The Butcher and the Public

On a chilly January morning, chef Travis McConnell put a pig on a spit. Some 13-odd hours later, he took it off. This is a story of the roast, the people who showed up that evening and the community that McConnell hopes will take shape as a result—both for the sake of the city and his own.

The pig, for all the features that make it a pig, is mostly a pig in name only. Trussed up with chicken wire and string, its trotters have been clipped, bones and innards have been swapped for Aleppo chili, garlic and lemon zest, and a litany of herbs and spices. The deadweight dropped, it is a trim 140 compared to its original 170 pounds and seems to exist in a porcine limbo somewhere between bacon and hog. It is pale (and disconcertingly appetizing) and quite easy to discuss at length—as is being done by three men standing around a fledgling fire on a Sunday morning at Little Rock’s Dunbar Community Garden—if only because so much of what’s to follow relies upon this pig. Which doesn’t make a lick of sense because, as of this moment, at 5 a.m., dinner is still some 13-odd hours away.

All the more confounding: This isn’t about the pig.

As Travis McConnell, who’s the brains behind this whole thing, would be the first to tell you, the pig is really just a means to an end. The dinner is open to the public. It’s about community. For Travis, an accomplished Little Rock chef, it’s the opportunity to meet more of the folks he hopes to engage in a conversation about eating, drinking and buying local—and whom he hopes to draw upon in the future as this becomes something larger. After weeks of planning, it’s practically here. Even as night lingers on and a shovel is set on fire—“This is a brand new shovel, eh?” Travis asks his friend Micah Klasky as the sticker that had been on the spade catches fire and burns away—everything is moving forward.

This early on in the process—when the garden’s sundial is a useless tchotchke—there’s the leisure of being so far removed from the deadline that whatever pressure is being felt must be largely internalized, though there’s still some excitement starting to electrify the air. Getting the pig over the coals is kind of like one of the last first steps in seeing all the smaller pieces drift together and coalesce. Travis and Micah and Matt Lowman, another friend, pull two long stakes of metal from the back of Micah’s car. Each of these can be ratcheted up and down, and they have broad rounded bases and four prongs sticking from the ends. The guys stomp them into the ground on either side of the fire. At about a quarter past 6, Travis says the word, and the pig is brought out, spit already run through front to back. They heft it over the coals, and the pig, which is stark white, almost glows.

“All right,” Travis says after taking in the pig for a moment, “another 10 hours and we’re good.”

As the sun comes up, you can see what the area looks like. You can see the cars that were parked a few hours ago, the staggered line of thermoses and bottles of water and Dr. Pepper and gloves and donuts and whatever there wasn’t room for anywhere else. You can see the woodpiles that have been divided into whole and split logs, and the ancient wheelbarrow used to cart the wood over. You start to realize how close to civilization you are—which is to say, you’re pretty well in the middle of it—when you see the tennis courts just beyond the garden’s greenhouse and wind turbine. There’s a chill to the point that stepping over the pit’s brick perimeter in order to break up the frost building inside your shoes and one layer of socks seems perfectly reasonable.

The pig doesn’t appear quite so chalky — kind of like a vampire with a base tan.

After bringing out a few more loads of wood, cursing the mad rooster that crows at odd intervals and interrupts conversation, assembling the veggies on the table and bringing out the benches, Travis sits down and starts making a list of what he needs; then he starts talking about food.

But the conversation never touches upon flavor. What he talks about is the source, the point of origin, where all the stuff he’s cooking came from, and he traces it back in a way that makes you embarrassed for drinking Mountain Dew, the ingredients for which are as much a mystery as the actual flavor of the beverage. When he talks about the pig, for example, he talks about Freckle Face Farm, how the pig over the fire is unfortunately not one of those with a pedigree, not the kind that have the long equestrian-sounding names that are a challenge to spell, but one that was raised the right way. And the veggies? The baby kale and the greens (North Pulaski Farms), the fingerling potatoes and butternut squash (Armstead Mountain Farm), and the beer (Flyway Brewing Company, Vino’s Brewpub) and the cider (Loblolly Creamery) that are still to come, and all the rest—he can name where those came from and the steps taken to get them here.

“All these products are here,” he says, “if we just look a little deeper and try to find them.”

