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.

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