The Tradition and Beauty of Whole Hog Barbecue, with Michael Pollan

Food writer Michael Pollan recalls his experience at The Skylight Inn in Ayden, North Carolina. The owners roast whole hogs in a giant barbecue pit over a 24-hour period.

Michael Pollan: I was looking for the most unreconstructed cooking I could find, cooking as it's been practiced for thousands, if not millions of years. And I found that in Eastern North Carolina whole hog barbecue where there is no sauce to speak of. It's just this animal slow cooked over a fire, wood fire. And the place where I first found it was a barbecue joint in Ayden, North Carolina near the coast called The Skylight Inn. I don't know why it's called The Skylight Inn, there is no skylight. And there is also on top of this building a capitol dome like you see in Washington sitting on top of this building. That didn't' make any sense either except they told me that National Geographic had said they were the capital of barbecue in 1965 and they put up this dome. In The Skylight, The Skylight Inn had a restaurant in front where they're selling barbecue sandwiches. Very few items on the menu but basically barbecue sandwiches, sweet tea, coleslaw, you know, that's basically it.

And in the back were these two structures, buildings made of cinderblock with a metal roof. And in there, in these buildings was the pit room, the barbecue pit. And when you went in Sam, Samuel Jones who was the proprietor says, "Welcome to the vestibule of Hell." And I walk in and we open the door and we're just assaulted by this smoke, this delicious smelling smoke. And inside is a giant fireplace with logs like this. I mean it looks like a giant's fireplace. And the grate is made out of truck axles, that's how big it is. And they're burning down wood to coals and then they're shoveling the coals in these long cinderblock containers that have a grate on top and on top of the grate sit these whole pigs. These pink, you know, pigs with their heads and tails intact, splayed out. And they shovel the coals underneath in an outline of the pig form. And there's a man named Mr. Howell who is the pitmaster who says very little. And he's just kind of wheeling back and forth to the walk in and he's got this wheelbarrow with a piece of bloody plywood on top and he goes back into the backroom and he comes back and there's a dead hog on it.

And he wheels it over, tips it onto the grate, shovels some coals beneath it and the entire room is an oven basically, a low temperature oven, you know. And the animals are cooked at around 200 degrees for over 20 hours this -- goes over night. You can barely see in the room and the pigs look oddly human. I mean they're pink. They're our size. They have these little sly smiles. It's a really kind of upsetting tableau and it's hard to imagine eating what's coming out of this room. But, but come back the next day and those pink alarming carcasses are honey colored, they smell delicious and you develop an appetite for them. And so Mr. Howell carts them into the restaurant and there's a giant chopping block and a man stands behind the chopping block and takes big hunks of this animal and starts chopping it with two cleavers.

The chopping block has been chopped so much that it has a big depression in it from just chopping. So there's wood getting into the barbecue too. And the key of whole hog barbecue is you're not eating the loin or the belly or the shoulder, you're eating all of it cut together. And it's the mix of different cuts, some of them fatty and juicy. Some of them drier, leaner. And the sken as they pronounce it which is kind of salty and, I mean, incredibly captivatingly delicious. It all gets cut together so there's little shards of salt in there with the meat and they chop it until it's fairly fine. And they mix in some apple cider vinegar, some red pepper flakes and a little salt and mix it a little more and then they put it on a sandwich and they sell it for two dollars and seventy-five cents. It's a very democratic treat.

Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler and Dillon Fitton

Michael Pollan explains the whole hog barbecue traditions of The Skylight Inn in Ayden, North Carolina. Pollan is the author of The Omnivore's Dilemma. His latest is Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (

Elizabeth Warren's plan to forgive student loan debt could lead to an economic boom

A plan to forgive almost a trillion dollars in debt would solve the student loan debt crisis, but can it work?

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Politics & Current Affairs
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren has just proposed a bold education reform plan that would forgive billions in student debt.
  • The plan would forgive the debt held by more than 30 million Americans.
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Supreme Court to hear 3 cases on LGBT workplace discrimination

In most states, LGBTQ Americans have no legal protections against discrimination in the workplace.

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Politics & Current Affairs
  • The Supreme Court will decide whether the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also applies to gay and transgender people.
  • The court, which currently has a probable conservative majority, will likely decide on the cases in 2020.
  • Only 21 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws effectively extending the Civil Rights of 1964 to gay and transgender people.
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