The day before Thanksgiving, one of the 15 pigs cooking on Rodney Scott's pits caught fire in Hemingway, S.C. Riding the fat and grease of countless past hogs, the flames reached one of the wooden walls of his cookhouse, shot upwards, and set the entire roof ablaze.
The cookhouse was a complete loss, but, fortunately, no one was injured. It was the kind of disaster that might mean the end for many family-owned businesses, but Scott was determined to carry on.
As soon as he got clearance from the fire department, he fired up four spare pits in an old shed behind the smoldering cookhouse, dragged in a couple of portable pits, and finished as many hogs as he could for the long holiday weekend.
"I've been using the portables and spares since then," he says. "I refurbished the older pits with grates and lids and stuccoed them."
And with a little help from his fellow members in the Fatback Collective, he started figuring out how to rebuild.
The Fatback Collective is a group of 20 or so cooks, restaurateurs, and writers. John T. Edge, the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance and one of the Collective's members, calls it, "a self-elected group of colleagues who respect one another and respect each other's ethics."
The group gained attention in 2011 when they put together a team and tried to win the Memphis in May barbecue competition with a whole Mangalitsa hog and old-fashioned wood-cooking techniques (they came in third). But their real focus is on supporting farmers, artisans, and progressive causes related to food.
In July 2012, they helped another barbecue restaurant, Sam's Bar-B-Q in Humboldt, Tenn., rebuild after a devastating fire, arranging donations of materials and organizing volunteers to do the heavy lifting. It seemed only natural for them to step up and help when one of their own members suffered a similar loss.
"Rodney was so quick to respond after the fire and get back open," Edge says, "and he has such a positive attitude that it was hard to assess what the rebuild would take. It was probably three weeks after the fire that we recognized there was a bigger problem and a bigger need."
According to Scott, it was Edge and Nick Pihakis of the Birmingham, Ala.-based Jim 'N Nick's Bar-B-Q who who came up with the notion of a tour, in which Scott would travel the South, cooking and selling his barbecue to raise money for the rebuild.
"Once we recognized the need," Edge says, "the rallying of the troops was done on a Sunday afternoon by text message ... the text messages in reply were usually just, 'yes, I've got it.' People were quick to say yes and to do so without qualification."
Scott liked the idea of a tour, too. "We felt it was an honest way to earn the money," he says, "and not just be given the money."
So he took to the road for a journey dubbed the Rodney in Exile Tour. It kicked off with a preview event here in Charleston on Dec. 22, with Scott bringing his signature burn barrel to King Street and hundreds of hungry fans lining up to buy pork sandwiches for $5 a pop.
For the tour proper, Scott was truly in exile. "I left home on January 18," Scott says, "and didn't come back to South Carolina until February 2."
He did an event in Atlanta with Kevin Gillespie at Gunshow, then drove up to Nashville to cook with Sean Brock and Pat Martin at Husk. From there he swung southward, for a "Pre-Mardi Gras" pop-up at John Currence's Lamar Lounge in Oxford, Miss., then to Donald Link's Cochon in New Orleans, and finally to the flagship Jim 'N Nick's in Birmingham.
"I basically did the South," Scott says. "That was a long trip." He capped the tour with another swing through Charleston, cooking with fellow barbecue king Sam Jones at a $100-a-plate event at No. 5 Faber. Then, for good measure, Scott hopped a plane to San Francisco, where he supplied the sauce for a whole hog cooked in a caja china by Ryan Farr of 4505 Meats and La Cocina's Caleb Zigas.
All told, the tour raised just over $80,000, $60,000 of which will go toward the estimated $100,000 it will take Scott to rebuild his pit room. (The remaining $40,000 he'll secure through a bank loan.)
As a 40-year-old business, Scott's might have been able to sneak by with some grandfathering and just recreate what they had before. But Scott says, "We came to the conclusion that we should do this right. We decided to upgrade to all codes and all regulations, so this thing would be [around] more than a few more years."
Scott engaged architect Reggie Gibson of Charleston to design the new pit house, and they're just finishing up the planning stages.
"The plan is to go with all non-combustible metal," Scott says. "We're gonna have a little more space. Burners on one side of the building where we cook our sauce and deep-fry our skin. Maybe some more exhaust systems to pull the smoke out from the pits."
They'll also be adding a new prep area for pulling pork and replacing their walk-in cooler, which was damaged in the fire.
The main building of Scott's Variety Store, which serves as a combination restaurant and neighborhood grocery, was untouched by the fire. "The store we don't plan to do a whole lot with," Scott says. "We plan to leave some original history alone."
The Fatback Collective rallied together to help one of their own, but the money raised isn't going solely to Scott's rebuild; $20,000 of the proceeds are going to seed the Fatback Fund, which, as the Collective puts it, will be used to help other "imperiled businesses and organizations that are rooted in place and rich in culture."
"If you think about it in this modern moment," Edge says, "we recognize that barbecue restaurants are more than restaurants. They are incubators of community ... Scott's plays a big role as a fulcrum of community-making in the Pee Dee region. There are examples of that kind of business scattered around the South."
For Rodney Scott, now that his traveling is over, it's time to get back to business. There have been rumors off and on — and, on the part of Lowcountry barbecue fans, much ardent hoping and finger-crossing — that the Scott family will open a Charleston outpost of their now-legendary Hemingway restaurant.
"I would love to do a second location," Scott says, "but with the fire coming up I feel like home is a priority."
But he's not ruling it out in the future. "It's a goal of mine," he says. "It's a dream."
As for the original Scott's Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, it may be getting a new, more modern pithouse, but don't expect any alterations in the barbecue itself.
"The only change I plan to make is to pump out as much more pork as possible," Scott says with a laugh. "As far as the style and procedure, I plan to keep that all the same, the same way I do it now."