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A Thanksgiving to Remember

Written by Kobus on December 18, 2012

Me and a pig head. Delicious, delicious cheak meat.

Kilos of Pork Consumed: 23
Shopping Carts Demolished: 1
Hours Spent Roasting Pig: 7
Hours Spent Debating Method of Roasting Pig: 12
Nationalities Represented at Thanksgiving: 5

Porkapalooza, Pork-o-Rama, The Great Argentinian Pig Roast, Porksgiving, Porkfest, Operation Pork-off 2012. We don't really have one name for what happened this Thanksgiving. Nailing it down to one specific term just doesn't seem fair.

What do you get when you put eight overlanders in the same campground with entirely too much alcohol a mere three days before Thanksgiving? A master plan so convoluted, so genius and so stupefyingly delicious that even now, nearly a month later, still has us shaking our heads and dreaming nightly of disembodied pigs.

We gather around our campsite and hatch the master plan.

Our tale of woe and crispy pork fat started in Mendoza where we met our friends Mark and Sarah of and Mike, our old pal from Peru who joined us for the Lima food festival. We also roped in two new friends, Ben and Eveline who were just beginning their overland trip on motorcycles.

During one of several late-night social gatherings the topic of Thanksgiving was discussed. Only three of eight of us are actually American, the rest being from England, Holland, South Africa, Whales and Australia, so a bit of explanation was required. As any American is aware, it comes down to three things: family, friends and above all else, food!

What's traditional? Turkey, of course. But it's been a months since we saw a turkey in the supermarket, so an alternative is required.

Giant racks of roasting pig at the Lima food festival.

This lead us to a bit of a brainstorming session, if you could call it that after several bottles of booze. Mike, Jessica, Kobus and I fondly recalled the most delicious thing we'd eaten in recent memory: chancho al palo at the Lima food festival. Slow-roasted pork over a wood fire.

So I said, "Why the hell not?" I can cook a pig. Maybe not exactly like that, but all it'll take is some rebar, pork and a fire. I know where we can get all of those things, well, except the pig.

Scouting trip to the Mendoza market.

The next morning Mike, Jessica and Kobus went to Mendoza's central market to make a few inquiries. It turns out that a small pig goes for 3-4 times the price (per pound) as a big pig. So we were looking at one small 15 pound pig, or half of a bigger pig at around 60 pounds. They opted for the half pig, put down a deposit and vowed to return in two days to pick it up. 60 pounds of pork for eight people? Totally doable.

Mike was ready to leave that day to head towards Chile, he packed up his tent and bike that morning. That afternoon when he was still around I asked what his plans were. "I'm totally committed to the pig now, I can't leave." There's no going back. This thing was going to happen.

Online research, formulating a plan for the grill.

The sheer size and weight of the pig presented several logistical challenges. But hell, we've driven a combined total of around 100,000 miles through Latin America over the last year and half. I'm pretty sure that we can overcome a few pork-related difficulties.

Plans are mentioned, scrutinized and thrown out by the dozen. Hours are spent debating how one should go about cooking an obscene quantity of meat on a wood fire. Our options are whittled down to prodigious use of re-bar, wire and finding a hapless local with a welder and an hour or so to kill humoring a few crazy gringos with delusions of pork grandeur.

A trip to the hardware store looking for a grill.

The next morning, maybe more like afternoon considering the hangovers, the three of us and Mike head to a gigantic hardware store to price materials and maybe come up with some new ideas.

We started in the grill section, which had several options that would fit the pig, but all at extremely high prices (over $250) which ruled them out immediately. Whatever we ended up with had to be cheap since it's unlikely it will not see more than one use and we already owe the butcher a chunk of change for more pork than we currently know what to do with.

Trying some unorthodox methods at the hardware store.

So it's off to the other side of the store to check out raw materials. We meet a helpful salesman who is at first confused by our requests, but comes around once we show him a picture of the chancho al palo rigs we saw in Lima. He tries to dissuade us from jerry rigging something out of chicken wire and rebar, but we refuse to pay hundreds of dollars for a proper grill.

The store itself is filled with shelving and metal baskets that would be perfect for our use. We tried asking three or four store employees if they had any laying around that might mysteriously find their way into the back of our car in exchange for a few pesos. They wouldn't go for it.

In the process of stalking around outside the store, our gaze happened upon the hundreds of empty shopping carts in the parking lot. That could work, right? The plan is deemed suitably ghetto, but we weren't quite to the point of committing larceny on behalf of Thanksgiving dinner.

One shop employee gave us directions to a store that manufactures grills and said his prices would be more reasonable and the selection better than at the hardware store. Having exhausted our current options, we headed up the road to check it out.

Heading to the dump in search of grill building parts.

The directions, being suitably confusing and par for the course given our experiences thus far in Latin America, lead us to the airport. We stop to ask around and find that nobody knows of a shop that sells grills in the area. Mike recalls the road we're on, he drove it on the way into town, and remembers a foul smell about a mile further up that must have been a dump. That sounds like it's in our price range.

