forth), 75 people aren’t gathered here in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood on a Tuesday night to try something weird. They’re here to participate in a pig roast.
Though its menu is full of meat, Frontier is not your daddy’s steakhouse; what makes it such a unique restaurant is its devotion to whole-animal service. Its menu has an entire section made up of whole animals that you can order, and not just roasted pig, either. Options include lamb, goat, and the rest of the aforementioned alligator. Chef Brian Jupiter told me the staff once did a whole llama. (Side note: people eat llama? Yes, yes they do.)
How the Pig Roast Works
Even with such exotic possibilities, the farm-raised roasted pig is far and away the most popular whole-animal dinner—so much so that Frontier will often serve six to seven whole pigs in a single weekend night. These animals, depending on their size, can feed groups of 12, 15, or even 100 people. The kitchen will even carve up the roasted pig head and feed you that, too. If you’re lucky.
Pulled from the smoker, the pig is wheeled out with a dramatic flourish. The sous chef, wearing a pair of latex gloves, coaxes the meat (albeit roughly) from the bones, cutting the tough skin away and discarding it. The cutting part is long and unceremonious. People mill around anxiously—humans get primal in the presence of a whole animal, the smoky, fatty smell permeating the air—waiting to pile their plates with cuts of meat indiscriminately heaped onto platters.
The Part You Can’t Eat
A note here on skin: chef Jupiter attested to the fact that the skin is inedible after it’s been smoked for 8–12 hours because all of its moisture and flavor has been sapped and absorbed by the meat. Sad news for pork-rind fans. He also confirmed that there is always at least one guest who asks about eating the skin or the ears, and then follows their question with a quick assurance that they have personally barbecued, roasted, or smoked pigs themselves. Many pigs. At least two pigs.
Sure enough, while I witnessed the gathering of 70-ish people in Frontier’s atrium, I was regaled by an expert whose first rhetorical statement was “I don’t see why they won’t let us eat the ears.” The man had cooked at least five whole hogs over the course of his life and assured me the skin is, indeed, edible. In fact, “it’s the best part!” I tried suggesting that he may have used a slightly different cooking method than they did at Frontier—cooking at a higher temperature, for example—but he was incredulous. “I ate it,” he insisted. Either way, chef Jupiter has smoked enough animals that I decided to trust him.
What Makes a Smoked Pig So Delicious
His technique is to smoke the whole animal over apple and cherry wood at a low, sustained temperature for up to 12 hours, depending on its size. This slow-and-low cooking method renders a juicy and tender final result, with the meat literally falling off the bone as the chef tugs at it to cut the pieces apart.
Presentation is Everything, Until It’s Not
On this night at Frontier, the head sat, teetering, on the cutting board. I worried it was going to topple to the floor—would it explode? Would it land with a sad thud? Would anyone care?
One of the women in the party walked up, muttered something to the chef, and laughed. The chef nodded dismissively (this kind of thing must get old after a while, right?), and the woman pulled out a pair of bright red sunglasses and slid them onto the roasted pig head.
The knife-wielding chef was utterly unphased, keeping her eyes downcast, focused on the task at hand. I’m going to guess this kind of thing happens a lot. To be fair, handling the carcasses, smoking the animals, and dealing with the chaos of a half-drunk and hungry crowd was nothing new to the staff at Frontier. There’s no element of ceremony left—no drama. It’s just something to eat.
Just before I left, I thanked one of the managers, shook his hand, and said goodbye. And then I just had to say it:
“No one even thanked the pig.”