The smell of hickory smoke and slow-cooked hog hung over campus last weekend as students, faculty and family gathered for the first University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Porkorama. A pork barbecue extravaganza, the event was organized by the UTC History Department and the Honors College as a celebration of the history of Appalachian culture and cuisine. It was also a great excuse to eat some excellent food.
Porkorama is the brainchild of Dr. Mark A. Johnson, associate lecturer of history at UTC. Johnson said he has fond memories of a similar event he experienced while a doctoral student at the University of Alabama.
Johnson taught a spring semester honors course, “From Farm to #FoodPorn,” in which. “Students analyze historical and current issues related to the rise of agriculture, farming, the industrial food system, poverty and hunger as politics, gastrodiplomacy and in the final section, the meal gaze and cooking and dining as performance and spectacle,” he said.
Students had that “Farm to #FoodPorn” experience when they helped cook a whole hog from a local farm just like people in Appalachia have been doing for generations.
Johnson brought in some help from Alabama. Dr. Darrin Griffin, interim chair of Communication Studies at the University of Alabama, and Joe Wright, an expert arborist and pit master (in that order). Johnson, Griffin and Wright spent the night on Chamberlain Field tending to the coals and cooking a whole host of meats.
Between the water smoker, offset smoker, and whole hog cooker, they smoked brisket, pork ribs, beef ribs, Conecuh sausages (an Alabama staple), whole chickens and one beautiful pig. Their most impressive cooking instrument was the cinderblock roaster they fashioned in a quick 45 minutes. They also had help from students in Johnson’s class—who were willing to brave torrents of rain.
The weather was not on their side and made it a constant struggle to maintain the temperature on the pig cooker while the rain beat down on the metal cover, but the team powered through. Johnson, Griffin and Wright said they got maybe two hours of sleep in their nearby tents before they prepared to serve a horde of hungry people the next day.
There were no complaints from the three cooks even through a restless night. They call this hard work and cookery a fun time. Griffin is no stranger to teaching through food. As a communications professor at the University of Alabama, he has weaved his passion for barbecue into a few of his classes.
“I’ve taught a barbecue communication class twice at the University of Alabama, both were travel courses. One of them was seven states in the U.S., and for the most recent class, we did an Alabama barbecue tour,” said Griffin.
Both Johnson and Griffin brought a lot of academic know how to the cookout. Johnson is published in the collegiate barbecue space with his book, “An Irresistible History of Alabama Barbecue: From Wood Pit to White Sauce.” Wright brought his more practical knowledge to the event. Griffin said that he invited Wright along because he is “the kind of person that can do anything.”
Chef Kenyatta Ashford, who won an episode of the TV show “Chopped,” catered the side dishes, and they were on par with the meat.
The event left people with smiling faces, full bellies, and a bit more knowledge. Dr. Brooke Persons, director of the Jeffrey L. Brown Institute of Archaeology at UTC, ran a table at the event to share the anthropological perspective on food and its place in our culture.
“As archaeologists, we are interested in how people eat, how they sustain themselves and how that changes over time,” said Persons. She brought all sorts of artifacts like tools for agriculture and hunting and various animal bones. As she put it, she brought her own pig to the party, although the dusty jawbones and kneecaps were less appetizing than the hot meal.
Johnson is hoping this is the first of many UTC Porkoramas.