The Important of BBQ in the South
Author: Courtney Hampson | Photographer: M.Kat Photography
Shortly after moving to South Carolina, my new boss pulled me aside for what he referred to as a “come to Jesus meeting.” We don’t have those in New Jersey, so I was very anxious—and laden with trepidation—to see what this meeting would consist of. He plied me with sweet tea as we rocked on a porch, overlooking the May River, and told me the ways of the world. His world. In the South. One in which I was an outcast. Certainly not a local. Clearly out of sorts.
He talked to me about being “more Southern” (to which I replied, “Um, I’m from New Jersey”) and proceeded to school me on the ways of the South. Politics. Religion. Attitude. Pace. Food. You name it. I got the Cliff Notes version of how to fit in here.
I listened. I nodded enthusiastically After all, he was my boss. And I promptly ignored most of what he said. You can’t make someone something they are not. He could not force me to become Southern. I had to get there on my own. And, I did. (Fun fact, I have his job now.)
Food was a topic I chose to explore on my own; however, his words continue to echo in my head.
“Let’s get one thing straight, right off the bat: ‘Barbecue’ is a noun. It refers to the end product of slow-roasting pork, not beef or shrimp or tofu or anything else, (an exception is made for chicken in the South) over hardwood coals. And it is spelled exactly as above, not BBQ, barbeque, Bar-B-Que or any of the dozens of others colloquialisms that have sprung up in various parts of the country over the years. Most people don’t make the distinction, but barbecue in the South—like football—is a religion!”
He told me that the best barbecue was served along the stretch of the East Coast from the Carolinas to Southern Virginia, despite the fact that “pretenders” from Memphis, Kansas City, and the entire state of Texas claim to have the best.
Now, in New Jersey, the word barbecue (or BBQ, or Bar-B-Que, or barbeque) is a verb meaning the act of throwing hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill. We’d barbecue to celebrate the start of summer on Memorial Day weekend, and again on Labor Day weekend as our short summer would come to a close (and as many other weekends as we could sandwich in between).
This was a stark contrast to Southern barbecue. My former boss and pseudo-teacher of the South postulated that “the true essence of cooking barbecue is the alchemy of fat dripping from the meat onto hot hardwood coals, then coming back up in the form of smoke. Hardwood smoke. But the coals can be only so hot, as the pork must ‘smoke’ and cook slowly, over a period of some hours.”
I didn’t quite understand this, but since eating is one of my favorite pastimes, I was not opposed to testing the theory. And, eat I have.
A couple of months ago, I had the opportunity to embed myself with John Lewis, of Lewis BBQ in Charleston (For another story. Yes, I scooped myself). Over the course of 24 hours, in the blazing sun, I watched and waited as he prepared smoked pork, beef ribs, “Texas hot guts” sausage, and his legendary beef brisket.
(What would my boss say? Brisket isn’t barbecue!) Folks waited in line for hours for their taste. And I quickly learned that maybe everything isn’t bigger in Texas. His ego was not. His ability to keep a secret (a secret recipe that is) was. Other than what I could decipher on the tip of my tongue, he wasn’t giving it up. And why should he? Lewis John grew up in El Paso, Texas, and began his culinary journey shortly after high school. It was 2010 when he made his return to Texas, Austin to be exact, and joined his friend Aaron Franklin as he opened Franklin Barbecue. Lewis pioneered the flavors that helped put Austin barbecue on the map. Later, he partnered with LeAnn Mueller to open the much-beloved La Barbecue in Austin in 2012. This fall, Lewis will bring his signature Texas flavor and texture to Charleston, South Carolina, as he opens Lewis Barbecue in the city’s emerging Upper Peninsula.
CHOO CHOO BBQ -Barbecue to go or stay on Burnt Church Road in Bluffton. THIS PINK PIG Welcomes guests to Bluffton BBQ at its Old Town location in the Promenade.
The aforementioned Franklin BBQ is something of an institution in Austin, despite its youth. Aaron Franklin won the James Beard Best Chef Southwest award this year, and Franklin BBQ has topped Bon Appetit’s top barbecue list.
While traveling in Austin last year with some fellow foodies, we did our research and discovered a pre-order policy at Franklin BBQ. A good thing, because the average wait at Franklin can easily top three hours. So, we pre-ordered a sampling (and by sampling I mean pounds) of everything on the menu. We were assigned a pick-up window of fifteen minutes, which seemed like eons. But, we quickly (and almost too late) learned that when you’re trying to make it from the Hill Country on the outskirts of town to Austin proper, a 15 minute window needs to be 45. When we hit traffic, the race was on. We white knuckled it with questionable driving practices and hearts pounding as we simultaneously envisioned the disappointment on our colleagues’ faces if we came back empty handed. We arrived at Franklin BBQ with seconds to spare. I pulled to the curb, where there was already a line of hundreds snaked as far as the eye could see, pushed (literally) my colleague David out the car, and waited with bated breath (and a little drool on my chin). When he emerged with the goods, it was only then that I could fully exhale. Soon we proceeded to inhale—every last bit of it.
