Virginia Willis Blog

Spicy (or Maybe Not So Much?) Pork Shoulder Results

Last weekend, just before the holiday, I gave a call out on Facebook, Twitter, and in this blog asking for folks to participate in a recipe test for Spicy Pulled Pork Shoulder.

WOW. I was overwhelmed with the response! So many people responded. Thank you so much! I was blown away.

The results were overwhelmingly positive. Lots of grade A, grade B+ were bestowed. I don’t think we had the first C.

Of course, the funny thing about asking so many people to do this at once were the difference in comments. One tester commented, “It was delicious, but not spicy at all” and suggested I rename it “Savory Pork Shoulder” and to the opposite end of the spectrum was a very apologetic, “I really thought it was really too spicy.”

Part of my job has always been recipe testing. My first “job” as apprentice involved recipe testing for Nathalie Dupree . I’ve written about learning how to recipe test from Anne Willan and as TV Test Kitchen Director for Martha Stewart I was ultimately responsible for all the food on the show, and believe you me I made sure those recipes worked before Martha made them on set.

Recipes aren’t meant to be a ball and chain, but when actually testing a recipe to write it so the whole wide world can follow it and duplicate it without difficulty, instructions must be followed to the letter, that’s my approach and how I learned to do it over the years. When I test recipes for articles and books, I test and test eliminating variables and try to be as detailed as possible so instructions are clear. If I hire people to help me and assist me, that’s the attention to detail I expect.

My name is on the cover of that book.

Sometimes people try a recipe from book and the recipe fails. The cook thinks he or she has done something wrong, when the truth of the matter is the less-than-honest writer hadn’t really tested the recipe. That’s the wildcard of using recipes off the internet. The internet is only as good as the source.

There’s always going to be some differences in recipe testing. Pots differ, BTUs for stovetop power differ, some ovens aren’t properly calibrated. My medium tomato might be a little larger than your medium tomato, but for the most part a professional recipe tester tries to eliminate those nuances.

Some folks took the time to fill out the test sheet, including Katherine, Scott, Jane, and Heather. Wow! I was so impressed by the level of detail. Really cool experiment, you know. It was pretty much out of my control, which, um, sometimes, um, I struggle with.

Well, a good many of the “tests” that came in didn’t actually follow the recipe.


But, you know what? I loved it! Woo-hoo! Freedom!!

I got SO many great ideas and garnered so much great information by NOT following the recipe the way it was written! By doing exactly what I DON’T do!

One tester ran out of Worcestershire sauce and used Picka Pepper, instead. Many, many people tried it on a low and slow grill or Big Green Egg, a cooking method I have still yet to try. Someone from South Georgia used a fresh ham (from the back leg) instead of a shoulder (from the front leg). We had beer used instead of bourbon, muscavado sugar instead of dark brown, and ketchup instead of whole tomatoes. I got a note from Lance who’s testing it today in the UK, I can’t wait to see what he says!

Some folks, like Otis from Columbus, clearly thought it needed more bourbon. Or maybe he needed more bourbon… that wasn’t clear in his notes… well, maybe there’s my answer.

At the end of the day, I learned a lot. This was my first foray into rampant, unbridled, lawless recipe testing. It was enough to make me blush.

I can be a bit hemmed up with things sometimes, so it was good for me to stretch my boundaries and try something new, too.

Of course, I’m taking all those comments, suggestions, observations and writing out another recipe and testing it again.

I just can’t help myself.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!

PS Here is the original Spicy Pulled Pork Shoulder that was posted last weekend, just in case anyone wants to give it a try!

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Spicy Pork Shoulder: Recipe Testing for Basic to Brilliant, Y’all

My next cookbook, Basic to Brilliant, Y’all: Recipes and Recollections of a Southern Culinary Journey is the lead book for Ten Speed for Fall 2011. The concept is much like my first book – simple basic recipes with accessible ingredients. I’ll have the same smattering of stories about Mama, Meme, Martha – my travels around the world and growing up in the South. What does distinguish it from Bon Appétit, Y’all is that each recipe will have a short recipe, presentation tip, or technique that transforms the recipe from Basic to Brilliant – essentially making it more chef-inspired, something that you might have if you came over and had dinner at my house. I’m really excited about the premise and testing is going great.

I’ll be testing this recipe again this weekend, fine-tuning a few things. I really like the direction it’s going. It’s some kind of good. The bourbon is a new addition, previously I used water. The alcohol will really help bring the flavor of the tomatoes to the forefront. I’m also giving it a try with beer.

I may write it up for working on the grill or BBQ, as well. If anyone does that, I’d be curious to hear about it. I think it would be somewhere around 6-7 hours at 220, but I haven’t tested that yet.

