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Going Whole Hog With Pit Master Pat Martin

Pat Martin's family doesn't have a long-standing tradition of smoking meat, but he has become one of the chief proponents of the western Tennessee style.

Pat Martin
Pat Martin
Nick Solares

Pat Martin is an unlikely champion of the western Tennessee style of whole hog barbecue, an esoteric — and recently endangered — form of the art. Yet this son of a bond trader, who followed in his father's footsteps in that profession, one day decided to quit his office job and open a barbecue restaurant. Eight years later, he has four restaurants in two states, is a founding member of the barbecue advocacy group the Fatback Collective, has become a fixture at the annual Big Apple Barbecue Block Party in NYC, and was recently invited to cook at The James Beard House.

Martin didn't come to barbecue because of a long standing family tradition of smoking meat, although, as he rightly points out "you don't grow up in the South and not know about barbecue." Born in Memphis and raised in northeast Mississippi and Connecticut, his family grilled rather than smoked their meat. But if the actual practice of smoking meat had no antecedent in his past, his strict upbringing imbued him with certain traits that would prove invaluable when he picked up the art of smoke. "My dad and both my grandfathers were very methodical, good ol' John Wayne-type American men. Everything they did was done in a certain way — whether shining their shoes or the way they grilled their steaks."

"I was always touched by live fire." — Pat Martin

The importance of technique and doing things "the right way" permeated Martin's conscience. "On weekends we grilled steak and hamburgers and it became a very emotional thing for me," he says of the generational bond that was formed. "When I turned 14, I bought my first cookbook, Thrill of The Grill by Christopher Schlesinger and John Willoughby. I still have the book, the pages are all tattered with shit all over them. I cooked every recipe. I was always touched by live fire and it goes back to my dad and granddad."

But grilling was only part of his fascination with cooking. Martin soon started reading all manner of cookbooks, learning a wide variety of skills and drawing upon the matriarchs of his family, whom he describes as "really, really, really good cooks". "My dad's mom specifically was a legendary church cook in Mississippi." Churches across the nation publish and sell cookbooks for charity; the recipes are drawn from the congregation, usually along strict parochial lines. "The Baptist only ask other Baptists for recipes because the Presbyterian and the Church of Christ recipes are just not good enough," recounts Martin. "Well, we are Church of Christ and my grandmother's recipes are in the cookbooks of all the denominations down there!"

Face To Face with Whole Hog

A love of live fire and curiosity about cooking laid the ground work for the pitmaster he would become. But before all that, Martin followed a trajectory more traditional for his family: going to college before becoming a bond trader. It was while attending Freed-Hardeman University in the small town of Henderson, Tennessee that Martin first became exposed to whole hog barbecue. "In this little town of 5,000 or 6,000 people there was something like 20 barbecue joints. The Carolinas get all the credit, but in West Tennessee whole hog barbecue, which no doubt migrated over, is just as important."

dancing-pig.jpgIn both places, whole pigs are slow smoked over wood for long hours. The Carolina style of whole hog barbecue differs from western Tennessee style in the way that it is served. In the Carolinas, the hog will be "pulled" all at once, the meat chopped up together and then spices and sauce are added. The western Tennessee style leaves the hog intact, the meat is never chopped up the way it is to the east. Martin explains that the meat "is pulled and then put on a sandwich, then you sauce it and then you slaw it, there is nothing mixed in." Customers are given a choice of which cut the prefer, such as shoulder and ham or ribs and belly meat.

Martin still remembers his first encounter with whole hog barbecue and being instantly fascinated. "In Memphis it is not in your face, the sandwich comes out and it's fricking good and you eat it, but it all happens in the kitchen, behind closed doors. In western Tennessee you order a sandwich and they pull the hog right front of you. The first time I saw that it was all over, my whole world was blown. This guy just cooked a whole fucking pig!" Martin told himself then and there, "I will learn to do that."

Martin credits pitmaster Harold Thomas of Thomas & Web Barbecue in Henderson with teaching him how to cook whole hog. "I started hanging around immediately. I probably bought barbecue sandwiches five or six days a week because I loved [them] so much. I was bound and determined to learn how to cook whole hog." And learn he did. "Harold was nice enough to let me come down at night to the pit and in the spring 1991 I cooked my first hog."

From Bond Trader to Pitmaster

After graduating, Martin worked in Chicago and New York City as a bond trader. But soon he decided that Charlotte, NC, where he briefly lived, was as "far north" as he would go. "I didn't want to leave the South," he states unequivocally. He eventually settled in Nashville with his first wife and stayed there after getting divorced. No matter where he lived, he cooked whole hogs.

One day his second wife Martha told him, "You need to be in the restaurant business." Being the dutiful husband, he listened and opened up Martin's Bar-B-Que Joint in Nolensville, TN in 2006. "I didn't know what the hell I was doing," he confesses. "I got a Home Depot book, a Dewey drill and a Skill saw set. I hired Bo, my first employee who is still with me, and built my first restaurant in a 950 square foot building." Of course he did know one very important thing: how to smoke whole hog.