Even the homemade spit—on which the pig is currently skewered and is gradually picking up some glow and color off the flames—gets traced back fairly easily and in a particularly familiar sort of way. The base is a disc from his family’s disc tiller. The prongs are railroad spikes from his family’s work on the railroad. He designed the spit. He helped his dad build it.

It’s about this time that you really get the sense that he practices what he preaches. The reason he’s doing it is the sense of closeness that it inspires, the link that gets recast when you’re talking about having done something yourself, on your own, the fact that he can talk about those old agrarian techniques and say that he’s been able to do that. As he puts it: “It connects me with the food, man.”

This connection with the food has a lot to do with the roast, and a lot to do with a stamp that he tries out on some of the butcher paper wrapping the tables and on the cover of the moleskin notebook where he’s sketching out what still needs to be done. The name reads “Butcher & Public,” which is technically not a thing. Or at least isn’t yet.

“Butcher & Public” is his restaurant. Or will be his restaurant. Or his shop. The majority of the details—whether it’s going to be small plates or sandwiches, or that sort of thing—are still forthcoming, but he knows what he wants it to mean for the community in Little Rock. The restaurant, at this point, is largely the still-ephemeral manifestation of Travis’ ideology. He knows he wants it to be a place that can source locally, whose menu is subject to the changing of the tides and elements impacting local farmers, where people can come and feel like home. And so, in a sense, this event, as he says later, is kind of a way for him to get reconnected with the community he’s going to be tapping into as the restaurant becomes more of a reality and starts to take form.

“The party revolves around the idea of doing something outside and getting to know the community and doing these events, and just having a good time roasting a pig,” Travis says. “But [these events] essentially are what I want Butcher & Public to be.”

“It’s sourcing locally; it’s connecting with the people in the area who are handcrafting their own products, … people who are fermenting beers and making breads, and people who are growing animals and growing produce. It’s all those things that I want to have under the roof of Butcher & Public eventually.”

Sitting on the benches they’ve borrowed from Dunbar, Travis writes in the “Butcher & Public”-branded moleskin, and you realize what you’re seeing is not just an aspiration or hope for something great to come of the evening, but the expectation that, if it were to come off well and not only meet, but exceed, expectations, that would set everything the way that it needed to be. In more than one way, for the sake of everything leading up to it and for everything he hopes will follow, you get the sense that this needs to work.

It’s around midday when the pig starts to whistle. It’s a high-pitched raspy wisp of a noise like a teakettle, and it draws even more attention to the pig. At this point in the process, the pig’s starting to redden, the skin is going taut, there are sprigs of rosemary crammed unevenly like whiskers just below the chin. It looks not unlike a Vienna sausage with a face. Everything is going well enough, though there’s some persisting concerns that the head is not quite hot enough—the hope is that it’ll hit 120 degrees around 1 p.m., breaking down the sinews over the course of the afternoon. It’s difficult to imagine another scenario in which one pig would be the object of so much scrutiny and observation. There’s a certain appeal, and obvious oddity, to the whole ordeal that draws you to stare, and it’s the reason it’s not surprising when people drop by on their own to admire what the guys are doing and to compare notes.

This is a community event after all.

There’s the man and woman who stop by, talk about barbecue and volunteer to swing by the store for some pecan wood. There’s the little boy and his dad who stop by and watch the pig as the dad tells stories about the family’s own annual pig roast (the methods for which include laying the pig on a metal grate and sound overwhelmingly medieval, albeit effective). There’s Chris Wyman, one of the managers of Dunbar Community Garden, who asks about the increasingly dwindling woodpile before volunteering his time and chain saw to cut up some of the downed branches across the street. And then there are all the veggies, which are starting to be prepped, most of which have been donated for the occasion. The fact of the matter is, you start to see just how excited people are for an event such as this one and that they’re willing to volunteer time and resources alike to see it to fruition.

It’s the sort of support Travis talks about later: “It helps solidify that I know what I want to do is going to be successful and [gives me] the confidence to work here and be accepted with open arms from the community because they’re really interested in these different types of venues or experiences. I think it just confirms even more that Little Rock is ready for what I want to do here.”

