South Carolina Barbecue: A Few Thoughts
Like the sign says, Dukes Bar-B-Q in Walterboro, South Carolina. The pig on the front lawn isn't real, but the people are.
In two trips to South Carolina in the last decade, I've spent much of my time crisscrossing the state and looking at the barbecue there. Yes, sometimes just looking at it.
Mustard-based sauces are still king in the corner of South Carolina we traversed.
That's because I maintain a strict definition of barbecue. First and foremost, it must be based on hardwood, or, in a second-best scenario, charcoal. In other words, the meat -- whether it be pork, beef, mutton, or chicken -- must be imbued with smoke that comes from wood, giving it a serious pink smoke ring, and a savor that only smoldering wood can confer.
Carolina 'cue is one of the country's greatest barbecue traditions, an important part of a list that includes the BBQ styles of Texas, Memphis, Kansas City, and Kentucky. It's based on whole pigs smoked long in the pit (originally, a real pit, later an aboveground smoker), and then shredded, or "pulled," and doused with a vinegar-based sauce, primarily in North Carolina. In South Carolina, there's an equally marvelous tradition of mustard-based sauces. Where did these come from? Well, while the mustard that Central Texans put on their hamburgers is undoubtedly of German origin, I believe the derivation of the South Carolina barbecue sauce is probably French.
The whole pig concept is an interesting one. The pigs tend to be small (around 150 pounds in many cases), but even so, the smoke only penetrates the outer layers, so there are masses of pork inside that don't get very smoky. Of course, pulling the pork means that the gradient of smokiness is well-distributed, though at some places it seems like the smokiest parts on the outside (sometimes called "brown" or "Mister Brown") are withheld.
The lower level of smokiness at Carolina barbecues, and lack of cheap hardwood, has meant that many of the establishments have converted to using gas or electricity and no wood at all. Which is why, when I approach a place I might potentially eat at, I go around the back and see if there's any evidence of wood or charcoal. At N.C. places like Wilber's in Goldsboro, or Allen & Son in Chapel Hill, wood splinters, logs, and ash are everywhere, and the smell of smoke perfumes the air. Hence, the nose is also a good guide as to whether you want to try a place or not.
The actual 'cue at Dukes in Walterboro occupies only one of over two dozen tubs.
Fried entities now constitute a major portion of the southeast South Carolina barbecue buffet, this one in Walterboro.
Anyway, after spending a day dashing between the barbecues of Charleston (some better than so-so, all offering traditional mustard sauce, but having a lot more ketchup-based sauces), I "lit out for the territories," as Huck might say. The object of my curiosity was the region between Charleston and Augusta, Georgia. On paper, at least, there were dozens upon dozens of places in the area. That paper, by the way, was a 1997 paperback publication called The Palmetto State Glove Box Guide to Bar-B-Que published by BBQ Digest. I supplemented that with more recent info on Yelp and other consumer websites, which turned out to be good for listings, but clueless when it came to culinary analysis.
The landscape I traversed with friend and fellow critic Melissa McCart was one of scrub pine forest interspersed with cotton fields and the occasional soybean acreage. Towns were well-spaced and of Victorian vintage, often arrayed along the railroad tracks, and with alliterating names like Branchville, Bamberg, Blackville, Denmark, and Barnwell. Almost all had towering cotton gins, but only one appeared to be still operating. The cotton was just ripening, and vast fields of puffy bolls on rust-brown stalks delighted the eye. In some fields, crews of Mexican laborers were seen working the fields. In Blackville, we drove by a frame general store with a rickety front porch. Guys sitting on the porch craned their necks as our car went by, like a picture taken by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, or Russell Lee in the 1930s.
Each town is listed as having from one to four barbecues; half the places we drove by were either permanently closed or seemingly disappeared from the face of the earth. The most heartrending example was Tommy Rose Barbecue in Bamberg, of which this promising description was written in the 1997 guide: "For 20 years Tommy and Rose Hutto have cooked barbecue. They've owned this place for three. Tommy built it complete with a custom pit he uses to mesquite smoke his hams and shoulders before serving them with mustard and ketchup based sauces. They're located right on the highway and Tommy says people drive by and smell that meat cooking and you're lucky to find a seat."