I was slightly nervous going into the place, not wanting to contract some horrible flesh-eating bacteria. After seeing the glass and metal-strewn driveway, we parked the car at the entrance with the hope of keeping the air inside all four of our tires. I considered getting my boots out, but then I remembered I left them in the campsite. At least my tetanus shot is up to date.

Success! A shopping cart is acquired from a shirtless junkyard dog.

We fan out and scope the grounds, meeting the inhabitants of the dump and informing them of our goal. We found a few pieces of scrap metal that would likely work after a bath in disinfectant, but the piece de resistance came when Mike spotted an intact shopping cart out back. The proprietor of this fine establishment requested 200 pesos for the cart, about $40. Kobus brought him down to $20 and we sealed the deal with a photo.

Reciepts probably aren't the norm here, so we needed something just in case the federales pull us over and wonder why we have a shopping cart in the back of our car. "See officer? I legally acquired this piece of stolen material. Take up with Carlos at the dump. Tell him the four crazy gringos sent you."

Blue is loaded up with our shopping cart.

Locked and loaded, the cart barely fits in the back of Blue. We wave goodbye to the less-than-sanitary junkyard keepers and head back to our campsite with thoughts of hot showers and disinfectant wipes on our minds.

Parts being removed from the shopping cart.

Back at the site, we spent another hour debating just how to transform our dirty shopping cart into a pig roasting machine the likes of which the world has yet to witness. Round and round we go. "If we just cut this little bit off, bend this over and stand it up like this it'll work great!" "No, you can't do it that way, the pig will fall into the fire." "How do we flip it over?" "What if the shopping cart is coated in poisonous materials, or several years of junkyard-accumulated hepatitis grease?"

Eventually we come to a consensus, of sorts. We decide to dismantle the cart, removing the base and wheels with a tiny hacksaw and bending off the inner folding rack (the part that little kids are supposed to sit on but never do). Kobus manages to borrow an angle grinder from the campsite host. We then proceed to chop up the front of the cart and bend it flat with the bottom to give us a surface area that should be big enough for our 60lb porker.

Loading up the roofrack with a load of firewood.

The next morning is go time.Thankfully Ben and Eveline had scoped out the perfect campground just a few hours up the road. (Did we mention that 3 days after Thanksgiving we all had to cross the border to be in Chile?)

We load up the cart on FromAtoB's gigantic rig and stop by the corner store and buy enough firewood to get things started once we arrive at the next campsite. Then it's off to the market to pick up the pig.

The butcher, preparing our pig.

Our butcher is a man of few words and many knives. Upon seeing the headless half a pig hanging in the walk-in cooler, I make an executive decision to chop off the back leg (the ham) because there was just too much meat. Minus the ham the final weight was 23 kilos, about 50 pounds. That should be about right for eight people.

Using broken Spanish I instruct the butcher to score the skin, cut out the front leg bone and cut the ribs in half so that we could get the gigantic slab of meat to lay flat in the cart. He was very patient as I tried to remember words like "bone", "skin" and "ribs" that I learned in Spanish school nine months ago but haven't used since. When that failed, motioning what I wanted done using myself as some sort of pig-like dummy stand-in (think: "point at the doll where the bad man touched you") got the job done.

Meanwhile, Jessica and Kobus scour the market for the rest of the feast. Bags of veggies, cheese, salami and other delicious foods are acquired and packed into our car next to el cerdo (that's Spanish for "the cerdo"). And we're off to our new campsite by 10:30. Only a half hour behind schedule.

Prepping the pig on location at our new campsite.

Time's a ticking. I figure that pig is going to need at least six hours, more like eight or ten to achieve falling-off-the-bone tenderness. Upon arrival I go to work on the pig, removing the shoulder blade and cleaning up the ribs a bit. My goal was to get the thing as uniformly thick as possible so that it cooks evenly.

I was marginally successful. Lacking any kind of experience in the 50-pound-pig-roasting department, or something like a large steamroller, getting the pig "flat" proved challenging.

Formlating a plan for how to prop up the cart next to the fire.

Once Mark and Sarah arrive with the shopping cart/pig roasting contraption we form a game plan for how best to set it up in front of the fire. My idea, which would soon prove to be a bad one, was to stand the pig up at a slight angle near the fire. Again, the goal is to get the monstrosity to cook evenly without too much or too little heat along it's 3 1/2 foot length. Easier said than done.

The pig goes in the cart.

Mark and Mike take the cart down to the river and give it a thorough scrubbing to remove some of the junkyard hepatitus schmeg. Once it's back, Mike and I load 'er up.

Wiring up the pig into the cart.

Fits like a glove! We use a random grill rack we found at the campsite to secure the top side, and tie it all together with a few yards of wire to prevent pork slippage and potential disaster.