As I have worked diligently to taste-test my way through barbecue, I have learned that it is so much more than a flavor profile. Like everything great about the South, it is the stories that make it rich, and personal. And I’ve found that every pit master and barbecue joint has his own story, process, secret, recipe—all rooted in place. Including Lewis, and Franklin.
I haven’t ever had bad barbecue, but I have had plenty of educational moments along the way. At Dreamland BBQ in Birmingham, I don’t remember the meat as much as the loaves of self-serve white bread. Similarly at Carolina BBQ, just outside Highlands, North Carolina, it is all about the sauce, and of course the study of license plates on the walls.
And right here at home, at Bluffton BBQ (where I had lunch yesterday, for the millionth time), the pulled pork is killer; you always see someone you know (like, seriously, every time); and my C2 “Line in the Sand” counterpart, Barry Kaufman will tell you that the best ribs in the world come out of that smoker. But I secretly love the fact that Ted Huffman’s sassy quips are even sweeter than the sauce. “If you like our butts, you’ll love our racks.” “If we have it, you will get it. If this doesn’t suit you, I suggest you get your order to go.” Utter brilliance, and I am a customer for life.
Chef Brandon Carter, partner in the soon-to-be-revealed Farm restaurant in the Promenade is passing time, while restaurant construction powers ahead, curating a calendar of barbecue. With smoker in tow, his Burn Box Social project is a “traveling pop up barbeque” (that’s right with a Q), that marries the Farm folks’ favorite places in the Lowcountry with good people too. “The idea around Burn Box Social is to get people together—people we know and hopefully some new friends too. To enjoy each other’s company and forge new relationships, barbeque is the vehicle for that,” Carter said. “Barbecue in the South is about tradition and foodways. It’s about recipes passed down from generation to generation. It symbolizes the commitment and dedication that is the Southern dinner table. In a world filled with instant access and immediate gratification, good barbecue is something that doesn’t compromise. Slow and low is the tempo.”
“Slow and low.” Wouldn’t my former boss be happy with that statement? Barbecue is certainly about the process, but perhaps what I really love about barbecue is the authentic nature of the people. I haven’t met a pitmaster who isn’t real: true to the craft, but even more true to self. And by that, I mean you get what you see. And, damn I love that.
My day job at Palmetto Bluff has afforded me the opportunity to be a part of the Music to Your Mouth Festival. Perhaps my favorite personality of the hundreds who have participated is Rodney Scott. Scott, pitmaster and proprietor of Scott’s Bar-B-Q in Hemingway, South Carolina said, “We only cook with wood.
And I’m so sure that we only cook with wood because we go out and chop it ourselves.” Monday through Wednesday, you’ll find Scott cutting down trees and chopping wood. Thursday through Saturday, he burns wood down into the coals that he uses to cook a half-dozen whole hogs every night. The first time Scott participated in Music to Your Mouth, he pulled up alongside the Village Green in his worse-for-wear pick-up truck and started unloading his equipment, which included a boom box circa 1985, and a burn barrel, which looked exactly as it sounds—a burnt out, how-the-heck-has-this-thing-not-disintegrated barrel, and started stacking wood (that he cut, of course). The juxtaposition of the luxury of Palmetto Bluff and Scott’s traditions were startling at first, but soon I realized, that it was that very essence of “what the heck is going on here” that made what he was about to do all the more intriguing. He manned that burn barrel, from a lawn chair, listening to music, for 24 hours. And when it was it time for him to shine, oh, did he: melt-in-your-mouth pulled pork, cracklin’s and white bread, among a canopy of live oaks, dripping in Spanish moss, swaying in the May River breeze. That’s pretty darn close to true love right there.
I guess I owe a debt of gratitude to said boss. In print, he typically went by an alias, Cal A. Mari, so I shall give him his due. And honestly, I must admit that much of what he spoke in that original come to Jesus meeting (which, I now know, means you screwed up and we are going to right the ship) has eventually been useful to me. I now drink my tea sweet. I understand that I’ll get more bees with honey. I know that “bless her heart” is really a euphemism for “what is wrong with that broad.” I know that my fast pace can be overwhelming to some. And that my edit button is more suitably programmed these days.
Most important, I concur that barbecue is indeed a noun, and certainly a food group.
Where to get your Barbecue
11 State of Mind Street, The Promenade
Burn Box Social from the folks at Farm
Follow their Facebook page for pop-up locations
Choo Choo BBQ- Xpress
129 Burnt Church Road
KIND OF IN BLUFFTON
(But Not Really)
The Pink Pig
3508 South Okatie Hwy, Hardeeville
ON HILTON HEAD ISLAND
3 Regency Parkway
One Hot Mama’s
7 Greenwood Drive
34 Palmetto Bay Road