Of the places we spotted still operating, nearly all were from the Dukes chain -- a loosely held franchise that traces its roots to a famed pitmaster of the late 19th century. The franchise mounts a half-dozen barbecues in this area, and a half-dozen in the coastal lowlands. We sampled the one in Walterboro, a pleasant-enough place with a life-size statue of a large pig on the front lawn, and two capacious dining rooms, one with a wild-boar head mounted on the wall. The establishment unapologetically uses gas in the barbecue pits, of which there were two around back.
The salad component of the buffet line at Dukes.
The Dukes in Bamberg was a lot like the Dukes in Walterboro, but with different signage. Like many barbecues in the Carolinas, it's open only on weekends.
Inside, as is the practice in this sort of barbecue, we found a long buffet of hot and cold items. There were hush puppies, fried okra, Jell-O salads with baby marshmallows, good fried chicken, canned peaches, oily-tasting mac and cheese, mayo coleslaw, broad beans and other canned vegetables, and a single tray of pulled-pork 'cue. There were over two dozen offerings in all, plus trays of such desserts as vanilla wafer banana pudding and canned-fruit cobbler. Next to the pork was a tray of deep fried cracklin's (pig skin), and in a notable anomaly, there was also a tray of freshly cooked potato chips, which were one of the best things in the place. The roughly pulled pork had a nice porky flavor, but almost no detectable smoke. It was good anyway. Loaves of white bread were on every table, and two big bins on the steam table held two mustard sauces -- one hot and sweet, one just sweet.
When we reached Bamberg, South Carolina, we found another Dukes. It had quite a different sign, making us think it might be unrelated. We were on the way inside, when we paused to look in the window and ... we saw a nearly identical buffet as the one we'd just eaten at Walterboro. Instead of gorging there, two blocks south on North Main Street we consoled ourselves with a "chicken snack," consisting of two dark-meat pieces, potatoes, gravy, and a roll at a crossroads place called Little Howie's Burger and Chic. The bird was absolutely superb, crisp of its lightly dusted skin, and juicy as all get-out. I never hope to have chicken quite that good again. The place occupied a wooden building fronted with pine planking. No seating, just carryout.
By the time we saw another Dukes in Blackville, we knew enough to keep on driving. We'd called ahead to Edwards Bar-B-Que in Martin, and BMW in Williston, and learned that both were closed, by using a cell phone when one of the few reception hot spots appeared.
Sadly, the only barbecue to use hardwood in the area was permanently closed -- Tommy Rose, just west of Bamberg.
Little Howie's in Bamberg turns out some amazing fried chicken -- has poultry permanently replaced pork in the popular diet in this part of South Carolina?
Here's what Little Howie's chicken snack looks like.
Next we went down to Barnwell, a good-size town at the confluence of several highways, and a place that seemed to have once had a couple of textile mills, now derelict. King's Barbeque -- a place that also served ribs, had a pair of vinegar-based sauces, and used charcoal for smoke -- was missing from its foundation, but further up the road, across from the Walmart, we spied Hogg Heaven. Once again, a buffet line with the usual, including some very good fried chicken, some not-very-good finely pulled pork that had a vinegar sauce and a cat-foody taste, but some pretty good ribs that had been long in the gas cooker, if not in the smoker.
Evening was approaching, so we headed back to Charleston. On the way we speculated: Who was murdering the barbecues of southeast South Carolina? And why had Dukes triumphed, while independent operators had fizzled? Could it be that using wood or charcoal had become economically infeasible?
It was clear enough that there were plenty of fried-chicken places of relatively recent vintage. Could it be that the price of pork had driven restaurateurs to chicken instead? In a down economy, it was obvious that the buffet at Dukes, with prices set at $10 or $11 for all you can eat, and a full range of locally popular dishes, was a model that appealed to cotton-country diners.
Or could it be that, once the wood smoke was subtracted through use of gas-fired pits, the barbecue was no longer all that appealing, and the public gradually abandoned it?
A plate from the buffet at Hogg Heaven in Barnwell
Part 2 Next Week: Barbecues in Charleston and Northward
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