Mike and I carry the pig to the fire.

It's a two person job to transport the 50 pounds of pork to the fire. We should have left the wheels on for this part, but they're in a garbage heap in a Mendoza campground a couple hours away.

Jessica preparing appetizers.

During the pork prep shenanigans, Jessica is busy getting the rest of the fixin's together. Veggies are sliced and diced for an appetizer, along with a plate of various cheeses, salami, pickles and proper French mustard. In this photo she's busy rolling out a pie crust for desert. Who could have thought she'd suddenly be (or at least look) so excited to help cook?!

The pig is cooking.

The first couple hours of the pig roasting were a bit problematic. The idea of standing the cart straight up and down proved to be a bad decision on my part. The middle cooked too fast and the cracklings got black. We remedy the situation by laying the pig on its side and spreading out a long fire in front of the grill. A strategically placed pan catches drippings for the gravy.

Mark and Mike chop down part of a dead tree for firewood.

With our firewood supply dwindling rapidly, Mark "Who the hell is Paul Bunyan?" and Mike "I'm a crazy bastard" attack a dead tree branch with gusto.

Kobus and Mike return with a trunk load of firewood.

Unable to secure more firewood from the surrounding trees, Mike and Kobus head into town in search of legitimate sources of fuel for the fire. They spot a huge pile of logs along the main road and ask the guy on site if it's for sale. Turns out it's not, but they're more than welcome to take whatever they want in exchange for a couple cokes. When they get back, we unload and commence drinking while watching the pork sizzle.

Kobus waves a bottle of wine over the cooking pig.

After four hours it starts to look (and smell) delicious. With a bottle of Argetina's finest in hand, Kobus approves of the pork's progress.

Rotating the pig.

As Ben watches on, Kobus and I flip the pork and stoke the fire. It's an ongoing process, flipping, turning and tossing more logs on the fire.

While the pork was cooking Jessica had her camera setup to record its progress. One shot every 10 seconds, condensed to 30 frames per second equals seven hours of pork roasting in 84 seconds of video.

The pig cooks into the night.

As the sun sets the natives begin to grow restless. I told them it would be cooked around the time they started threatening to throw me into the fire with the pig. Lucky for me, I'm the only one around with the slightest idea of how to carve up half a pig. Around 8:30 or 9 I cry uncle, and the pig is removed from the flames.

Jessica and Evelyn prepare the sides.

Meanwhile Jessica, Ben and Evelyn frantically prepare the rest of the sides: grilled pineapple, bacon and almond greenbeans, mashed potatoes, stuffing and apple pie for desert. Ben whips up a batch of what might be the best gravy I've ever tasted using the drippings we accumulated during the seven hours the pig was on the fire.

Mark assists in removing the cooked pig from the cart.

Once the meat has a chance to cool off, Mark assists with the delivery. It's...a pig! 38 inches and 811 ounces.

Mike offers the use of his machete for cutting up the pig.

While the finishing touches are put on the side dishes, I spend a few minutes in meditation, deliberating how best to slice up dinner. Mike offers his rusty machete, which I turn down owing to the fact I've had a few drinks already and wish to have all ten fingers intact come morning.

Knife and tongs in hand, I start carving.

Sleeves up, trusty chefs knife in hand, I go to town. The spare ribs come off, along with huge sections of pork loin and back ribs. Those are the first to be served up, along with crispy bits of cracklin' and very tender shoulder meat.

Hungry people line up for a slice of heaven.

Everybody circles around with plates in hand, more or less happy to grab whatever I hack off and toss in their general direction.

A heaping plate of Thanksgiving deliciousness.

And here it is! A Thanksgiving dinner for the record books. Maybe a tad late, but very much worth the wait.

All of us gathered around the table, digging in.

Here's the crew, minus the photographer Kobus. Clockwise around the table we have Evelyn from Holland, Ben from Australia, Mike from California, Mark from England, Sarah from Whales, and Jessica and I. Fat and happy all around.

What remains of the pig.

After dinner Mike and I return to bag and tag the remainder of the pork and keep the scavengers away. All things considered we did pretty well. There's a small bag of shredded pork left, and two big gallon bags of shoulder and loin bits. Everyone takes some as leftovers for tomorrow. The next day we eat pork sandwiches for breakfast and lunch, and make a giant pot of chili that we absolutely destroy for dinner. Nothing is left after the second day. Mission: Accomplished!

Up next: we let the pork sweats subside for a couple days before heading into Chile and our rental house on the beach west of Santiago.


#2 Ron 2012-12-21 21:24
This is awesome! We did something similar (50 pounder IIRC) in my backyard last year, except we had rebar and charcoal... still got the rig in my garage :) Only a matter of time before it gets busted out again. Lots of work but well worth it!
#1 James 2012-12-18 20:42
a masterpiece worthy of the Smithsonian, well done my friend, well DONE

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