For one weekend, Hogs for the Cause transforms a green glade in City Park into something like a Southern never-never land. The grounds for the annual charity cook-off and festival become a self-contained world of pork and beer, live music and wood smoke, DIY campsites and party pavilions on par with the ultimate tailgating fantasy.
For many of the cook-off teams, however, Hogs for the Cause is no longer confined to just one venue or a single weekend. For them, the planning, the partying and, crucially, the fundraising now stretch across the calendar, all around town and in some cases even outside of New Orleans.
“In our first year, it was everyone just kind of hanging out, cooking, having a good time, but then we realized we might really have something here, let’s do more with this,” said Chris Puckett, captain of the Boar’s Nest team.
From such ad hoc roots, many of the 95 teams that will take part in this weekend’s Hogs for the Cause have grown larger, better organized and more ambitious. Some have even incorporated as independent nonprofits.
They have their own branding, their own corporate sponsors and many now hold satellite events during the year, all intended to bolster the tally they hand over to Hogs for the Cause.
For the Boar’s Nest that means getting more mileage from a deluxe barbecue trailer originally acquired for the cook-off. They now deploy it at other events under the Boar’s Nest flag, selling food and raising money for their team total, which last year topped $60,000.
That was second only to the Hogs for the Cause 2015 fundraising champion, Team Fleur de Que, which blew away all previous standards by bringing in $135,000.
“It’s a process of building it up all year to get to that amount,” said Team Fleur de Que captain Drew Herrington. “The biggest check we got last year was one for $5,000, and that’s a lot of money. But it’s the $100 and $200 and $300 checks that we work our tails off to get all year that brings us to the total.”
They auction off charity hunting trips and cochon de lait parties that team members will later fulfill, and they hold a skeet shooting benefit in Belle Chasse each year in partnership with two of their team’s erstwhile cook-off competitors, Hog Dat Nation and Team March of the Pigs. There’s talk of starting a charity fishing tournament.
“Our guys are just passionate about it,” said Herrington. “They’ve stretched the idea of Hogs past anything we thought we’d be doing when we started.”
For Team March of the Pigs that now includes organizing its own spinoff barbecue festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, the hometown for one contingent of its members. Dubbed “Smokin’ for a Cause,” the event turns a lake marina into a floating fundraiser for one July weekend, with smokers mounted on a barge and supporters partying dockside.
“The team has taken on a life of its own,” said Andrew Shuford, captain of Team March of the Pigs. “But the bigger we get, the more we can support the cause.”
Branding with barbecue
Hogs for the Cause supports families coping with pediatric brain cancer, making grants to help with the expenses and disruption the ordeal can suddenly bring to their door. New Orleans lawyers Rene Louapre and Becker Hall started it in 2008 as a small cook-off among their network of friends. It has since become one of the most popular food events on the New Orleans calendar, and its reach has expanded apace. In the first year, teams raised $7,000; last year they brought in $765,000. Hogs for the Cause now helps families across the country.
In 2014, the organizers added a second event in Charleston, South Carolina, though bad weather canceled the 2015 edition. Louapre said his goal is to return to Charleston in 2017 and eventually have more Hogs for the Cause events in other cities.
Back home in New Orleans, Hogs’ growth has been fueled by the individual teams. They compete for cook-off bragging rights. They devise and sell evermore creative pork-themed dishes to the crowd over the weekend festival. And as their fundraising totals have climbed, these teams have been cultivating their own internal cultures and rituals. Team leaders say that’s been key to keeping their groups motivated and engaged even as time commitments and logistical demands grow.
“The second it stops being fun is the second our team would fall apart,” said Bart Bacigalupi, co-captain of Team Captain Porkenheimer.
Like others, this team started with an agreement among friends to give the cook-off a shot. Now, family gatherings and bachelor party weekends have morphed into pig cooking practice runs, and the team holds independent benefit events with its sponsors, banking on the Captain Porkenheimer brand built up at Hogs for the Cause to draw a crowd.
“When people think of Hogs, they think of your team and of you as a team member,” said Bacigalupi. “Yes, they’re going to the event for the food and the music, but they’re going to see friends they know are on certain teams. It’s part of the draw and that’s what the brand is about.”
Branding has been especially big with the Boar’s Nest, which has its team logo stitched in attire, printed on hot sauce bottles and even cast into big Western-style belt buckles. It looks playful, but it’s also strategic.
“We’re big on brand impressions,” said Puckett. “All the money people give to Hogs is going to the same place, but our sponsors tell us they want to be with us, they want to support us. The other events we do, seeing the brand we put out there, seeing our Boar’s Nest flags flying at our houses, that builds into that allegiance that they’re part of this with us.”
“This is us”
As teams have built their own identities, they’ve expanded the circle of support for Hogs. For instance, the all-female team Sweet Swine o’ Mine stands in vivid, pink-themed contrast to the mostly male campus of competitors. Throughout the year, the group partners with woman-owned businesses for fundraisers. There was a shopping party at the Uptown jewelry store Kendra Scott in January, and the team got a portion of bar sales at 45 Tchoup during the big LSU/Alabama football game last season. It all goes into the pot they donate to Hogs for the Cause, and that’s the whole point.
“None of us really do competitive barbecue outside of Hogs. For us the main goal is funding the grants and helping these families,” said team captain Laura Filipek. “It’s a really fun time to just get together and drink wine and think of ideas for the team.”
Hogs for the Cause has been pivotal for one group that was already loosely organized. The team Puerco Rico was formed by a group of local doctors who share Puerto Rican heritage. They all socialized together before, but Hogs provided a framework to really coalesce and become a fundraising machine.
“We were pretty much family already, and we all love to eat pig and we love to drink, so it was an easy fit,” said team captain Jaime Alleyn.
At City Park, they build a Caribbean-themed camp, bring in a Latin band to perform and fire up the caja China, a traditional Puerto Rican pig roaster (akin to a Cajun microwave). But before any of that happens, they meet throughout the year to plan, hit up their healthcare contacts for contributions and raffle off an island-style pig roast, all of which helped the team net more than $30,000 last year.
“It’s become a monster, it’s a big commitment but it’s also a lot of fun,” said Alleyn. “It’s comes down to Hogs itself and how they run it. (Organizers) listen to us, we have a voice and that’s why there’s such buy-in from the teams. It’s not just us showing up and giving money to their cause. This is us.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.