Melina Wein tries a rib.
If you weren’t sure how to get to the home of Marco and Katherine Birch, hosts of the Shelter Island Whole Hog Invitational, all you really needed to do was follow your nose. It was there on Little Ram Island under a searing August sun, that 11 fired-up, smokin’ hot, pig-purveying teams gathered to pit neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend – and the competition was far more stiff than you might expect above the Mason-Dixon.
I know, I got to judge, alongside nine other discerning demi-gods of the dish (OK, not my language — they were calling us this to butter us up, I’m pretty sure), among them Wolffer Estate Vineyard’s Roman Roth, Grind co-founder Ben Dyett, Reddings Market maven and owner Marie Eiffel, Mulberry and Vine co-owner Genevieve Lynch, and Sweet Tomato’s owner Jimi Rando. The teams could enter in any of four categories: ribs, butt, sides or dessert, with the first two being the big point of pride and piggy prowess. We were a tough group: “This rib is like a woman who’s pretty to look at, but there’s nothing on the inside,” tsked Eiffel, after nibbling one that didn’t make the cut. And there was dramatic in-fighting, too: When one judge barked that a side of baked beans was lousy with bacon, Dyett’s eyes grew wide and his usually amiable face stoic: “Saying there is too much bacon is like saying you have too much money!”
But eventually, decisions were made after some pretty impressive dishes passed under our noses. The grand prize winner was the Salty Rinse team, which also took number 1 in the pork butt category. (Although, if I’m reading my notes correctly, team 3, Stumbles the Pig, won my heart in the latter category with a pork butt and briny oyster bahn mi that will forever haunt me with its delicious memory). First in ribs went to the Rack Pack (which, as it so happens, was the team of the gracious hosts—but truly, the judged tasting was blind). First in sides went to Pigs in a Blanket (e.g., the Shelter Island Police Department), and at the risk of getting retaliatory ticket, I will admit my fave was the Rack Pack’s clafoutis-like corn pudding; damn, that was good. And the sweet stuff winner: the Salty Rinse Entry, which was tasted by judging table 2 (I, for one, swooned over Stumbles the Pig’s ridiculously decadent coconut-vanilla cupcakes. Sigh).
Pork Shoulder Presentation by Clark Briner for Rack Pack.
But all that eating wasn’t just for button-popping: the event raised close to $5,000 (via entry fees and the suggested $25 purchase of a Whole Hog Invitational T-shirt — I’ll be sporting mine while attempting to jog it all off in the coming days) for the Shelter Island School Sailing Program and the Shelter Island Educational Foundation. Keep your eyes peeled for a SIWHI cookbook in the near future, too—and, the Birches hope, an event that becomes as annual a part of the island’s summer fabric as the Fireman’s Chicken Barbecue. “[It’s] a fun and delicious way to bring the community together and to raise funds for these two great kids programs,” says Katherine Birch. “We hope to make it an annual event and get even more people involved.” Start stocking up on applewood.
French vanilla cake with maple and bacon frosting topped with bacon roses by Katherine Birch for Rack Pack.