This is probably not the kind of image that comes to mind when you think about Bonnaroo.
But it’s an image I saw my first night there. I snapped it just after I watched a couple of people saw the head off a hog with something that sounded and looked a lot like the circa-1980 Sears hedge clipper we had growing up. Off the body, the head looked almost rubber, almost like a cartoon. Except for the eyes. The eyes were tiny and wet.
“Ya’ll are sick, taking pictures of pig torture,” somebody next to me said, snapping a picture of his own. Two guys stuck the end of the hedge clipper into the hog’s neck and started going to town on the ribs. A man walking by trotted up and licked the head’s cheek. Thursday night at the Food Truck Oasis.
This was not pig torture. It was Alabama-based Jim and Nick’s Bar-B-Q taking the lead in the Fatback’s Collective Bonnaroo debut. The Collective is a community of politically progressive chefs, restaurateurs, and gourmands who really dig their pork. They share with Bonnaroo, according to Melany Mullens, one of a multiple publicists pushing Bonnaroo’s world of food, “a dedication to sustainability and pork.”
I like this coupling. It sounds silly, but typed out it reads as simultaneously down-home and high-minded, which I figure is pretty much the point. Bonnaroo is carbon neutral; it gets 20% of its electricity from solar panels; I could go on. Bonnaroo is also a champion of the Southern culture of food and hospitality. Welcome to Bonnaroo’s Tennessee, a land of new kinds of partnerships.
Your average Bonnaroo citizen standing in front of Jim and Nick’s, however, isn’t thinking about sustainability. She’s thinking about food. Each night of the festival, a different chef affiliated with Fatback cooked a whole hog, folks spending the early evening making fresh charcoal in two tall, narrow kilns and then setting the hog in the smoker for 13 or so hours. By 10:30 or 11:00 each morning, there was fresh, hickory smoked, pulled-pork BBQ to be had for seven bucks, give or take.
But neither Shannon nor I eat pork. This is a handicap for a food blog, I know, I know, but what are we gonna do?
Ask Knoxville’s Blank News, that’s what.
So we bought a Jim and Nick’s sandwich for Blank’s founder and editor Rusty Odum and asked him what he thought.
“It’s absolutely delicious, and it’s about as good as anything I’ve put my lips around here at Bonnaroo,” he said. “You can tell they took a little extra time to do it, and you know, the Devil’s always in the details. I haven’t gotten a bite that’s been tough to chew.”
“And it’s pulled, not chopped,” added Blank photographer Bill Foster. “It’s a texture thing. If it’s chopped, it’s all uniform, and you never get the big chunks in your mouth. This is really, really good. It’s got a nice smoky flavor, it’s not drowning in sauce.”
“It’s got a really thin sauce,” Rusty continued, “seems vinegar-based, but it’s got some Southern flavor, a little bit of spice, not too much. And the pickle is a very nice addition, too. I usually enjoy slaw on my barbecue sandwiches, which is something I fell in love with at Central Barbecue in Memphis, Tennessee, but I’ve never had it with just the pickle, and I was actually pleasantly surprised. It’s probably the best barbecue I’ve had at Bonnaroo.”
And then the boys licked their lips, and we all went to catch Jason Isbell, a son of Alabama himself, play the Which Stage.
So PitchKnives is going to take Rusty and Bill at their word. I kept trying to get a taste of Jim and Nick’s myself with one of their advertised one-dollar biscuits, but they were always sold out, a cruel tease if I’ve ever known one. But I love biscuits as much as the on-point chefs and cooks of the moment love pork. So I’ll just tough it out until next year.