Not too long ago, I found myself at Brunson's Crossroads on the outskirts of Hemingway, S.C., where I met a weathered and worn fellow. He was a black man, old enough to know Jim Crow well, skulked back in a ragged lawn chair with a cheap cigarette propped between his remaining teeth. With every reason to distrust me, his brow furrowed and he stared sharply. We were strangers in his land — a barren yard full of twisted scrap metal, half-chopped trees, and a towering inferno of burning oak, a land of grease, soot, and sweat, hot swirling dust in the summer heat. Despite my intrusion, he smiled — a big, warm, jagged smile — and his eyes lit up. I did not know it yet, but this man was about to tell me the secret history of barbecue, a history absent from the books and scholars who argue particulars of its true nature. He shifted forward in his chair, the cigarette bouncing along as he spoke: "I been around here a long time ... but I don't cook much no more ... somebody gotta make sure these boys is doing it right."
Over four consecutive days, I traveled hundreds of miles with various companions in search of the essential truths of barbecue. We ate our way through some of the best food South Carolina has to offer. We traversed the sauce landscape — various permutations of vinegar, pepper, mustard, and tomato swirled together over piles of steaming pork. Yet the truth sat there before me, a wrinkled old man with few words, sweating the summer away while the burning wood crackled a tune. I realized then that real barbecue is not about pigs and sauce or even fire. It is a conveyance of traditions, an ancient American story passed down between communities, families, and friends, a practice honed in the presence of elders; the secret lies in the people who make it.
Today, cooking barbecue is a pastime of the common man, but the technique was born of necessity. European explorers arrived in the Americas with cattle and swine — and little knowledge of how to survive the inhospitable coastal lowlands. The Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Dutch (and some time later, the English) conquered Native Americans with guns and germs, decimating an American culture that predated Columbus' arrival. But not before appropriating their technique of cooking meat by smoking it.
Caribbean Arawak and Carib Indians smoked whole animals — iguanas, deer, snakes, marsh rats, and even humans — over open fires. They suspended these meats above the embers on a web of green saplings, calling this construction a barbacoa. Today, this word takes various forms — barbecue, bar-b-que, and bbq — and can be used to describe a variety of meats, processes, and events. You could technically barbecue some barbecue on your barbecue for tonight's barbecue.
Modern barbecue combines the natives' cooking technique with the type of meat brought over from Europe — namely cows, hogs, and goats. The process of long, slow roasting over hardwood coals was then passed down through generations, and today makes up an important aspect of our cultural heritage, which in South Carolina has its own distinct form. We cook pork exclusively and, no matter how you spell it, barbecue here is always properly referenced as a noun.
Our trip along South Carolina's backroads brought a realization that at the top levels of the art, there is no "best" barbecue, but rather differences in style and preference. Every South Carolinian firmly believes (and some will fight you over this) that his or her favorite hometown pit puts out the best stuff around. A true survey reveals a remarkable diversity in style and flavor, due to differing methods and sauce profiles that depend on the people who passed down the art. It is their legacies that make one place's efforts different from the next, yet each equally delightful.
South Carolina deserves a special place in this world, for only it can lay claim to all four of the major sauce types that dominate the Southern United States. In order of historical appearance, they are: vinegar and pepper, mustard, light tomato, and heavy tomato. Only the mustard is unique to our state. We are also the home of barbecue hash, that delicious amalgamation of innards, offal, and trimmings that separates true fans from squeamish bandwagoners. We traditionally use the whole hog, smoked slowly while the by-products boil down into hash. The type of wood, the makeup of the sauce, the method of presenting the meat, even the layout of the establishment all vary as one moves throughout South Carolina.
We trekked the Palmetto State, into the tobacco fields of the Pee Dee with its hair-raising pepper sauces. We drove through the midlands, into Lexington and beyond to Newberry, following the trail of the German settlers who long ago blended mustard into their barbecue sauce. We made our way through the coastal plains and up the Savannah River Basin and along the way we found out the truth about barbecue — not just here in South Carolina, but, we suspect, across the Americas.
