An ordinary day at Scott's BBQ still looks much as it did years ago in rural Hemingway, S.C. Antediluvian pits drip with dangerously combustible lard. A towering inferno blazes out back in the yard, depositing coals to be scooped up with long-handled shovels and delivered beneath a crackling hog. If it's wintertime there are collards out front of the old store that's as weathered as the community in which it sits; summer brings a grocery cart or two filled with watermelons. The first time I found the place, they mainly sold barbecue, King Thin white bread, and fried pork skins — to-go. Now they round out the table with baked beans, coleslaw, and various other sundries. Other than a few new items and the regular stream of out-of-town guests pulling into the gravel lot out front, not much has changed. And that's just the way Rodney Scott likes it. His mission is not to save Hemingway, but to enlighten the rest of us — at least those not lucky enough to have grown up eating "Q" in the Southern countryside.
Scott's was once just part of the dozens of similar barbecue shacks strewn across the Pee Dee landscape, but it has since become a de facto Mecca, a place celebrity chefs either laud or plan a trip to experience and then publicly proclaim an epiphany. That this speaks to the authenticity of the way we've always done it in rural South Carolina and the considerable interest in capturing the romance of that culture is not lost on Rodney Scott; neither are the oft-ignored historical inequities that have long divided the haves and the have-nots in the South.
Hemingway may reside firmly within South Carolina's highly impoverished "Corridor of Shame," but everyone from Maine to Florida has heard of Scott's BBQ by now. Shortly after the City Paper began covering Scott's fiery vinegar-based pork, others showed up to pen odes to his art. John T. Edge, chief evangelist for the Southern Foodways Alliance, regaled Scott in the New York Times and by extension he was discovered by the professional "foodie" set, with their high-dollar festivals, public relations networks, awards, and incessant rankings. It didn't hurt that Scott himself is a good-looking, muscular fellow with an amicable personality and a disarming demeanor. He's also an African American in a state where prominent barbecue bosses are often thought of as fat, white, states-rights conservatives.
"I've been thinking a lot about spark arrestors," Rodney blurted out at six in the morning. The sun was barely rising above the breathtaking vista at the Palmetto Bluff resort south of Hilton Head, but I'd been up since four, winding my way down through the ACE Basin to join Rodney and Steven Green in cooking a couple of hogs for the Music to Your Mouth Festival, a fancy, four-day soirée that will knock you and your date back $3,000 for a ticket and a bed. It's the kind of event where there's an all-star lineup of media darling chefs and a collection of $100,000-plus sports cars that you can take for a free 15-minute spin to see if you might be interested in buying (you do have to leave them your driver's license). Palmetto Bluff is also amazingly beautiful, a set-piece new urbanist development cast against the natural beauty of the sea island Lowcountry and manicured to a fault; the lawn mowers double as vacuums lest nary a stray blade of pine straw be misplaced. It falls somewhere between the Hamptons and The Truman Show.
Rodney calls these places "sensitive areas," locales where they don't take kindly to burning up the joint with the kind of live fire cooking Scott's BBQ employs. Compared to downtown Charleston, and its penchant for regulation and fire safety, Palmetto Bluff requires little — we're told that all the grass will be torn up and replaced once we leave. The main concerns involve not getting too close to the ruined columns of the historic plantation house rubble that frames the lawn and later trying to move the red hot burn barrel full of fire and coal, lest it interfere with the chandelier that event planners want to hang over the Scott's BBQ station. But for now, at 6 a.m., it's just Scott, Green, two pigs, and me in the gathering dawn.
A rotund and gregarious man, Green fires the burn barrel with an enormous flame-throwing gas torch, a large tube attached to a propane bottle and ignited. We toss each of the pigs onto a makeshift counter, and I watch as Rodney prepares them for the pit in the Pee Dee-style: back split, fat cap pulled, hams and shoulders deeply sliced to speed the cooking process, a few other special touches here and there. The pigs rest on ordinary fence wire, cut and layered above welded rebar. They're surrounded by a box of roofing tin screwed to a metal frame and a lid that is hoisted atop. The whole rig costs less than $1,000 to build and almost all of that is in the towable trailer that secured the pit and barrel for its three-hour journey south. "I was looking at all the cookers like chefs have," Rodney explained as I admired the smoldering metal box, "and they were 15 and 20 thousand dollars or more. So me and Green were like 'Nah, let's just do something real simple like we would do if we were back home,' and we came up with this."
Rodney's black truck sports a reflection shiny enough to fix your hair in, but it's not parked straight along the street and a security guard soon drops by to correct the situation: "You have to move the truck," he explains. "We don't like anything to be different around here. We like it all to look the same, you know — pretty." Rodney laughs the treatment off: "Hey man, last year the security guard insisted that I park down across the bridge in the maintenance lot, even though I tried to explain that I was a chef staying in that big home right around the corner. I just drove off."