So, this recipe for Spicy Pulled Pork Shoulder needs one more round to put it to bed. And, this weekend I’ll also figure out what I want to do to make it brilliant.

I posted on facebook a query to see if anyone wanted to give it a shot, as well. It’s pretty cool, I think to see what a wide variety of people think. Well, my inbox started dinging like a slot machine! So, here’s the recipe and my testing sheet below. If you are interested and want to participate, please give it a try and send me back your notes and comments. Photos are welcome and I’ll be happy to post y’alls notes and pictures.

Have a safe and happy 4th of July.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
Best VA

Spicy Pork Shoulder

Despite the name, pork butt does not come from the rear end of the hog--it is cut from the shoulder. The terminology for pork shoulder can vary widely depending on what part of the country you are in. Generally, the upper part of the shoulder, is often called the Boston blade roast or Boston butt, and contains the shoulder blade bone. The lower ‘arm’ portion of the shoulder is most commonly called the arm picnic.


1 8 to 10-pound bone-in pork shoulder or Boston blade roast
1 large onion, thinly sliced
2 28-ounce cans whole tomatoes
1 ½ cups apple cider vinegar
½ cup Worcestershire sauce
½ cup bourbon
¼ cup brown sugar, firmly packed
2 tablespoons crushed red pepper flakes
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper


  1. Place the pork, fat-side up, in a roasting pan and using a sharp knife, score the surface of the meat with small slits. Allow the meat to sit at room temperature for 30 minutes before cooking.
  2. Heat the oven to 325°F. Combine the onions, tomatoes, vinegar, Worcestershire, bourbon, brown sugar, and red pepper in a large bowl. Season generously with salt and pepper. Stir to combine and to slightly break up whole tomatoes. Pour the tomato mixture over the pork. Transfer to the heated oven. For sliced pork, cook until the internal temperature reaches 180-185° and for pulled pork, 190-205°, 3 1/2 to 4 hours, basting with sauce throughout the cooking process.
  3. Remove from the oven and transfer the meat to a cutting board. Cover with foil and let rest for 20 minutes. Slice or pull meat, if preferred. Meanwhile, place the roasting pan over medium high heat. Reduce the sauce to thicken, stirring occasionally. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve with pork.


Tester’s Name
Phone Number
Email address


Basic to Brilliant »
Flavor grade A/B/C?

On a scale of 1-10, one being easiest and ten most difficult, how did this recipe rate?
Please make sure to mark all times and what to look for when XYZ is “done”.

From start to finish, how long did it take you to make this recipe?

Was the dish properly seasoned?

Was any portion of the recipe confusing?

Were you unfamiliar with any of the ingredients? If so, which?

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LetsMove.Gov: Chefs on the Move to DC

One in three kids in the US is overweight or obese.

That’s pretty shocking stuff, isn’t it?

Some of you laughed recently when I posted on facebook. I asked the worker in the produce department if he had any mint and he took me to the candy aisle. Yes, in the produce department. That’s one of those situations where I am not sure whether to laugh or cry.

It’s kind of funny, until we realize it’s not just some minimum wage grunt not doing a very good job and collecting a paycheck. It’s much, much more insidious. People don’t know what real food, food that has not been processed, looks like.

One in three kids in the US is overweight or obese.

Many of us watched the Jamie Oliver Food Revolution TV episode in absolute horror that the children could not identify simple common vegetables. We watched him puree the carcass, something more appropriate for the stock pot, and turn it into chicken nuggets that had all the kids waving their hands, wanting it because the leftover bits of bone, fat, and gristle had been transformed into a friendly, recognizable nugget shape.

One in three kids in the US is overweight or obese.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
* 32% of kids aged 2-19 are overweight or obese
* 38% of Hispanic children are overweight or obese
* 36% of Black children are overweight or obese
* 29% of White children are overweight or obese

Michele Obama wants to change it.

Her answer? Let’s Move, a plan with an ambitious but important goal, to solve the epidemic of childhood obesity within a generation.

Let’s Move aims to provide assistance and guidance to parents to support their efforts in raising healthier children, work to provide healthier school lunches, and make healthy foods more accessible and affordable across the nation.

White House Assistant Chef and the Food Initiative Coordinator, Sam Kass announced since the groundbreaking of the White House Kitchen Garden more than a year ago, “local students have spent time on the South Lawn of the White House planting seeds, harvesting vegetables and learning about health and nutrition along the way. Through the garden, the First Lady started a discussion on the role food plays in living a healthy life.”