The best barbecue we tasted is not prepared in the big, famous joints with names everyone knows. It exists in small operations, where ancient culinary traditions have been preserved. Each serves a distinctive brand of barbecue, one that no one could mistake, flavored by the wood they use, the way it burns in their yard, the pigs they source, the homespun pits out back, and how they pull or chop the meat, the hash, and the ribs — even how they fry their skins. This is real barbecue, the kind you can't hope to fake. Each finished pig could exist only in the place from which it came — giant greaseballs massaged by time-honored lessons into the most deliciously unctuous combination of flavors on Earth. Few things can compete with a plate of authentic South Carolina barbecue.
So I found myself outside Hemingway, down at Brunson's Crossroads, staring at a man whom most would pass without a glance, and he had just uttered those most convincing words. It was a sad moment, watching his weathered eyes glance across the yard toward the pits. I assumed that he and the other older gentleman gathered there were a dying breed, that they would constitute the end of a tradition. And then Rodney Scott walked in, a young, well-spoken, astute, third-generation barbecue boss, who now runs Scott's BBQ, a Hemingway institution. I thought about those men often while continuing the barbecue circuit and found more like them —The Vann Family at Trenton BBQ, McCabe's in Manning, Bobby and Dixie George outside Smoaks, Brice and Ray Cannon up in Little Mountain, and others. At the end of an exhausting trip, the secret was out. If you want to eat real barbecue, you have to find the people who know how to make it.
The Road Trip
Our trip through South Carolina took us high and low, to some of the best (and some of the worst) barbecue places out there. Undoubtedly there are more that deserved our attention, but grown men can only eat so much and still drive a car. These are the places that we found to be the best examples of their style, the places where we shoved in an extra spoonful of hash, even though it was our third stop and we had two more to go that day. They represent a spectrum of what our state has to offer in the barbecue arena, but they are all delicious, serving up great food by sticking with traditions as old as the land on which they are built. (For Charleston-area barbecue institutions, see p. 53 of Dish, our bi-annual dining guide, which has been inserted into this week's issue).
109 Main St.
There are two things you need to know about New Ellenton: it sports one of the worst speed traps in the state, and it's the home of Carolina BBQ. Barbecue places generally come in two flavors, ones that make your plate for you and ones that lay the spread out for gut-busting buffets. These guys, located just outside the atomic glow of the Savannah River Site, serve a very fine buffet. They concentrate on pulled pork with a mustard base and serve an excellent hash. If you're looking for the prototypical South Carolina all-you-can-eat joint, this is it.
1903 Nursery Road
We drove past Cannon's BBQ twice before pulling into the little converted mobile trailer that is home base for the Cannon boys. Had they been cooking, we would have smelled that heavenly column of smoke rising from the homemade oil barrel pit out back and the black washpots that cook their hash over open coals. They do some old-fashioned stuff way up there in Little Mountain and it's worth the drive. The 'cue is solid, the hash practically smoked in itself, and the ribs fall from the bone with the first bite. My companion almost passed out at his first nibbling of the beef ribs. We know that die-hard barbecue people in South Carolina have an aversion to calling ribs barbecue, but they need to get over it — these things are that good and we are lucky to have them.
Hwy 362 Rte. 2
You have to plan ahead for a trip to B&D. Bobby and Dixie George decided 20 years to get out of the farming business and turned to practicing the barbecue art, one whose particulars were passed down at their local community gatherings for decades. As Ms. Dixie put it, "Around here barbecue is a community enterprise." They are so far out in the country and so popular that they open only on Saturday afternoons and evenings for a packed house of eaters and lines of take-out orders by the pound. You will not find a massive buffet; they concentrate on the 'cue and sides are kept to a minimum, but with the homemade coleslaw and sweet pickles, the place is a winner. They serve a distinctive heavy tomato sauce over the only gas-fired pork that we found worthy of inclusion in our tour (they supplement the gas with some oak) and cook only the
hams of the pig, but make a very good hash out of the leftover shanks.
