South Carolina Barbecue
Clare and I were invited to attend a cookout at a beautiful lakeside home in the mountains. We stood on the patio with a group of friends enjoying the view across the water to the hills beyond. Our host was basting a Boston butt, a cut of pork that comes from the upper part of the pig’s shoulder.
“What are you grilling?” a lady asked.
“Please don’t call it grilling,” the cook requested emphatically. “This separates hard-core barbecue enthusiasts from the uneducated novice. Think of the difference in romantic terms. Grilling is a quick, hot fling with a hamburger or a hot dog. Barbecuing is a long-term relationship. You have to spend a lot of time rubbing spices into a rack of ribs or a pork shoulder. Then you spend hours over a smoky wood fire. It’s a lot like making love. The real experts take it slow and easy!”
Blushing, the lady said, “My ex only knew how to grill. Maybe my next husband will be good at barbecue!”
Our host’s description gave us a new appreciation for the fine art of preparing genuine Southern barbecue.
Barbecue restaurants are among the most popular eateries in South Carolina. Some have operated for decades while there are newer ones arriving almost weekly. Those who are connoisseurs of barbecue know that the various types share a rich history. The Spanish first introduced the pig into the Americas and to the American Indians. The Indians, in turn, introduced the Spanish to cooking with smoke in a pit.
The first colony on the American mainland was in what is now South Carolina. Spanish adventurers were Conquistadores in search of gold. Spanish colonists came later in the early 1500s. They named their colony Santa Helena. It was established in the area that we now call Port Royal in Beaufort County. The colony lasted almost 20 years. In that first American colony Europeans learned to prepare and to eat slow-cooked pork.
The name barbecue derives from the word barabicu found in the language of both the Timucua of Florida and the Taíno people of the Caribbean. The word means sacred firepit.
Although barbecue is rooted in Dixie, most Americans do not have a clue about Southern barbecue. Lake E. High, Jr., President of the South Carolina Barbecue Association, makes a clear distinction between grilled food and genuine barbecue.
High goes further to explain that many kinds of meat can be barbecued. Barbecued chicken, barbecued beef, barbecued turkey, barbecued mutton, and even barbecued possum are among the possibilities. Don’t even think about the barbecue Big George made out of Frank Bennett in the novel and movie Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café by Fanny Flagg!
High explains that because of its origins barbecue as a stand-alone noun can only be used properly to designate pork. Westerners enjoy barbecued beef, but it cannot rightly be referred to as barbecue. It must be called barbecued beef. To use barbecue as a noun can only mean pork.
Lewis Grizzard, the late columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, had open heart surgery to replace a coronary valve. The surgeon inserted a valve from a pig’s heart.
“Doesn’t it bother you to think that you have a pig’s valve in your heart?” Grizzard was asked.
“Not really,” he said, “but every time I drive past a barbecue place, my eyes water.”
Grizzard must have shed many a tear in his travels across the South.
Barbecue, barbeque, bar-b-q, BBQ: there are as many spellings as there are kinds of barbecue. Purists insist that genuine barbecue be cooked in an open pit or a wood or charcoal smoker. They are adamant that neither lighter fluid nor aluminum foil ever be a part of the barbecue process. They want their pork cooked the way their ancestors did.
High, a certified barbecue judge, says that each cook develops a recipe for the rub used to prepare the meat, but it is the sauce that distinguishes between the four varieties. South Carolina is home to all four.
All Southern barbecue falls into one of these four categories: vinegar, mustard, light tomato, heavy red.
Slaves brought with them from the Caribbean a taste for red peppers. In the Southern colonies barbecue sauce became part of the cuisine when spices and peppers were combined with vinegar. In eastern North Carolina pork seasoned with vinegar and peppers is a favorite. When we visit my brother Bill and his wife Wanda, we enjoy a barbecue plate at B’s Barbecue in Greenville, North Carolina. B serves fine vinegar-based pulled pork. The Scottish families who settled the Lowcountry were the South Carolinians who used vinegar and pepper barbecue sauce adapted from the slaves. Dr. Walter Edgar told me that he traveled fifty miles to speak to a Camden Garden Club because he was promised five pounds of McCabe’s barbecue as his honorarium.
