If you're a PETA person, better keep on truckin'. This article is about the unabashed tradition of cooking whole animals on a twirling rotisserie and tearing into said meat with bare hands. Sound a little barbaric? To many Eastern Europeans, it's the only way to enjoy barbecue.
Barbecue Eastern European-Style
Spit roasting is not an across-the-board practice. Hungarians and Poles, for example, prefer to have huge picnics with sausage, salads, roast chicken, breaded pork chops, and more. But if you're Serbian, Croatian, Slovak, Bulgarian, Bosnian, Slovenian or Lithuanian, spit roasting is de rigueur.
Pam and Ivan Hiestand of Hobart, Ind., chose this succulent form of barbecue for their granddaughter's graduation party because they knew their "region" guests would enjoy it. The region is a county-wide enclave in Northwest Indiana, outside Chicago, created by the waves of Eastern Europeans who immigrated to the area in the 19th century for the steady work promised by the many, sadly now-defunct, steel mills.
The tradition of spit-roasting meats still prevails for birthdays, graduations, "slavas," anniversaries, block parties, and church festivals. It's a laborious job that requires years of experience to achieve that delicate balance of crispy skin and moist meat.
Enter Stephen Kovel Shultz of Piggin' Out Catering Co. in Hobart, Ind. Shultz has been spit-roasting pigs and lambs for 40 some years, starting at the age of 8 helping his Croatian grandfather and uncle.
"When I was a kid, we didn't have sloppy joes at birthday parties, it was barbecued lamb or pig. It's a dying art that I'm passing on to my sons," Schultz says.
The 14-year-old twins, Nick and Stevie, who started at age 8 like their father, help debone the cooked meat.
Techniques abound, but Shultz uses oil-drum roasters with motorized rotisseries. He favors 80-pound suckling pigs and 40-pound spring lambs seasoned simply with garlic salt, plus a rub of olive oil on the lamb. On special request, he'll stuff the cavity with sausage, sauerkraut, new potatoes, the sky's the limit.
"Pigs are young animals, weighing 40 to 125 pounds, while a hog generally refers to animals at or near market weight of about 125 to 230 pounds. I've cooked the larger hogs, but for taste and tenderness, I recommend two 80-pound pigs over a 125-pounder," Schultz says.
He uses oak hardwood charcoal, also known as lump charcoal, to fire his roasters, building the charcoal up at the back of the roaster to produce indirect heat.
"That's where the flavor comes from -- the hardwood charcoal and a seasoned roaster. No gas grills for me," Schultz says.
The animal is skewered on a stainless-steel rod and tied with butcher's twine, the lid is closed and the rotisserie does its magic. An 80-pound pig will take 6 hours to cook and a 40-pound lamb about 3 hours. Shultz transfers the animals to a stainless-steel tray his uncle made in the steel mills and, after a 30-minutes rest, the meat is deboned and cut.
"The pig is completely skinned and deboned but we leave the skin and bones on the lamb because it's traditional," he says.
That's not to say the pig skin isn't consumed. Like lamb skin, it's considered a delicacy as is the head of both animals. The consensus seems to be that barbecued lamb is best eaten warm, while roast pig tastes even better the second day, cold. For planning purposes, an uncooked animal will yield half its weight cooked.
The quintessential way to eat roast pork and lamb is accompanied by green onions and white bread with butter. At many neighborhood festivals, the lamb and pig are ordered by the pound and brought to the table on butcher's paper and eaten with the hands.