Eighteen hours into roasting a whole hog, Jeremy Engebretson’s main job was putting out small fires.

Every time he closed the lid of the 5-foot smoker on the 110 pounds of pig (along with brats and 20 whole chickens), he would stand, cider glass in his hand, and fret.

“When it starts smoking like that, you get worried,” Engebretson said. “There might be a fire breaking out.”

Engebretson, who was cooking for Western Cider’s Whole Hog dinner held Wednesday night, is the head chef of Billings restaurant Lilac. He met Western Cider co-owner Matt LaRubbio when they teamed up for a cider and food pairing in Billings. He was impressed enough by the ciders that they found a permanent home in his restaurant.

And he was impressed enough with the pairing results, he said, that he “just asked if we could come up here and do something.”

So Engebretson and an assistant drove up to put on the dinner, featuring a whole hog from Lower Crossing Farms in St. Ignatius, along with classic barbecue sides and three special ciders.

LaRubbio estimated that Western Cider had put on nearly 20 cider dinners in various venues, but the whole hog dinner was the first of its kind at their California Street location.

“Whenever you’re bringing in someone who’s not working in their own facility, that can be tough,” LaRubbio said. “We had to rig a couple of things.”

Engebretson rented a propane cooker and he laid the hog on the second-level rack, with a dry rub applied. It went in the cooker at 11 p.m. Tuesday night, for around 19 hours of slow-cooking over 250-degree heat. It took constant attention and re-basting, with a Carolina-style vinegar mustard sauce.

“Me and my helper slept on the floor last night so we could wake up every couple of hours,” Engebretson said.

The hog couldn’t actually be cooked whole, with head and skin, Engebretson said, due to FDA regulations that require a specific setup when cooking and serving whole animals. They made do with the entire pig, minus the head and skin, and chopped it into two halves, stuffed with herbs and apples from the Western Cider orchards. About 50 pounds of wood from the orchard trees burned off over the 19-hour cook time to add smoky applewood flavor.

Engebretson chose Carolina-style barbecue for its focus on vinegar, which pairs well with Western’s dry ciders.

“With cider, you’ve got the acid, with barbecue you’ve got the fat,” LaRubbio said. “There’s a cider for every food and every food style. … It’s flexible.”

While the pairing is flexible, Engebretson appreciated having some restrictions when they settled on three ciders and doing barbecue food. That made him work a little more creatively on his menu than if he had free rein.

“Hopefully people come out and eat it,” Engebretson said. The cooker lid opened once more, revealing the mass of meat that one wouldn’t wish on a carnophobic friend.

“Yeah, we don’t (mess) around.”

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Arts and entertainment

arts reporter for the Missoulian.