German immigrants settled in the Midlands of South Carolina, especially in the Dutch Fork area. Those families received land grants on the Broad, Congaree, Saluda, and Santee Rivers. They brought with them their Lutheran faith and their taste for spicy mustard, which soon found its way into barbecue sauce. Many people know Maurice Bessinger. His sauce is a staple in southern grocery stores.
Clare and I frequently return to her birthplace, Leesville, South Carolina. There we enjoy Shealy’s buffet and Jackie Hite’s pulled pork. As we travel to our family vacation on Pawley’s Island, we often stop at Wise in Newberry County and take a supply of their barbecue in an ice chest to the beach. For Clare and her kin only mustard-based barbecue is considered the real thing.
The third type of sauce is light tomato sauce made from vinegar and pepper with tomato ketchup added. It is the sauce famous in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. Lexington, North Carolina, is the acknowledged center for light tomato sauce.
North Carolina has declared the month of October as Barbecue Month. In the final two weeks of the month the town of Lexington hosts the Barbecue Festival. The last two Saturdays feature an annual North Carolina Championship Pork Cook-Off. Last year an estimated crowd of 150,000 attended the event. The popularity of light tomato barbecue has spread into the Pee Dee region of South Carolina.
The fourth variety is heavy red sauce featured by the Beacon Drive-In located in my hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina. I was in the place recently and witnessed two fellows from Pennsylvania reading the formidable menu. Dazed and confused by the array of choices, one asked me, “What are you having?”
“My favorite is an outside.” My answer didn’t help. They were more baffled than before. I showed it to them on the menu and explained.
“An outside is a barbecue sandwich. The meat is pulled from the outside of the pork shoulder, the part that has been basted and cooked to a mouthwatering crust. They put a little cole slaw on top and add heavy red sauce. If you don’t have gall bladder trouble, get an outside-a-plenty. They’ll cover up the sandwich with French fries and onion rings.”
“Is it really good?” he asked.
I noticed his Penn State sweatshirt. “You’ll be whistling ‘Dixie’ all the way back to Happy Valley.”
When Spartanburg native William Ball was Secretary of the Navy he asked John White, then owner of the Beacon, to cater a meal for three hundred sailors onboard a naval destroyer in the Mediterranean Sea. Beacon Barbecue was transported by helicopter to the ship.
The Beacon hosted the Inaugural Luncheon for Governor Donald Russell, a Spartanburg native, at the Governor’s Mansion in Columbia in 1963. Southern barbecue has been served to numerous Presidential candidates visiting the Beacon and to military personnel around the world. Southern Living, Sandlapper, and Gourmet are among the magazines to feature Beacon barbecue. Charles Kuralt broadcast a segment on the Beacon in his “On the Road” television series.
The popularity of heavy red sauce has spread throughout the nation because of the insatiable sweet tooth of the modern American. Heavy red is featured at Neely’s Barbecue in Memphis, Tennessee. Pat and Gina Neely have one of the most successful barbecue restaurants in the south. Their television program “Down Home with the Neelys,” is broadcast on the Food Channel. Pat happens to be African-American. My brother Bill visited the Memphis restaurant, and he and Pat figured out that we are all distant cousins.
When it comes to barbecue, most Southerners have an impassioned preference. Joe Crook, owner of Pig Out in Spartanburg County, offers his customers both a mustard-based and a tomato-based sauce. Harold Jennings, owner of Bull Hawg’s has developed his own special sauce that combines vinegar and tomato with other spices.
Preparing good Southern barbecue is a labor intensive endeavor. One characteristic of the best barbecue restaurants is that the owner can almost always be found on location. Before her death in 2011, Sarah Shealy was almost always at her cash register in Leesville checking out customers one by one just as John White did for so many years at the Beacon in Spartanburg. Jackie Hite, Joe Crook, and Harold Jennings take a hands-on approach to cooking the barbecue they serve. Clare and I have been impressed at the time, effort, and loving care these master chefs put into their work.
While good barbecue places are in high demand, some folks prefer to prepare and cook their own meat at home. Maurice Pace has a large homemade wood-burning cooker. On holidays he fires it up with split oak and hickory logs.
One November several years ago he issued an invitation. “Why don’t you come down the day before Thanksgiving, and we’ll smoke a few turkeys and barbecue some ribs?”
“I have a problem smoking turkeys,” I said.
“What’s the problem?”
“I can’t figure out which end to light!”