South Carolina: Where it All began?
Note: On 2/27/2010 I began a major rewrite of this article with more detail and photos. I'll let you know in Smoke Signals when it is done.
I just got back from a "fact finding mission" to South Carolina where I spent a week of hitting barbecue joints at the rate of three or more a day. Then I was an "honorary" judge at the SCBA "Q Cup" in Columbia. A third year event run by Lake High and his friends, it sure is different from any other BBQ competition I've ever seen. Photos are here.
They judge whole hog, butts, and "anything butt". Almost every one of the 51 teams cooked a whole hog. The hogs come spatchcocked and decapitated (state law requires the head be removed I was told). Here's a typical carcass with rub at the start of the cook.
Barbecue in South Carolina is a noun. Ribs are ribs, not barbecue, and chicken, steak, or, heaven forbid, brisket, are definitely not barbecue in SC. Barbecue is not something you do. It is something you eat.
A few of the 51 teams cooked with charcoal or logs, but most used gas. Some teams cooked the hog skin side down through the whole cook, and some teams cooked the hog meat down for a while, and then skin down the rest of the night. Much of it sorta fries in the fat from the skin. All the meat is pulled and mixed together. Then it is served to the judges with sauce, typically vinegar and pepper or mustard based. So it's really a sauce judging more than a meat judging. There was minimal smoke flavor. Here's what the meat looked like before being put in the "blind box" for judging. This guy, Pete Price of Confederate Cookers, a man has won several awards in the past, told me "Barbecue ain't barbecue without sauce. Otherwise it's just baked pork."
The rib meat is mixed in with all the rest. Here's what I saw several teams do with the ribs.
To their credit, there is no garnish in the judging boxes. No worrying about whether it is red tipped or any of that KCBS nonsense. The judges seemed earnest and knowledgeable about the local styles of barbecue, and SCBA is really devoted to promoting SC as a barbecue power to be reckoned with. I think they need to have two categories, "with sauce" and "without sauce" before the best judges will take them seriously.
The event is open to the public and for $10 they get to taste the barbecue from as many teams as they wish. Nice idea, but alas, beer is not allowed on the premises. One of the more popular features was the Robert E. Lee, the car driven by the Dukes of Hazard.
Since ribs are my specialty, I sought them out when I toured the state. The best ribs I had were at Belly's in Lexington, just west of Columbia. Tom Shealey serves perfectly cooked spares, tips attached, and served with only a dry rub. You can see how the place got its name by clicking here.
In other restaurants, many ribs were served cut, not in slabs, and sauced. The sauces, which I loved, are thin, so they soak right in down to the bone so you can hardly taste the pork.
The coolest place I visited was Jackie Hite's. He has two screened-in sheds attached to his restaurant. One for cooking hogs on three large cinderblock sand bottom pits that are fired with coals made from logs that he burns down outside until they are embers. Alas, I arrived too late on Friday after he had removed the hogs.
The other shed is for "hash" a local specialty that I fell in love with. The recipe varies from place to place, but it typically is a stew of ground barbecue pork, pork liver, onion, and mustard sauce, served over rice. Think of it as runny sausage. Hite has two huge cast iron cauldrons in which he cooks his hash, about 70 gallons.
He sells the most unusual ribs I have ever seen. Loin backs with the skin still on! He serves the most amazing cracklins I have ever tasted!
As with most SC barbecue restaurants, he serves his pork on a buffet. The buffets typically contain barbecue, hash, cracklins, fried okra, hush puppies, macaroni and cheese, very sweet sweet potatoes, creamy cole slaw, canned corn, corn bread, fried chicken, fried chicken gizzards, banana pudding, and of course, sweet tea. All for $8.95-9.95.
Hites, like many of the best barbecue joints in SC, is open only three days a week: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. "People just don't eat out much Sunday through Wednesday, I guess" one restaurateur told me. Apparently the tradition stems from the old days when farmers would work the fields Monday through Wednesday, open a small barbecue shack on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and go to church and spend the day with family on Sunday. Probably cooking barbecue...
I visited at least 20 other joints, and the best food was at Belly's Southern Pride owned by Tom Shealy, 671 Smith Pond Rd., Lexington SC 29072, 803-356-8284.
Some others I liked:
Henry's Smokehouse, 240 Wade Hampton Blvd., Greenville, SC 29609. Other locations: Woodruff Rd in Greenville and Simpsonville.
Sweatman's, Holly Hill near Orangeburg.
One of these days I'll put together more complete reviews.
Here are some links that will help you find the best:
• SCBBQ. A pretty complete list of barbecue joints in South Carolina has grown to include other states.
• Discover South Carolina. A website with a guide to all sorts of restaurants in SC has a nice list of barbecue joints.
• Barbecue Is A Noun
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