The Casual Allure of a Pig Pickin’
Bonified tips from a gifted cook with a knack for hospitality
By Elizabeth Sugg » Photos by Mollie Tobias
Some people have a gift for throwing a party, and Giff Fisher is one of them. An “almost” Sandhills native, he and his family used to spend part of the year coming to North Carolina because his father loved to play golf, finally settling when he was in elementary school. Never an overall serious student, after a stint at UNC-Chapel Hill, Fisher began working construction while attending Sandhills Community College, and ultimately finished at East Carolina. Maintaining some of his independence for pursuits like shooting and golf that he still competed in was important to Fisher, so he was always willing to work hard and figure out how to make a strong buck, and he became entrepreneurial.
It was 1975 and Pinehurst did not have liquor by the drink, so private clubs were all around as a convenience for members so they could keep their alcohol on hand in a place they could come in and have a drink with friends. The downstairs of what is now Dugan’s Pub in Pinehurst became available, and Fisher opened up his private drinking club called The White Rabbit, so named for the famous Tennessee saloon at the Jack Daniel’s Distillery.
The bridge from running a club to becoming White Rabbit Catering Company happened because, well, Fisher had to do a hat trick to save a pig pickin’ he was hosting as a thank-you for all the members who had joined his club. The year was 1977 and, never having cooked a pig, Fisher hired someone recommended to do it. They got along like a house on fire, sipping cold beer as tips and know-how were swapped on the method of roasting a whole hog, and on this night with music by The Spontanes in the background, three were being cooked. The cook’s sips must have been bigger than Fisher’s because by mid-afternoon he had dozed off into a lengthy stupor, and Fisher had to finish cooking the pigs himself. That was his first rodeo at the helm of a pig roast for 300, and 43 years later, it is far from being his last. Having observed various stages of the sometimes 16-hour process recently, it is clear that there is a natural affinity Fisher has for this outdoor cooking feat, a rhythm to a method that over time has become second nature to him.
The lore of that White Rabbit shindig had Fisher’s phone ringing nonstop for all sorts of occasions where a pig pickin’ was called for. After balancing the private club with catering opportunities and now dating the woman he would marry at age 28, Fisher decided to sell the club yet still maintained the White Rabbit name for his caterings. He balanced that with selling real estate part-time for many years before opportunities meant he could go full-bore into the hospitality industry.
One of the founders of Pinehurst National, a career highlight in Fisher’s over 40 years in the business was doing the food at the golf course’s opening events and serving two meals to Jack Nicklaus, National’s (now Pinehurst No. 9) designer. One night was quite a challenge — “try serving meals to 500 people with no power!” Nicklaus took an extra serving of peach cobbler for the plane ride home.
There are many signature events throughout the Sandhills for which Fisher’s cooking style has set the tone for decades. His repertoire runs along an outdoorsy, masculine vein — oyster roasts, game dinners, elegant menus, yes, but ones with succulent meats and side dishes that are more classic than trendy. Fisher’s background with the private bar means that he knows how to play host when he is catering, and his two main staff, Beth Eilert and Lynn Harris, have a similar friendly but in-charge manner as well.
Fisher is a significant figure in the development of good food and service in and around Moore county. The experience of watching him prepare a whole hog, the resulting pork so tender and delectably flavorful right off the grill, was a gift. And Fisher is one of the Sandhills’ gems.
A footnote: The White Rabbit Catering Team recently won the 3rd Annual Richmond County Clay Shooting Classic, and he and Harris got in some good turkey hunting this spring in between all the pig roasting and interviews. Fisher is still striking a balance that fits him to a tee. whiterabbitcateringnc.com
A Sandhills Pig Pickin’ How-to
Photos by Evie Sugg
Prep time: 1 hour
Cook time: 12-15 hours — Giff says “low and slow”
Total time: 13-16 hours
Serves: Up to 100 people
The Pig and the Coals:
120-140 dressed weight hog for best yield and flavor
60 pounds of charcoal briquettes depending on the weather, fatness of hog, etc. Fisher adds hickory nuts or chips on top if using charcoal for smoke and flavor. If you soak them in water before adding, they will smoke and not ignite.
Step 1: Place 20 pounds of coals in the barbecue cooker (add charcoal as needed during cooking process), divided into two piles on left and right side of cooker. Pour charcoal lighter fluid on the briquettes and ignite, or use a charcoal chimney to bypass the lighter fluid. Let the charcoal burn until a fine white ash covers the briquettes.
Step 2: Split open the whole dressed pig into two halves for ease in turning.
Step 3: Place a heavy gauge wire screen or rack about a foot above the coals. Place pig halves on rack skin-side-up. Close lid of the cooker. After two hours Fisher adds coals to maintain heat.
Step 4: Try to maintain a 250-degrees Fahrenheit grill temperature. It will go up and down as you add coals.
Step 5: Flip pig after 5-6 hours to skin-side-down.
Step 6: Cook 6-10 more hours until done (an internal temperature of 170-degrees Fahrenheit), adding more coals as necessary to maintain heat. After cooking several hogs Fisher says you develop a “feel” for when the pig is done, and sometimes he will not reach for a thermometer. He says to remember that the shoulder is the last part to get done, so check for doneness there.
Step 7: Once cooked, slice or chop the meat or allow guests to pull meat from the bones. Serve with the East-West Sauce, a blend of the ketchup from Lexington-style sauces and the eastern NC-style with apple cider vinegar and red pepper, or your favorite sauce on the side. Fisher encourages people to enjoy the natural smoke flavor of the meat before adding the sauce.
1 gallon apple cider vinegar
1 28-ounce bottle ketchup
2 ¾ cups firmly packed brown sugar
¼ cup garlic powder
λ ¼ cup salt
¼ cup crushed red pepper
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
½ teaspoon ground cloves
East-West Sauce Instructions:
This recipe is one by Al Carson of Raleigh who got raves on Food Network. As it goes with many cooks, Fisher is not ready to part with his “secret sauce”!
Step 1: In a 6-quart stainless-steel pot over medium-high heat, combine all the ingredients; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for approximately 15 minutes or until crushed red pepper sinks. Turn off heat and let stand, about 30 minutes. Sauce may be refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.
Step 2: It should be bottled hot, not boiling. Just hot enough that the
bottles are hard to hold for more than a few seconds. Fill bottles within 1/2 inch of the top. By bottling hot, it will seal itself. Does not need refrigeration until after opening and then only to protect flavor.