Big T's Bar-B-Q
2520 Congaree Road
OK, we know we said that there's no "best" barbecue in South Carolina, but let me go on record saying that Big T's is my personal favorite. They just do it right here — and they do a lot more than pigs. They have pig's feet, collards, pork chops, and fried fish so good it will blow your mind. For my money, they also boast the best overall barbecue plate in the state. They sell it big or small in multiple combinations, with ribs, chopped pork, and hash over rice headlining the show. The sauce is so good that they bottle it for sale in local groceries, and the meals so popular that they have expanded to two other locations in Columbia. We suggest visiting "the mother ship," as they call it, way out in the middle of nowhere. There the hash comes hot from the kettle, made with the whole hog's head, so unctuous you could grease your car wheels with the stuff. It is the only place that I have ever seen pour their sauce over the hash and rice — pure genius.
Bub Sweatman's BBQ
Route 453 (Eutawville Road)
Sweatman's is famous. People drive hundreds of miles to eat there, out in the middle of a corn field between Eutawville and Holly Hill. It's the most well-respected barbecue joint in South Carolina for a good reason. They serve some very distinctive stuff. They don't mess around with many side dishes — you go to Sweatman's for old-timey, wood-fired pork, and they dish it up, serving both a tender, juicy "inside" meat and a smoky, charred "outside" meat at the buffet. You get a choice of mustard- or ketchup-based sauces and the banana pudding will beat your mama's, hands down.
648 Springfield Road
Smack dab in the middle of downtown Springfield sits this newcomer, but don't let its youth dissuade you from a visit. There are two lines, one for the buffet and another for take-out. Either way, the place serves top-flight 'cue in a clean, family-friendly atmosphere. There's plenty of pig paraphernalia to look at, and these types of gussied-up places usually translate into sub-par meat, but not at GoodLand. For under ten bucks you can stuff yourself with shredded pork and hash that competes with the best of the bunch. They aren't all that distinctive, but it's so good, you won't care.
Jackie Hite's BBQ
467 West Church St.
Jackie Hite produces barbecue the old-fashioned way. He burns real wood, stokes his own pits, and follows a time-honored method taught to him by former masters of the craft. His smoky, mustard-based hogs boggle the mind, but the skins here will make you slap yourself. A salt and water rub brings out the best in the charring skins and when they're done, boy are they good — the best we've ever eaten. Get there on the weekends and you'll sometimes find whole joints of smoked pork on the bar, waiting for you to rip them to shreds. This place could be what heaven looks like, but we're going to need to make many return trips, just to make sure.
480 N. Brooks St.
Up north in Manning sits this legendary stop, and we confirmed that they still deserve their wonderful reputation. If you want to eat some good ribs, this is the best place in the Pee Dee and could compete with any of those Memphis or Kansas City outfits. They cook their ribs on the whole hog and separate them afterward, leaving the rest for the string-like pulled pork, a distinctive texture that looks almost like pork spaghetti on the plate. Served under a spicy vinegar sauce, alongside a hash that gives me night sweats and fresh sliced tomatoes from the garden, McCabe's plates are truly great.
Scott's Variety Store
Scott's should be on the National Historic Register. It's that authentic. It's that good. If you want to see the essence of what barbecue is all about, this is it. They sell three basic commodities: pulled pork, fried skins, and King Thin white bread. Ten to 12 hogs a night are cooked and slathered with an absolutely atomic vinegar sauce, the spiciest we've ever eaten (of course, you can also forgo the sauce). If you go to Scott's, make sure to take a tour of the pits; timeworn and weathered, they hold three generations' toil within their grease-laden facades. These guys are so authentic that they chop their own wood — and to a barbecue fan, that should be convincing enough to plan a trip tomorrow.