clock menu more-arrow no yes
Nick Solares

Filed under:

Barbecue As Social Theory

A night and a day at Scott's Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, South Carolina

If you buy something from an Eater link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics policy.

R

odney Scott is in his element. Humming along to Booker T. & the MGs’ swinging-sixties deep-organ hit "Green Onions" as he starts in with the salt. Arm extended high, shaking grains on down over the charred pigs in rhythm to Al Jackson, Jr.’s hi-hat beat. In comes the bassist’s caveman stomp—thump-thump, thump-thump, thump—and now he’s bobbing his head while dashing red pepper flakes with his right hand, cayenne from his left. The music, the pitmaster are heating up now. He’s dancing around the pit, the pig his partner, as the capsicum ignites, exploding invisible tendrils of spice across the room. "Yeah!" Booker signals another chord progression and Steve Cropper’s guitar solo winds its way through the smoke. On cue, the pitmaster reaches for black pepper and a second, unmarked container. Shaking. Now Rodney grabs a mop and painter’s bucket full of sauce. He swabs the pig once, twice, again; calls this "spreading the love around." The taste of vinegar shimmies into the air, while the sauce simmers in the hog’s cavity, staining the meat a bright curried orange. The original drum thump and organ bounce shift back in, and he’s working the flesh with a serving spoon, scooping the tender meat in on itself to let the sauce soak down to the skin. Booker cools down. As the next track starts to play, the pitmaster moves on to the next hog.

On my most recent visit to Scott’s Bar-B-Que, the South Carolina interstate touted a brand-new breed of billboard advertisements: a slick, tourism-department-sponsored branding of the state’s patchwork barbecue culture. "So Close You Can Taste It," read one. "Family Friendly. Foodie Approved," ran another. Others made feeble attempts at e-coolness: "BBQ You’ll Blog About" and "#SCBBQ." Many of the billboards featured smiling faces—a carefully selected show of racial and generational diversity—gazing adoringly at barbecue sandwiches or a mess of chopped pork. All of the billboards encouraged viewers to visit a website that offered a South Carolina BBQ Trail Map, which featured more than two hundred restaurants scattered throughout all three corners of the isosceles-shaped state and incited eaters to "bite into the birthplace of BBQ."

Maurice Bessinger, the grand wizard of South Carolina barbecue, had passed away two months earlier, on February 22, 2014, at the age of eighty-three. The billboards appeared to be reckoning with the man’s legacy, the state’s sad racial history, and the complex state of affairs concerning anything and everything barbecue. They welcomed eaters to a new era in South Carolina barbecue, encouraged visitors to sit at a table that could be inclusive, peaceful, and fun.

The state tourism board probably could have simplified their ad campaign, while saving a bit of money in the process and still hitting all those sweet notes of heterogeneity and trend-surfing, by posting images of Rodney Scott, the modern face of not only South Carolina barbecue, not just whole-hog barbecue, but, arguably, an entire nation of barbecue-obsessed citizens. Owner and pitmaster of Scott’s Bar-B-Que, Rodney makes South Carolina barbecue enjoyable again.

It starts with the music, blasted full volume through the graveyard shift and into the next afternoon. Rodney’s mixtapes stream from a grease-cloaked stereo and speakers linked to an iPod that lies safely tucked inside a Styrofoam takeout container. His musical wanderings take him from Motown to Nashville via the Bronx with a stop at every Chitlin’ Circuit juke joint in between.

In most every pit house and restaurant kitchen I’ve stepped foot into the stereo acts as so much white noise, thankfully present but omnipresent and often forgotten. But Rodney’s pit-house-curated playlists fuel the pitmaster and his crew of helpers and hangers-on during the relentless hours of strength-sapping work; like fire and smoke, they are just another ingredient in the hog-cooking process. James Brown keeps them awake. KC and the Sunshine Band, another favorite, makes them dance and sing along. The voices and rhythmic pulses of Hall and Oates, the Notorious B.I.G., and hundreds of others seem to somehow seep into the barbecue, marinate the meat. I imagine that this is the epitome of soul food. Soul + food.

But Rodney’s stereo also acts as a beacon of sorts, a welcome sign or clarion call to anyone within earshot. And here in Hemingway, the quietest of whole-hog towns (population 444), sound travels far and wide. Dot, the lady who lives across and down the highway from Scott’s, once told Rodney she can "hear y’all partying from the pit." But she never calls to complain about the volume, the cops never show to shut the place down. Everybody around these parts knows that anyone and everyone is invited to his party.

He is young, gifted, and, to complete the Nina Simone lyric and civil rights anthem, black. And in the culture of southern barbecue, post-Bessinger barbecue, South Carolina might just need a hero who looks and acts like Rodney Scott.

If cooking whole hogs was an Olympic sport—and there is no reason it shouldn’t be—Rodney Scott would be our gold medalist. In tiny Hemingway he stands as a barbecue giant. Rodney has the larger-than-life aura of a man who could be famous for doing something other than cooking hogs, combined with the modest attitude of a guy with whom you’d actually like to eat barbecue.