As a part of this, hundreds of chefs are gathering at the White House on Friday June 4 to kick-off “Chefs Move to Schools” program – an opportunity for chefs around the country to adopt a local school to help solve the childhood obesity epidemic within a generation.

In the words of the Mrs. Obama, “We are going to need everyone’s time and talent to solve the childhood obesity epidemic and our Nation’s chefs have tremendous power as leaders on this issue because of their deep knowledge of food and nutrition and their standing in the community. I want to thank them for joining the Let’s Move! Campaign.”

“Chefs Move to Schools” will pair chefs with schools in their communities to bring fun to fruits and vegetables, and teach kids about food, nutrition and cooking in an engaging way. And by working with school food service employees, administrators and teachers — chefs can help deliver these messages from the cafeteria to the classroom.

The feeling in the culinary community is vibrant and hopeful. Chefs are excited; we can feel it!

Personally, I am thrilled to pieces. I’ve been involved for several years. It’s criminal what children are fed in the schools, absolutely criminal.

Kim O’Donnel, author of “The Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook” (Da Capo Press), coming out this September says, “It was a no-brainer decision to make last-minute plans to fly across the country for this event. To be invited to the White House with fellow chefs from around the country supporting the first lady’s efforts against child obesity, of course that’s a once-in-a-lifetime thrill. But to be called upon to share my kitchen knowledge and skills with my neighbors and their children so they may help themselves eat more mindfully and healthfully — that’s an honor.”

Carolyn O’Neil, culinary expert and registered dietician says “From bowls of fresh fruit as snacks in the Oval Office to the vegetable garden and bee hive on the back lawn, it’s great to see food and nutrition on the front burner at The White House. For too long, the only discussions about food from the First Family was what they chose to serve at fancy State Dinners. That’s certainly still important, as White House chefs put farm to table philosophies on the menu; but the Obamas are doing even more by elevating the everyday importance of food, nutrition and sustainable cuisine as tools to improve the health of the nation’s people and the land.”

As a national board member of Women Chefs and Restauranteurs I will be attending the event. Other professional organizations that I am a member of and whose efforts support Let’s Move include Les Dames d’Escoffier and the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

“It has been easy to recruit Dames to come to the White House on June 4 from all around the country to support the Chefs Move to Schools initiative. LDEI members, who have been working with schools have been quick to respond to White House chef Sam Kass’s request and to share their commitment and success stories. The LDEI Green Tables program helps connect kids to fresh whole foods through hands-on food preparation and tastings, and it has proven to be significant in helping kids make healthier diet choices,” according to Barbara Petit, Co-Chair LDEI Green Tables Initiative & Director of the Atlanta Local Food Initiative.

SO. A whole posse of chefs tomorrow in DC. Sounds like a great place to start!

What can you do? Go to LETSMOVE.GOV and join the cause today!

Bon Appétit, Y’all!

PS follow me on facebook and twitter for the events of the day!

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Scratch that Summer Itch: BBQ for Memorial Day

I am absolutely itching for summer to start.

Ready for it.
Want it.

It’s buzzing in my brain like a hungry mosquito zeroing in for a feast on a naked expanse of skin.

Warm weather, sunshine, and swimming.
Porches, fishing, and laying on the grass by the river.

In celebration, I’ve made some changes to my website and added a few new pieces to I’ve added a new homepage for the summer. While you are there check out my events and and I hope you enjoy my little homage to blackberries and a little something I wrote for Taste of the South about growing up picking them with my grandfather, Dede.

Picking Swiss chard – you didn’t think I was going to share naked expanse of skin, did you?

And, like always, it’s the food. I love summer food. Okra. I’ve had a hankering for okra for a few weeks already! Lady peas and butterbeans. Tomatoes. Summer Squash. Corn. Ah, fresh sweet corn.

Garrison Keillor is rumored to have said, “Sex is good, but not as good as fresh sweet corn.”

Ok, well, consider the source. I mean, I think he’s genius and dearly love Prairie Home Companion, but, um… Well, then you know, fresh sweet corn is really good. Simple. Uncomplicated. Satisfying.

I’ll let you ponder that for a bit…..

Ok, getting back on track, summer does mean grilling.

I love to grill throughout the year, but in the summer it’s just practical to keep the heat out of the kitchen. Burgers and brats are brilliant, steaks and seafood are stupendous, but perhaps my absolute fave? The cheap and cheerful pedestrian chicken.

Chicken can be absolutely sublime on the grill. Smoky and charred, yet tender and juicy.

It can also be drier than chalk and just about as tasty, too. The trick is if you pierce the meat with the tip of a knife and the juices run clear, it’s done. If the juices run pink? It’s underdone. If there are no juices? …… Ahem.