Green works days as a mechanic at the local car dealership in Hemingway, but he drives the rig and travels with Rodney for these out-of-town events. "You gotta learn to 'duck it', Jeffrey," Green yells as we toss wood into the flaming barrel. I quickly master the art of slamming the door shut to arrest the airflow, as sparks fly from the top of the barrel with the addition of new wood. "We added the smokestack and that little plate on top to try and hold down the sparks and we had a screen on there, but it blew off," he explains, while jostling the barrel to release coals through the grates and into the shoveling chamber below. "Folks at these things don't like to see any sparks flying, you know."
As all real barbecue men know, sparks bring coals, coals bring smoke and flavor, and the wafting essence of a cooking hog brings innumerable passersby hoping for a nibble. At a ritzy scene like Music to Your Mouth, a 15-foot high rusty burn barrel and a steel box smoking with hog grease bring more attention than usual. Or maybe it's the steady diet of 1970s-style soul that Rodney pumps like water from a wireless Bose sound system. "This is the music I grew up on, the kind of thing you'd hear in a jukejoint when I was coming up," he tells me in mid-afternoon sun. Assorted servers are setting up for tonight's party, and Green and I admire a few of the females who wiggle along to a steady diet of Roy C. and Anthony Hamilton. "I can't stand to see smoke without music," Rodney says, dancing along between round of coals, managing his social media marketing presence, and slamming tall drinks of "Green's Punch," a syrupy sweet blend of pineapple juice and Kool-Aid that we'll conspire to spike with rum later in the night while we smoke quail with chefs Sean Brock and Mike Lata.
A cameraman asks him to turn off the music during chef interviews, visibly annoying Rodney. Once the tunes return, he finishes his thought with a wide smile: "You know, I'm just trying to come out here and bring these people a little bit of where we come from. To educate them a little, you know?"
But it's the cooker and the hogs that the people want to see. One onlooker declares that he's stealing the design. "It's older than you and me," Rodney retorts.
A white-jacketed chef bemoans the number of menus he has to write between today's conference calls and his scheduled round of golf. "I got my holiday menu already done," Rodney tells him and rattles it off: "Hogs, turkeys, chickens, skins, and some steaks on the weekends."
When I ask him what the secret is to staying successful in a world where everyone wants a piece of you, where there is "opportunity" to change and expand, and where that opportunity is joined by the risks of losing the authenticity that made you successful in the first place, he offers the same sort of guileless reply: "I just try to keep things simple. I try not to do too much too fast. We don't ever want to be anything but hardworking people from Hemingway."
I mention his business relationship with the chain food of Jim N' Nicks BBQ: "So you've never thought of getting fancy? Weren't you going to open a place in Charleston or something a year or two ago?"
"We looked at it," he admitted. "We had an old church lined up and it was really nice, but we studied it and it just didn't make sense in the end. I mean, look around Jeff, the fanciest thing we got out here is the radio."
John T. Edge joined our chat and offered his analysis. "Rodney, you're teaching a whole generation of chefs about this aspect of culinary practice, and that kind of give and take has never really occurred in the South before."
The secret to Scott's BBQ doesn't reside in specially selected hogs. They cook with ordinary market hogs. Outside of the fancy knife that Rodney purchased from his friend, the bladesmith Quintin Middleton, the cooking implements are little more than scrap metal welded into ingenious shapes. The sauce recipe is well guarded, as are the collections of spices and sprinkles that Rodney applies in a specific order. It's the finishing of the meat that completes his process, and it's unique enough that it should remain undisclosed. The meat is pulled straight from the hog to the plate. Green and I busy ourselves into the evening dishing to the steady stream of festival participants who marvel at the intense piquant flavor of a Pee Dee-style hog.
According to Rodney's mother Ella, that's the way she and his dad, Roosevelt, learned it from his uncle Thomas in 1972 when they moved south from Philadelphia "to the country" to open the little store that still sits at Brunson's Crossroads. Rodney came up working in the store.
"I brought him up in work," she'll tell you, and he opted for the business instead of college. Two years ago he took over in the wake of his father's illness, and he now leads the family organization that is Hemingway's culinary crown jewel as well as its free tree service. Ella cooks up the beans and slaw, and despite its national exposure, a trip to Brunson's Crossroads can feel like a trip back in time, a walk with a group of people who refuse to give up who they are or what they do. They like to change slowly and on their own terms.
The week after Palmetto Bluff, on the day before Thanksgiving, the pits at Scott's were engulfed by fire, the building stripped to a concrete shell. "That's what happens when you cook with fire," Scott told the City Paper. And indeed, the layers of grease that accrue in the process of live fire hog cooking have burned the structure twice before. On hearing the news, I sent Rodney a text message asking if there was any help that we could provide from Charleston.
The reply was instantaneous: "We are good man. Lol. Green said come help cook hogs."