“CHRIS SCHLESINGER was snoring softly on the couch. This was in the living room of his sprawling ranch house here in southeastern Massachusetts, nestled high above a pebbly beach. A Bill Murray movie was playing on the television in the corner, and the cool breeze sliding off Buzzards Bay had dampened the room, covering the warmth of the day. Outside on the sweeping deck, in a giant ovoid kettle grill, three pork butts sat in the smoky braise of a small oak fire, glistening, ruddy, plump. It was well after midnight. Seven hours’ cooking done. Seven hours to go.
The snoring came to an abrupt stop as someone in the room moved to open a sliding door and go check the fire.
‘Barbecue Man may appear to be asleep,’ Mr. Schlesinger roared, climbing off the couch. ‘But Barbecue Man is always awake and in control!’
He padded barefoot to the deck and placed his palm on the covered grill. ‘Barbecue is such a typical guy thing to do,’ he said. ‘Much ado about nothing.’ He lifted the kettle top and a cloud of fragrant, oaky smoke engulfed him. He laughed from within it. ‘But it is intense.’
Mr. Schlesinger, 47, is the chef and an owner of the East Coast Grill in Cambridge, Mass., which he opened in 1985. He is also the author, with John Willoughby, of six cookbooks that relate somehow to the pleasures of fire. (Two others celebrate pickles and lettuce, respectively.)
Their latest, ‘Let the Flames Begin’ (Norton), was published in 2002 and rereleased this year. There is an electric stove in his kitchen, which he rarely uses. He prefers to cook outside.
The plan was to make an American holiday meal, or at least the part that could be made on a grill, overnight, for lunchtime celebration the following day. The menu: North Carolina-style pulled pork sandwiches, with their characteristic vinegary sauce, on cheap hamburger buns. You might accompany these with a simple preparation of coleslaw or some salad (Mark Bittman offers some recipes with his column, The Minimalist, on Page 3) and a load of cut watermelon.
To make the sandwiches, you simply pull — or tear, really — shreds of meat from slow-roasted shoulder of hog, which is known among butchers and barbecue aficionados as pork butt, and place these on a bun with some sauce. (A hog’s rear quarters are called, conversely and somewhat more attractively, hams.) The cooking time for the pork may exceed 12 hours, but you could start after work tomorrow and easily be done in time for a Fourth of July lunch with little effort beyond getting up a few times in the night to tend the fire. (For those leery of sleeping while fire burns bright, the meat could be cooked throughout the day and enjoyed as a late dinner about the same time the holiday fireworks wrap up, or even refrigerated until the following day, to be reheated in the oven.)
Mr. Schlesinger’s fire started slowly. About 6 p.m., he poured a pile of hardwood charcoal about the size of a large box of cereal into the front of the grill’s firebox and added to it a generous, unapologetic spray of lighter fluid. ‘I don’t have a problem with this stuff,’ he said. ‘I want to get my fire going.’ When gray ash began to appear on the edges of the charcoal, he placed on it a large piece of dry oak, which popped and crackled in the heat.
Mr. Schlesinger’s grill is a Weber Ranch kettle a yard across. Behind the fire was almost two feet of open grill space, plenty for the three pork butts he planned to cook. (A conventional grill has less space, but plenty for a single butt.) The meat would cook slowly in heat that would not often, Mr. Schlesinger estimated, exceed 212 degrees. ‘You want to melt the fat into the meat,” he said. ‘You don’t want to incinerate it.’
To protect the butts during the cooking, Mr. Schlesinger used a dry rub of spices that adhered to the pork and seized up in the heat, creating a flavorful crust. To make it, he mixed generous amounts of brown sugar, dry mustard, ground coriander, cumin, cayenne, paprika, chili pepper, freshly ground black pepper and sea salt in a bowl.
When he was finished he set the rub aside and pulled the pork from his refrigerator.
‘There’s no extra benefit in letting this meat come to room temperature before cooking it,’ he said. ‘I don’t like to take chances with bacteria.’ He cut the butts out of their packaging with a small knife and rinsed the meat in the kitchen sink. ‘Likewise,’ he explained.
Outside, the charcoal fire was dying down and the oak smoking furiously. Mr. Schlesinger placed the three butts in a large disposable aluminum-foil pan on a table next to the grill and, using his hands, slathered them with the dry rub.
‘It’s O.K. if it’s a little wet,’ he said. ‘It gets pasty, and that helps spread the rub around.’
One by one he placed the butts on the grill, fatty side down, well away from the fire. ‘I’ll turn them later,’ he said. ‘In about eight hours.’ He slid the kettle top onto the grill and adjusted the top vents. Smoke rose into the air from them in a steady stream.
‘It’s running a little hot,’ Mr. Schlesinger said. ‘But the one time you’re not going to be overcooking a butt is now, at the beginning.’ He looked down at the smoke for a while, silently watching it rise.
‘Let’s get some dinner,’ he said.
Mr. Schlesinger checked his fire again at 9:30 p.m., adding another piece of oak, and then retreated to the living room with a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon to watch television. ‘Groundhog Day,’ the 1993 movie in which Mr. Murray experiences the same day over and over, had started on TBS at 8 o’clock. This morphed, at 10:20, into ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984), in which Mr. Murray plays a parapsychology professor with a ghost-removal business. (Mr. Schlesinger added another log to the fire at 11:40.) ‘Stripes,’ the 1981 movie in which an unemployed Mr. Murray joins the Army to meet girls and have a good time, got under way at 12:35 a.m. An hour later, Mr. Schlesinger reluctantly abandoned the narrative to add more charcoal to the fire, at which point he turned the butts over. More charcoal went on just after 3 a.m. On the television, ‘Ghostbusters’ was playing again.
Between these chores, Mr. Schlesinger said, it only appeared that he was dozing.
At 8 a.m., with the sun beginning to dry the dew that had gathered on the deck during the night, Mr. Schlesinger declared the cooking complete, 14 hours after it had begun. ‘Feel that,’ he said, pressing his finger into one of the butts. It felt like a ripe peach, or a late-summer tomato. ‘Done,’ he said.
With tongs in his left hand and using his right hand for balance, moving carefully so as not to tear the skin, he pulled the butts, which now had the color and texture of redwood logs, off the grill and placed them back in the disposable aluminum-foil pan, which he had cleaned the night before.
‘We’ll let those rest,’ he said, and went to the kitchen to get the sauce: a cup of white vinegar, a cup of cider vinegar, a tablespoon of sugar and a not inconsiderable dash of Tabasco sauce, mixed together in a bowl.
‘We’ll let those butts rest all morning,’ Mr. Schlesinger continued. ‘They’ll be perfect for lunch.’
But he soon pulled some hamburger buns out of a plastic bag and moved back to the porch. With his tongs, he picked up the largest of the butts by one end. It tore under its own weight, releasing a small cloud of steam. The smell was incomparable: sweet, smoky and fine.
He tore off a sliver of meat and tasted it, then smiled.
‘I was a little nervous,’ Mr. Schlesinger said. ‘You always get nervous, even when you know it’s going to be good.’
He pulled some more meat off the butt and placed it on a bun. Breakfast was served.”