South Carolina Barbecue: A Few Thoughts

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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.


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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.


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The actual 'cue at Dukes in Walterboro occupies only one of over two dozen tubs.

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12 comments
Indiatours12
Indiatours12

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Brandon
Brandon

Cooking BBQ with wood is a lot harder/more expensive because you have to baby the coals and grill, unlike with gas where you can set the temperature and walk away for a few hours. Cooking with wood is still done for special occasions (like church picnics and fund raisers), but it doesn't make much economic sense to cook BBQ with wood on a full-time basis. So, if you want the real deal, look for community fund raisers...like the one happening this weekend (10/15/11) in Walterboro.

PSIf you were having BBQ in this region, it's almost a sin not to mention its local companion--hash. Or is that another post entirely?

greg
greg

JB's Smokeshack, sooo goood.

Emelie
Emelie

Next time you'll have to visit Greenville, SC and travel up to Western North Carolina too! Add these places to your list of places to visit: http://huntincampbbq.com/ (taxidermy and all) and my personal favorite: http://henryssmokehouse.com/. I'm frankly impressed that both have websites.

Bardndubois
Bardndubois

You missed Sweatman's!!!! And Lone Star (named for an old town) in Santee. J.B.'s Smoke House too!

Cheryl Smithem
Cheryl Smithem

OH, and J.B.'s Smokeshack on John's Island still uses wood to smoke their BBQ.

Cheryl Smithem
Cheryl Smithem

You missed getting over to Sweatman's in Holly Hill? That is a wonderful place where the do still use hardwood smokers. And then there's Moose's in Moncks Corner, SC. Both of those are wonderful, wood fired bbq joints. I love this video showing how they smoke BBQ at Sweatman's. http://youtu.be/MY4KHKOLITY

Peter Lindner
Peter Lindner

Hey, where in NYC (or on the web) can I buy a single bottle of mustard BBQ sauce (as opposed to a case)?

I love the taste of the mustard BBQ.

Rsietsema
Rsietsema

Wish I'd brought you along on the trip! Both were outside the region we'd selected, but doubtlessly worth visiting. I did make it to Hemingway (a place favored by John T Edge, the Lee Brothers, and Robb Walsh) on the next run, which will be chronicled next week.

Josh
Josh

Email me and I'll mail you as many bottles of locally-made mustard BBQ sauce as you can drink (the price will depend on exactly what you want).

cooper at math dot sc dot edu(That's U South Carolina in Columbia.  Go Gamecocks!)

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