The menu in Nolensville, TN

Martin never installed a freezer or microwave in his restaurant, his goal was to always sell out of barbecue. "I used to piss off a lot of people, they thought it was weird that I would run out. I thought it was weird that they got upset that we were running out because that's what real barbecue joints do!" Martin's success eventually eclipsed the space he had to operate and he was forced to move across the streets to larger quarters in 2010. The added elbow room allowed Martin "to recreate what I learned" in Henderson: displaying the whole hog front and center in the restaurant, something the smaller confines of the first shop never allowed. He was now free to take his "brand where I wanted it, because whole hog is important to me. It is intimate when it is there in front of you, which is why I build my pits in the middle of the restaurant," he says referring to the layout of all current and future Martin's Bar-B-Que Joints.

"Their Nuts on the Line, Just Like Mine"

Martin's second location across the street was really an outgrowth of his first one. He decided that he needed to take on partners because he "wanted to learn how to run a restaurant, but without lowering my standards. I was in [barbecue] for the romanticism of it, but I was also 35, my wife was punching out kids left and right, and I needed to figure out how to send them to college and retire."

So he took on experienced restaurateurs John Michael Bodnar and Nick Pihakis of Jim 'N Nick's Bar-B-Que as partners, which allowed him to branch out and open third location in Tennessee and his first out-of-state venture in West Virginia. In the same way that he has been mentored by Bodnar and Pihakis, he now does the same with his pitmasters, grooming them to be future partners. "I will spend a year or two working them in the pit but also layering in restaurant operation. Then I make them a 20% partner so they have their nuts on the line, just like me, but they also get to eat the cake, just like me."

Nolensville, TN

The partnership with Bodnar and Pihakis has proved fruitful not just in terms of business but also culturally. Together they formed The Fatback Collective, along with other notable chefs, writers and farmers including John T. Edge, Rodney Scott, and Sean Brock. Initially, the Fatback Collective was a reaction to the homogenization of barbecue via the barbecue competition circuit. Often, competitions reduce ribs, brisket and chicken to a single recipe, stripping away regional identity.

"We would all sit around and bemoan competition barbecue," recalls Martin. "To me competition barbecue has been a really awesome thing, but there has been some bad things too. It has taken barbecue out of the American South and taken it from Seattle to Sweden. That's a good thing, but let's just make sure they are doing it the old way."

"Friggin' chicken breast in muffin pans? I can't see that," Martin exclaims incredulously. He is referring to the technique employed by competition barbecuers, in which perfectly trimmed chicken breasts are individually cooked in muffin pans to ensure that each one meets the judges strict criteria. It is about as far away from cooking a whole hog as one can get. The other competition technique that perplexes him is the injecting of liquid into meat which in his opinion makes the barbecue "taste like bouillon."

From Competition to Philanthropy

To prove that such competition techniques were superfluous, the Collective entered the vaunted Memphis in May competition in 2011 using a heritage breed hog and nothing but salt, pepper and smoke. They took third place. "We felt we proved our point, that you don't need to do all that stuff to get on to the winners stage," says Martin. The following year they took seventh place using the same elemental technique. But the Fatback Collective quickly evolved in to a philanthropic and advocacy organizations supporting Southern food culture and better farming policy.


A pulled pork sandwich from Martin's

One of the organization's end goals is to replace the packer hogs of commodity feed lots with those raised in the natural pasture system, not just in competition barbecue but for the food system as a whole. Martin, for his part, wants his hogs to have spent their lives walking around in a pasture, not stuffed into a feedlot pen. Martin feels strongly that this leads to better tasting meat. "If you don't think that affects flavor you are an idiot. It is about proper muscle development. Muscle development is collagen, Collagen is flavor and texture." He is a proponent of heritage breeds hogs such as Berkshires and Durocs but recognizes that the "economies of scale are so out of whack" right now that using them exclusively in cost prohibitive.

"We are all charged with passing this shit down." — Pat Martin

Thus he is a proponent of the heritage / packer hog hybrid. "You get it at packer prices and you are helping the cause by making the farmers use more heritage breeds. I am just as happy to eat a China White that walked around as I am a Berkshire that got to walk around, they both had a good quality of life. But until we can get pricing at the right level that the non fine dining restaurants can afford to buy them we are stuck" with the current system.

Whole Hog

Whole Hog

Martin feels a sense of responsibility to his craft and the heritage of western Tennessee style whole hog. He wishes to disseminate his knowledge, not hold onto it like a closely guarded secret. "I don't think that real chefs and pit masters have secrets," he contends. Just as he was taught and mentored he feels the responsibility to do the same. "We are all charged with passing this shit down," he says. "I never sat around and formally thought to myself that I want to influence younger guys. But at least at my end, anyone that worked for me that wanted to learn how to cook real barbecue had the opportunity to do so."