Like many men, I sometimes wonder: If I had to, could I survive by living off the land? I know that the answer is an unequivocal no. But to feed my male ego, I spend as much time as possible engaging in the closest thing to self-reliance available to the soft, sheltered city dweller: cooking raw animal flesh over an open flame.
Because I’m lazy and impatient, I prefer to sizzle my meat on a gas-powered Weber. Let the charcoal purists howl, but my three-burner fires up with the reliability of a Timex—unless I forget to refill the propane tank. Over time, however, consistency has bred tedium. Seeking to break out of my barbecue rut, I decided to start cooking like the macho pioneer folk who came before me. I would go whole animal.
I found a mentor in Brian Jupiter, a chef who has been offering “large format” dining for six years at Frontier in West Town. He started by cooking entire hogs on the restaurant’s patio in an old oil-drum-style smoker purchased from a South Side pitmaster. “You really had to watch the temperature,” says Jupiter, a laid-back New Orleans native. “A big wind would spark it up, and we’d end up with a black pig.”
Customers quickly took to the whole-animal shtick. Jupiter presented finished animals (head and all) on a long platter like an offering to the Pharaoh and carved them tableside. Soon he was marching a veritable Noah’s ark of creatures into the smoker: salmon, goats, alligators, and, on occasion, exotics such as alpaca and camels.
While the idea of digging into some camel humps intrigued me, I decided to stick with something unusual but not quite safari-worthy: a wild boar. When I arrive at Frontier early on a Monday afternoon, the headless, skinless 40-pound beast is already splayed like a porcine anatomy specimen across two large cutting boards in the kitchen. The first thing I notice is how muscular boars are compared with their coddled heritage pig cousins.
“That’s what allows them to charge,” says Jupiter of the slender torso and powerful shoulders. “We once got a boar from a supplier, and it still had a buckshot in it. A diner bit into it. She was like, ‘At least I know it’s wild.’ ”
Stray shotgun shells aside, cooking feral critters presents other odd predicaments. For example, after a couple of funky-smelling antelope shipments, Jupiter figured out that horny males emit a hormone during mating season. The result: stinky meat. He stopped ordering antelope that time of year and let the animals have their fun.
As sexy as antelope fornication sounds, I’m ready to prep this boar for dinner. Jupiter hands me an industrial-size syringe. I dip it in a caramel-colored marinade and insert it into the flesh, which plumps up like a Ball Park frank. The hind legs get an extra dose so they don’t dry out.
Next: a thorough oiling. Greasing up the boar’s strapping body, I feel like I’m massaging an elite athlete. Finally, we cake on a salty, sugary rub, laced with garlic and herbs. “This is no time to be shy,” Jupiter tells me as he thrusts a fistful of seasoning up the rear.
Like mobsters disposing of a body, we grab opposite ends of the beast and carry it to Frontier’s custom $11,000 smoker, which can fit about eight animals at a time. “You never know what you’re going to find in here,” Jupiter says when he spots a charred pig leg left over from the previous evening’s service. He puts some applewood in the side chamber and sets the temperature at 220 degrees. “Now we just let him go.”
Strolling up Milwaukee Avenue on my way back six hours later, I can smell meat smoking. I duck into Frontier’s kitchen, and Jupiter flips open the smoker’s metal doors. There’s our boar, dripping and caramelized from the rub. I carve a piece and give it a taste. The flesh is lean and dark but still juicy and flavorful. In between bites, I ponder the possibilities: Could I replicate this at home?
The following Saturday, I head to Devon Avenue in search of a whole animal. Mohammad, the knowledgeable 21-year-old butcher at the aptly named World Fresh Market, tells me he has a spring lamb that was alive just 24 hours ago. I drag my 4-year-old, Gemma, her hair still wet from swimming lessons, into the horror show of a walk-in cooler, where 20 or so of her favorite barnyard animals surround us, hanging, dead-eyed, from metal hooks.
Luckily, Gemma buries her face in my shoulder when Mohammad quickly removes the lamb’s innards and whacks off its head with a cleaver. He packages everything, including the head, in a plastic bag and shakes my hand. “Is our lamb still alive?” Gemma asks on the ride home. I hand her some candy, and she forgets the question and starts singing an Ed Sheeran song. Success.
The next day, I fire up the grill to roast the lamb, tossing a few hickory chips in my small smoker box. While the Weber heats up, I prop the 19-pound animal on my kitchen counter and rub it with olive oil. Then I raid our spice rack and devise a signature rub (mostly garlic powder, oregano, and thyme). I get a weird look from my neighbor as I carry the lamb out on my deck, like some sort of biblical shepherd gone rogue. To my delight, after I fold the animal in half and truss its legs, it fits perfectly on the grill. I close the lid and reduce the heat to about 250 degrees. For the next four hours, I nervously hover over the meat thermometer until it reaches 145 degrees.
I slice a medium-rare hunk from the shank and pop it in my mouth. The meat is moist and mild, with a pleasant hint of smoke. I almost can’t believe it. I invite my family out to watch me carve, but no one is interested. That’s fine. I take my time stripping the tender flesh from the bone, eventually filling a large roasting pan.
Sitting down to eat with my wife and two daughters, I feel as proud as I ever have as a father. Here we are, enjoying this animal that I provided for them. Sure, I didn’t stalk and kill it, but I did a damn good job cooking it. I notice that 8-year-old Josephine’s plate is empty, so I get her another piece. And that’s when I see her spitting the meat into her napkin.
Oh, well. More lamb for me.