For their inaugural outing of Hogs for the Cause
in Charleston on Sat. Oct. 4, Becker Hall and Rene Louapre have decided to keep things small. For the headline entertainment they've booked an obscure band from Athens named Drive-By Truckers, and they invited just seven legendary pitmasters to cook whole hog barbecue. And also a bunch of fine-dining chefs, but only a few of them have won James Beard Awards. Oh, and there’s just one rocket scientist.
Of course, Hall and Louapre may have a little different definition than most of us when it comes to the size of an event. They are the co-founders of the annual Hogs for the Cause barbecue festival down in New Orleans, which in its sixth outing earlier this year drew more than 20,000 people.
Billed as “New Orleans' largest outdoors cocktail party,” the original is a two-day event that includes a big barbecue competition (it drew 90 cooks this year) plus 13 bands playing on two separate stages.
The first Charleston iteration will take place at the Grove at Patriot Point on Sat. Oct. 4, and its format will be a little different than the Big Easy one. For this year at least, it’s only a single-day event, and it’s an exhibition, not a competition.
The lineup will feature three of Charleston’s top barbecue cooks: Jimmy Hagood of Food for the Southern Soul, John Haire of Nick’s BBQ, and Aaron Siegel of Fiery Ron’s Home Team BBQ. They’ll be joined by a few out-of-towners representing some of the best barbecue joints in the state: Rodney Scott of Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Hemingway
, Mark Behr of Sweatman’s BBQ in Holly Hill, and Lynn and Norton Hughes of Shuler’s Bar-B-Que in Latta.
For good measure, Becker Hall also invited Howard Conyers, an amateur barbecue cook who lives in New Orleans. “Howard is [originally] from Manning, S.C.,” Hall says. “He competes in Hogs New Orleans. He’s obsessed with burn-barrel barbecue. We thought it would be neat to have one amateur barbecuer going up against these pros.”
Conyers grew up cooking Pee Dee-style whole hog on his family’s farm before heading off to Greensboro to attend North Carolina A&T and, after that, earn a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and materials science from Duke University. Today, Conyers makes his living testing rocket engines for NASA. If someone tells you that cooking good barbecue isn’t rocket science, you might want to have them check with Howard Conyers just to be sure.
For Becker, landing the Drive-By Truckers as the headlining band was a big coup, too. “We tried to get the Truckers down in New Orleans the last three years,” he says. “They’re always one of our first go-to bands to see if they are available.”
They could never get the timing to work for the New Orleans event, but they managed to pull it off for October. “We wanted to go into Charleston saying we are very serious about this,” he says. The rest of the music lineup is pretty serious, too: Austin-based roots rockers Heartless Bastards, New Orleans’ Soul Rebels Brass Band, and the gritty bluegrass quintet Whiskey Shivers, along with two local favorites, Sol Driven Train and Dead 27s.
As the event’s name suggests, all this barbecue and music is being brought together to benefit a good cause: helping out families with children being treated for pediatric brain cancer. Even for those with good health insurance, the non-medical expenses associated with cancer treatment can be daunting. “Often a parent has to quit a job to take care of the child,” Hall explains. ”So, you lose an income. And, you’re traveling constantly and sometimes have to travel two or three states over. Then you have to pay for lodging.”
Hall and Louapre didn’t set out to organize an event with such a cause in mind. All they originally wanted to do was to eat a little barbecue. “Rene and I grew up together,” Hall says. “Next door neighbors.” When Hall left home to attend college at the University of South Carolina, he discovered whole hog barbecue. “I went to South Carolina during the era of Lou Holtz and the 0-and-21 streak,” he says.“We got really into roasting whole hogs before the game.”
After returning home to New Orleans after graduation, Hall noticed that, despite his hometown’s amazing food scene, there was something of a void when it came to barbecue. “My buddy Rene wrote a food blog,” Hall recalls. “It was a very popular website. I approached him with the idea of smoking a whole hog.”
Initially, they were thinking of just putting on a fun gathering for friends. But while they were planning it, they inadvertently came across a cause for their hogs. “Through this food community,” Hall says, “we met a sous chef whose son had an inoperable brain tumor. We thought we might be able to raise some funds for this family. We reached out to them and got to meet the family. Once we met the child, we were hooked.”
That child was four-year-old Ben Sarrat, Jr., and he impressed everyone who met him with his love for life, even under the worst of circumstances. “That year we had 200 people show up and raised $10,000 for the family,” Hall says.
Ben lost his fight to cancer a year after the first Hogs for the Cause, and that only increased Hall’s and Louapre’s determination to help more families. They added a barbecue competition for the second year, and it’s grown by leaps and bounds ever since.
“So far, we’ve given out over $250,000 to families,” Hall says. They’ve forged relationships with pediatric hospitals across country, working with social workers at each institution to identify families in need and help them provide them with grants.
The event at Patriot’s Point will be the Hogs’ first foray outside of New Orleans, and they chose Charleston for several reasons.
“A lot of people are quick to point out parallels between New Orleans and Charleston,” Becker Hall says. “[Charlestonians] are very altruistic minded. They have a deep respect for food. They have very culturally rich experience, and barbecue is very prevalent ... It’s all the things we know that the city understands and likes.” The presence of MUSC Children’s Hospital was an important factor, too, for the charity has worked with them in the past to provide grants for patients’ families.
There are three levels of tickets for the Charleston event. General admission ($30, if you buy early) will get you admission to the Grove, where you can listen to all the bands and buy pork plates from each of the cooks for $7 each. For a $75 “PassPork,” you get a plate from all seven pitmasters and use “fast access” lane to bypass the crowds.
Attendees can also sample something other than barbecue at the “PorkPourri” booth. “We’re bringing up some [New Orleans] chefs who can really cook,” Hall says. “You’re going to see some boudin. You might see some Cajun plays on hoppin’ john. Sometimes you want to contrast the barbecue with something different.”
If you really want to go whole hog, there’s the Local Palate Boss Hog VIP ticket ($200), which gets all the PorkPass features, plus access to a private stage viewing area, dishes served by a group of noted New Orleans and Charleston chefs, and an open bar featuring drinks poured by Husk bartender and Charleston Brown Water Society
co-founder R. H. Weaver. The chefs include Sean Brock of McCrady’s and Husk and, coming up from New Orleans, Ryan Prewitt of Pêche, Justin Devillier of La Petite Grocery, and Aaron Burgau of Patois.
As ambitious as the inaugural Charleston event is, Hogs for the Cause hopes that it’s just the beginning of something much, much bigger. “We are really hoping we can grow the event and bring in more in the future,” Becker Hall says.
Tickets for Hogs for the Cause Charleston are on sale now at hogscharleston.org.