One technique that can help prevent dry, tasteless chicken is brining. Brining poultry will produces moist and tender results. Muscle fibers absorb liquid during the brining period. Some of this liquid is lost during cooking, but since the meat is juicier at the start of cooking, it ends up juicier in the end. I like to think of this as a cup that is filled “over the rim.”

Moisture loss is inevitable when you cook any type of muscle fiber. The heat causes the coiled proteins in the fibers to unwind and then join together with one another, resulting in shrinkage and moisture loss. Meat loses about 30 percent of its weight during cooking, but with brining and the cup is “filled over the rim” it reduces the moisture loss during cooking to as little as 15 percent.

Here’s a recipe to start your summer. Grilled Chicken with Mama’s BBQ Sauce. The trick is to cook the chicken almost all the way through before you start to brush it with the sauce, otherwise the sauce will burn.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!

Grilled Chicken with Mama's BBQ Sauce

Grilled Chicken with Mama's BBQ Sauce

There has seldom been a time in my life when a mason jar of this BBQ sauce wasn’t in a corner of my mother or grandmother’s refrigerator. The truth of the matter is, once you have had homemade you will go off the store-bought kind for good.

Make a batch, then separate out a cup or so for brushing on the chicken. Don't dip your brush in the big pot then dab on half-cooked chicken to serve that same sauce on the side. Eew. That's just bad food safety and asking for a tummy-ache.

In the heat of the summer, there’s nothing better for keeping the heat out of the kitchen than firing up the grill. Dede would make his barbecued chicken on the Fourth of July, using a potent vinegar bath on grilled chicken that produced a pungent, meaty odor, sending out billowing clouds of steam and smoke as the chicken cooked on the grill. 


For the Chicken
1 gallon cold water
3/4 cup kosher salt
1/3 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
1 whole chicken, cut into 6-8 pieces
Freshly ground black pepper
Vegetable oil, for the grill
Mama's Barbecue Sauce, warmed
Mama's Barbecue Sauce
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 onion, preferably Vidalia, very finely chopped
2 1/2 cups ketchup
2 cups apple cider or distilled white vinegar
1/2 cup Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons firmly packed brown sugar
Juice of 2 lemons
2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
Coarse salt


  1. Combine the water, salt, and brown sugar in a large plastic container and stir to dissolve. Add the chicken; cover and refrigerate to marinate for 4 to 6 hours.
  2. Prepare a charcoal fire using about 6 pounds of charcoal and burn until the coals are completely covered with a thin coating of light gray ash, 20 to 30 minutes. Spread the coals evenly over the grill bottom, position the grill rack above the coals, and heat until medium-hot (when you can hold your hand 5 inches above the grill surface for no longer than 3 or 4 seconds). Or, for a gas grill, turn on all burners to High, close the lid, and heat until very hot, 10 to 15 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, remove the chicken from the marinade and rinse under cool running water. Pat dry with paper towels, season with pepper, and set aside.
  4. Season the chicken with pepper. Apply some oil to the grill grate. Place the chicken on the grill, leaving plenty of space between each piece. Grill until seared, about 1 to 2 minutes per side for legs and thighs, and 3 or so minutes for breasts. Move the chicken to medium-low heat or reduce the heat to medium; continue to grill, turning occasionally, until the juices run clear when pierced, 12 to 18 minutes.
  5. During the last 5 to 7 minutes of cooking, brush the chicken with Mama's BBQ Sauce.
  6. Remove the pieces from the grill as they cook and transfer to a warm platter. Give them a final brush of sauce for flavor and serve immediately with additional sauce on the side.
  7. Mama’s Barbecue Sauce (Makes about 6-1/2 cups)
  8. In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat; add the onions and simmer until soft and melted, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the ketchup, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, brown sugar, lemon juice, and pepper.
  9. Bring to a boil, decrease the heat to low, and simmer until the flavors have smoothed and mellowed, at least 10 and up to 30 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. It will last for months.


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Happy Mother’s Day: Mama’s Poundcake

Mama’s Poundcake

Any one that speaks to me more than a couple of paragraphs essentially knows I love my Mama. I am a Mama’s girl through and through. Mama and I have always been very good friends. We’ve spent a lot of time together in the kitchen. She has a sweet tooth and is famous for her poundcake, French butter cookies, and peanut brittle. My love of food and cooking took root in the kitchen with Mama.

