Erin Sarrat is sitting on a folding chair inside a huge open tent, surrounded by cases of bottled water. She is taking a break from selling water on this sunny Louisiana afternoon to talk with Smoke Signals about Hogs for the Cause.
Wander onto the grounds of the event, held this past Saturday in New Orleans’s City Park, and you might think this is pretty much like any other barbecue competition. There are the requisite booths, the funny team names (Piggy Stardust) and, of course, the smoke wafting up from scads of smokers.
But this is no ordinary barbecue contest.
For one thing, unlike at most competitions, attendees can buy directly from the competing teams. My first bite was a plate of praline bacon. By day’s end, I sampled whole hog and pulled pork, of course, but also a lettuce wrap of pork and kimchee, a pork-belly corn dog and a chocolate-and-peanut-butter pudding cake sprinkled with crumbled bacon.
But it isn’t the direct-purchase or wacky food combinations — or even the live Big Easy music — that differentiates Hogs for the Cause. It’s the purpose.
The cook-off is a fundraiser for pediatric brain cancer. It was launched three years ago after founders Becker Hall and Rene Louapre met Erin’s son, Ben Sarrat, Jr.
In November 2008, Ben Jr. was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. He was 4 years old. “They gave him six months to live,” recalls Erin.
Hall and Louapre, two lifelong friends from New Orleans, were planning to stage a small barbecue competition. Once Louapre learned of Ben’s plight, though, the guys turned their barbecue competition into a fundraiser for Ben’s family. Held in March 2009, the event was dubbed the Ben Sarrat High on the Hog Barbecue Cook-off. They even created a non-profit organization called Hogs for the Cause.
In addition to trophies for the standard categories, such as best ribs, pulled pork and whole hog, the event awards a prize for best fundraiser, acknowledging the team that takes in the most money for the cause. “We try to fill the void between what families can afford and what they need,” says Hall.
In its first year, the event raised $7,000 to help with the Sarrats’s travel, co-pays and other expenses not covered by insurance.
Over the course of 14 months from the day of his diagnosis, Ben endured two rounds of radiation and three rounds of chemotherapy. He was treated at Children’s Hospital in New Orleans and MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
Meanwhile, Hall and Louapre planned the second Hogs, which attracted 26 teams and raised $23,000.
Two weeks before the second event was held last March, Ben died.
“It’s amazing that he beat the odds as long as he did,” Erin says. “He was given six months. He fought for 14 months.”
While Erin finds inspiration in Ben’s struggle, she and her husband, Ben Sarrat, Sr., understand too well the toll of such a struggle. There is the obvious financial strain and emotional tumult. There is also the impact it has on a family. The Sarrats have a younger child, Shaun, who was 2 years old when Ben was diagnosed. Erin worked as a curator for the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans back then. She says the organization allowed her to take off large blocks of time while dealing with her ordeal, but that, in the end, she needed to change jobs because Shaun, she says, did not receive adequate attention while the family was dealing with Ben, Jr.. She left her job at the zoo to teach sixth grade. “I can be home more with Shaun,” she says. “I can be around more.”
Ben, Sr., who competes at Hogs, works as the executive sous chef at New Orleans’s Renaissance Arts Hotel. “No one should have to go through this,” he says, misting up. It has been scarcely more than a year since Ben, Jr., passed away, and the emotions are still tender. “We just hope that others can get a little relief from what we’re doing here.”
This year, Hogs attracted 45 teams and had to turn more away for lack of space. The event also had live music for the first time. (Full disclosure: My son performed in one of the bands.) Organizers estimated attendance at around 5,000 and raised about $110,000.
Hall and Louapre hope to hold next year’s Hogs in an even larger area to accommodate the growing crowds and teams.
Erin gets up from her seat. “Our first priority,” she says, preparing to get back to selling water, “is to help families.”