But for all the goodness, the open arms, there’s also the sense of futility in the air that makes its not so discreet displays, like when South Main Street is mentioned, and how it’s been up and coming for 30 years. Or when you realize that the garden has been around for about 20 years. Granted, it’s grown, but the message has been around for that long and has made inroads, but not to the extent that you might hope it would. The truth is, that for someone looking in from the outside for the first time, you might think this is a recent movement, one that’s just picked up steam in the last few years. But the truth is that it’s not so new. It’s being reinvigorated and revitalized as people like Travis take up the standard.

Like so many of the culinary-minded who, after tours of the country’s great kitchens, are returning to Arkansas, there’s a rush of energy and excitement that people such as Travis — who did his own stints at the New England Culinary Institute and Oregon’s Higgins’ Bar and Restaurant, among others—are coming back with, and it’s refreshing to see. What’s more, when things start to pick up as the afternoon wears on and the pig, exuding a smoky bouquet of rosemary and ham with every turn of the spit, bubbles and whistles, the realization that he’s very much a chef comes into play.

As Travis moves around—ruddy-faced from the fire, which has pinked his cheeks to a color not so different from the pig’s—asking about the status of the vegetables and making brief detours to rotate the pig at five-minute intervals, you note the change that has come over him. It’s as if a switch has been flipped, and the personality that he’s cultivated over half a lifetime—just about 17 of his 34 years—spent in the kitchen appears. At this point, he’s much more than a dude roasting a pig. He’s the guy whose first attraction to the kitchen was a love advanced by an appetite for pizza and beer, transformed by early exposure to kitchens and a series of schools and internships—culminating with his current position as sous chef at the Capital Bar and Grill—that inspired the enthusiasm for locavore thinking he so emphatically carries now.

It’s an enthusiasm that others seem to feel as well, and when you see people who are on fire for this sort of event trickle in through the chain-link gate as the designated hour draws closer, it’s impossible not to feel it yourself.

When they say, “Make a hole,” the crowd parts, and there’s the pig. There’s a schick sound as Travis yanks out the spit in a halting motion reminiscent of playground tug-of-war, and 12 hours of accumulated grime, grease and sticky pieces of meat break away from the iron and yield to his effort. It’s tempting to say this is the reason for getting up so early in the morning, to see the moment when the food is ready, as the line forms and everyone gets his fill. But of course, that’s only part of it. You go to an event like this because even though there are going to be more, there can only be one that feels like this.

During future events, there may not be the spontaneity, for example, that allows for a brief tour and photo shoot in the chicken house, naming a cat Beatrice before realizing it’s a male and already named Cadet. The fleeting and rather magical feel that’s more or less inherent in the maiden voyage of this sort of event is going to disappear. But, Travis makes a point of saying, it’s the sort of feel that’s going to evolve, lend itself to a more professional atmosphere and reappear in other facets of what they’re trying to do.

For all the things that get lost, there’s even more that stand to be gained.

Especially when you consider where Travis has been as people have filtered in through the gate from the parking lot: He’s been cooking. He hasn’t had a chance to speak with people about what he’s trying to do here, his dream of a stronger localist push, much less his vision for Butcher & Public. And although he’s managed to lure people from the community with the promise of free beer—which can be sourced back to the field the attendees are stepping over—and food, it’s the sort of event that requires something more. It requires more than just all the donated tangibles.

It requires a community, which is what he’s found this evening.

As the evening wears on, the kegs run dry and the pig practically evaporates—leaving only a tail, which is grabbed by one very happy man who gleefully announces his find—people start to leave. But not everyone. From the parking lot, you can see the groups of people still congregating below the tents.
The presence of good friends, friends of the Capital and workers from the Capital reflects what they’re trying to do with something like this. With this community—this collection of people who share a common interest—he hopes to make it all a bit more cohesive as a whole, because so much of what the evening is about is drawing all of those folks together. There are a lot of different efforts, but it’s not concentrated in the way it needs to be.

But even still, this evening is a step in the right direction. It’s more than just a party where you’re serving a bunch of local products and produce. It’s an opportunity for all these people to come out here, to see what happens when a community gets together, when something like this persists over time and even effects some change.

So whether that community means putting together a fire at 5:30 in the morning or finishing off the meal 13 hours later, when it’s just as cold and you’re just as tempted to put a foot in the fire, essentially what you find is what’s at the heart of cooking. It doesn’t matter where the food comes from or where it’s sourced (though Travis would probably fight that one). The thing is, ultimately, if you boil it down far enough, you get the essence of what it means to be together.

You get something like this.

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