I was always a bookish child, curled up in a corner with a book, reading a book in the car, or hiding under the weeping willow tree with a book in my hand. Once when I was in elementary school the principal called mama in for a meeting because I was cutting class — cutting class and sneaking into the library. Mama didn’t think that was such a problem. A couple of years later just before summer break we were in the library choosing books for vacation. I was reading above my age and the librarian wanted me to read something more “age appropriate.” I vividly remember her telling me to stick to a certain children’s section for my summer reading, when what I really wanted to do was go over there to the hard back books. I wasn’t reading titillating teen material; I had started reading the classics. I was beginning to appreciate literature. Mama just let me choose what I wanted to read.

A bookish child turned into a bookish teenager. I was never part of the popular crowd. Didn’t kiss a boy until I was 16. Of course, that’s all more clear now, but the nut of it was, I wasn’t hanging out in the Dairy Queen parking lot with the other teens on Friday night. I was at home with Mama. Mama divorced my father when I was in high school, the summer between my junior and senior year. That same summer the private school I attended closed. I was 16. It was tumultuous. Mama and I leaned on each other and it was then that our “grown-up” friendship really started.

Instead of going to another school for my senior year I started college. I had to get my driver’s license so that I could live at home and drive to college. It just was the thing to do and I did it with Mama right there beside me. She never let on she was worried or that I couldn’t do it. She believed in me, if she had any hesitation about her sheltered bookish daughter starting college at 16, she never let on.

A lot has happened in my life since those big steps many years ago. I transferred to UGA and boy howdy, did my world open up. I went to England one summer for a couple of weeks and called her to ask if I could stay the summer. She said yes. I am sure she was scared to death, but if she had any hesitation, she never let on. After a few years of floundering around I wanted to go to culinary school. She supported my ambition and if she had any hesitation, she never let on. Later still, I wanted to move to France to learn and study. I was supposed to be there 3 months and was there for almost three years. If she had any hesitation, she never let on. Moving to New York City to be the kitchen director for Bobby Flay? Leaving that to work for Martha Stewart? Leaving a fantastic job with Martha to travel the world with Epicurious shooting stories about mustard in Dijon or pasta in Italy? We’ve traveled the world together, I’ve gotten her lost in Turkey, taken wrong turns in Paris, and we’ve trooped up many a tower stairwell in Italy.

If she had any hesitation, she never let on.

When I returned home to the South was another story. She “let on” how happy she was and I am very glad I returned. Life is good to me here. When you are young you can’t wait to get the hell out of Dodge and I found at least, when I got older I couldn’t wait to get the hell back. After 9/11 and being stuck in Manhattan as those towers burned and subsequently losing my job, I wanted to go home to Georgia and Mama. She’s been right beside me these past nearly ten years as my life has radically changed. My career has exploded. My book has significantly altered my life. My heart has also been hurt, I nearly cracked, quite frankly, and had to go away to the white beaches of Florida to heal. I am now experiencing a love like nothing I have ever known before and joyful in its beauty and all the while my Mama has been right there.

And, if she had any hesitation, she never let on.

I’ve always devoured books, still do. Words are magic to me. The fact that occasionally I can string together a couple and make a beautiful sentence or a moving phrase or an evocative thought thrills me. I love to cook, and as my life evolves and changes I realize I love writing almost as much. The fact that I can marry these two loves and pay my bills is a wonderful and wondrous thing.

And, that, like most of the wonderful and wondrous things in my life is as a result of the love and support of my wonderful and wondrous Mama. I hope you enjoy this recipe for Mama’s Poundcake.

I love you Mama.
Happy Mother’s Day.
I Love YOU the Most!


mama's pound cake on

Mama's Poundcake

This cake has been a constant in my life – it’s been my birthday cake many times. Our family holidays wouldn’t be complete without it. This cake will stay moist in an airtight container for up to one week.
Cuisine American
Servings 1 cake
Author Virginia Willis


  • 3 cups all purpose flour preferably White Lily
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup Crisco vegetable shortening room temperature
  • 2 sticks unsalted butter room temperature, more for the bundt pan
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 1 cup whole milk room temperature
  • 5 large eggs room temperature
  • 1 vanilla bean split and scraped or 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract


  1. Heat the oven to 300 °. Grease a large bundt pan with butter. Set aside. Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

  2. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment cream together the Crisco, butter, and sugar until light and fluffy.

  3. In a large liquid measuring cup combine the milk, eggs, and vanilla. Stir to combine.

  4. Add the flour mixture to the butter sugar mixture, alternating between the dry and wet ingredients in 3 parts, starting and ending with dry. Fill the prepared bunt pan with batter, no more than 2/3 full.

  5. Transfer to the oven and bake for 15 minutes. Increase oven temperature to 325 ° and bake and additional 45 minutes until the cake is warm golden brown and pulls away from the sides of the pan. Remove to a rack to cool for 10 minutes. Invert cake onto a rack to cool completely.


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