There are plenty of regional variations in American barbecue. But there might not be a stranger style — or one that’s more difficult to make — than Monroe County Pork Shoulder from Monroe County, Kentucky.
I first heard about this variation of Kentucky barbecue from Wes Berry, author of The Kentucky Barbecue Book. Back in 2014, Wes suggested that we meet him at the Smokey Pig, a stone’s throw from the Western Kentucky University campus in Bowling Green. Three of us – Dan Meade, myself, and our friend, Katie — found Wes in the restaurant’s parking lot, a cloud of blue-white hickory smoke billowing upwards behind him. It looked like Wes was hickory-fueled himself.
We shook hands, and Wes led us through the restaurant’s front door. But he didn’t stop at the counter; instead, he walked right into the front kitchen, then led us through the break room, then out to the cookhouse. Everyone working there knew him, and they smiled our way as they looked up from their work.
Fire and Ice
The three guys working the pit also greeted us with smiles, but unlike the front-of-house folks, they were drenched with sweat. After about three seconds in the cookhouse, it was hard to believe that the guys were smiling at all. The air in the dark room where they toiled felt well over 100 degrees, maybe even 110.
On the right side of the room was the fire. The pit was really more like a grill. From wall to wall, slices of pork shoulder roasted about a foot above glowing, smoking hickory coals. The intense heat from the thin bed of coals radiated outward in every direction. Just standing in the cookhouse felt like having a full-body sunburn.
On the left side of the room was the ice. Frozen pork shoulders, just retrieved from the walk-in freezer, sat in a pile around a butcher’s band saw. One of the guys, Scott Huffer, got to work on them, sawing them into thin, plate-like slices about a quarter-inch thick. From the saw table, the still-frozen slices went right across the room onto the pit.
There, the pitmaster rapidly flipped the slices, which instantly thawed in the hickory smoke and then began to constrict as they cooked. The slices were sorted by doneness, grouped together on different parts of the grill. Once cooked through, each slice was dunked in a vat of Monroe County Dip — more on this in a minute — then tossed into a large, stainless steel bowl that the crew ferried between the cookhouse and the serving counter inside the restaurant.
So, there was one man on the saw, and one man on the pit. The third man was in charge of the smoke, and that’s where things got really fun. He ushered us out to the woodlot behind the restaurant, where we discovered the source of the bluish smoke plume that hovered above the restaurant: a rectangular, steel cauldron with one big door and one little door. Both doors were latched shut.
The Smokey Pig’s woodlot was not a pastoral pile of aging, rain-soaked hickory logs; instead, it looked more like the lumber section of a Home Depot. Pallets of flat-sawn hickory boards covered the pavement. Wes explained that we were looking at wood the nearby hickory furniture plants had rejected. Now, it was destined to become barbecue fuel.
“You guys wanna see some smoke?” asked the third crewman. He unlatched the upper furnace door and started tossing boards in. And then some more boards. And then some more. The smoke died down for a minute or two, then started billowing upwards as the glowing embers set the boards alight.
As the boards burned down, glowing coals would fall into the base of the furnace. Anytime the cookhouse is in need of more fuel, a crew member retrieves a shovelful of glowing coals via the smaller trap door at the bottom of the furnace. Then, he carefully walks the shovelful inside, where he scatters the coals under the grill.
The shoulder-smoking process takes an amazing amount of work, resulting in a lot of smoke, and a lot of sweat. But that didn’t stop any of us from documenting the process.
The Finished Product
Our collective appetite worked up, we followed a bowlful of cooked Monroe County shoulder to the front counter, where we placed our orders. A handwritten sign taped to the RC Cola machine explained all the ways we could get our shoulder:
You can get it
Plain made sense. Sprinkled clearly referred to a spice mix. Wes explained what the others meant. The Monroe County dip is essentially a suspended solution of lard, vinegar, hot sauce, and spices. You can see the dip staying warm on the grill in the cookhouse photos, but there was also a vat up front.
Each customer’s order is custom dipped according to preference — if you like it hot, your shoulder slices take a shallow dip, since all the oil-soluble capsaicin molecules like to float on the lard. If you prefer a less spicy slice, your pork gets plunged even deeper into the vat. Sprinkled means that your pork slices dredge up the spices hanging out at the bottom of the vat. I think I got that right (someone please let me know if I didn’t).
Naturally, I chose X-TRA-“HOT.” Just in case that was too much, the guys in the cookhouse had suggested that vodka, not milk, would be the best antidote.
Though strange in appearance to an outsider, the main course was outstanding. Each slice had cooked down to the thickness of a kettle chip, making it surprisingly easy to hold and gnaw off all the meat around the disc of bone.
Redolent with the flavors of hickory, cider vinegar, cayenne, and black pepper, it was easy to think of Monroe County shoulder as the west-of-Appalachia cousin of oak-smoked East Carolina barbecue.
All those flavors work together to make a person thirsty. Luckily, Wes had read up on our Manic American adventures in Korea as well as our mutual fascination with Sichuan cookery. He brought us some milky, home-fermented, Korean-style rice wine to help us wash down that spicy dip.
Stuffed, we thought we’d developed a pretty good understanding of Monroe County shoulder. But one more data point wouldn’t hurt. And, as it turns out, even though the Smokey Pig may be the best-known purveyor of Monroe County shoulder, it actually sits in Warren County.
So, we parted ways with Wes and Katie and journeyed eastward into Monroe County itself, for a stop in the small city of Tompkinsville.
Want to read more about our Kentucky barbecue adventures? Check out Manic Kentucky Barbecue Adventures: A Fiery Welcome to Roy’s Bar-B-Que in Russellville, KY.
Written by Rob Bellinger
Photos by Rob Bellinger & Dan Meade
Publication date: 8/5/2018
Date of visit: 6/24/2014