The first time I met Rodney, two years earlier, he was chatting up a pair of fashionably arranged women who had driven the two hours from Charleston just to taste his barbecue. Besides putting up with the groupies (myself included), Rodney juggled a pair of cell phones, an older model and a new number that rang with Hollywood producers anxious to build a reality and/or travel show around him and his extended circle (he eventually demurred with a polite no, objecting that his life lacked the necessary drama to make interesting television). Rodney represents the future of barbecue and projected the air of a superstar just waiting to be discovered—everybody knows it, and everybody wants a piece.

As the women admired Rodney’s forearms—brawny and fire scarred—he autographed for them a pair of Scott’s Bar-B-Que T-shirts, the backs of which bear the pitmaster’s barbecuing motto: "It’s All Wood." Wood is the secret ingredient at Scott’s. The secret is not in the lumber itself—all real whole-hog pitmasters use hardwoods to heat their pits—but in the act of sourcing the fuel. If Rodney Scott ever found it necessary to carry a business card, his occupation should read: "Scott’s Bar-B-Que Owner, Professional Pitmaster, and Amateur Arborist." Rodney rarely purchases wood, instead procuring it from the backyards and forested byways in and surrounding Hemingway. Area home and business owners know: if you have a tree that has fallen or needs help felling, call Scott’s.

"You cut it down. You cut it up. You burned it. You know what you got, what you’re using, and it’s no question of what’s in it."

Rodney, like most tradition-sticking pitmasters, outlaws charcoal from his premises, but unlike most, he considers cutting down a tree the first step in the whole-hog process. "Cut, chop, cook," he likes to repeat as a Zen-like mantra, mirroring the language of modern, conscious food consumers (local, organic, sustainable) who might not only be on a first-name basis with their farmers, but can recite the name—and breed, health status, etc.—of the chicken that delivered their morning egg. "You know exactly what’s going on," Rodney told me. "You cut it down. You cut it up. You burned it. You know that that’s a tree that came from the road by the big oak tree. You know what you got, what you’re using, and it’s no question of what’s in it." This is wood as food, and the workweek starts with the chainsaw’s snarl.

One early July morning I joined Rodney and his father, Rosie (short for Roosevelt), for this first part of the cooking process. A pair of employees had called asking their boss for some tree-cutting support. This was the first clear day after three weeks of constant rain—accompanying storms had toppled trees across the region—and a soggy patch of ground was proving problematic in tackling some timber that needed help coming down.

"How many barbecue places you seen sharpen their own chainsaws?" he laughed while honing the teeth of his stump cutter. We piled into his father’s battered and dust-washed white pickup truck—its inspection sticker long expired—and drove west toward the town of Stuckey.

"Wealthy folk around here," Rodney said as we pulled into the driveway of your typical suburban brick-faced home (it actually belonged to the Stuckey family for which this town was named). His workers stood, arms akimbo, sizing up a rangy live oak, its limbs twisting in several directions to span as wide as the tree stood tall. He introduced the men as Sonny Boy and Bo Diddley—yes, like the blues musicians—and asked if they had been drinking. Sonny Boy said no and sheepishly explained that he had split the tree’s base halfway before it tilted forward a few inches to rest against another tree.

"Two-dollar tree cutters," Rodney griped back while yanking on a neon orange hard hat with attached ear mufflers. He cartwheeled his arms like a baseball pitcher warming up, yanked the rope to jumpstart his chainsaw, and disappeared into the overgrowth that surrounded the oak. We could hear him buzz-cut the tree’s low-hanging branches, clearing space to maneuver around the trunk. He started sawing opposite of Sonny’s wedge cut, throwing an arc of wood chips and sawdust high into the air until his own segment grew to just barely meet the first. The tree teetered on a pencil-thin lip of wood. Rodney pushed against the lean until the oak creaked on its axis in the reverse direction to rest, absurdly, against another tree. The two bluesmen and I did our best to suppress our laughter, while Rosie guffawed loudly.

Suddenly, with a scream and crash, Rodney scrambled from the bramble. A chicken snake, harmless but terrifying at more than five feet in length and thicker than my forearm, slithered from a hole near the newly stumped tree. Now we all followed Rosie’s lead, doubled over and cackling. Rodney said, "I don’t like this one bit," and sent Sonny Boy in to finish the tree. Rodney, Rosie, and I drove to our next destination, a wind-fallen pecan tree limb on a property several miles away.

Three hours after first setting out, we returned with a trailer and truck load of wood, a week’s worth of barbecuing fuel. Sonny Boy and Bo Diddley unceremoniously tossed the logs into a sprawling junkyard of oak, hickory, and pecan that spread in seven different directions. Blood-smeared ID tags, once pinned to the trotters of hogs, littered the dirt. One read 137 in black ink, others 147, 144, 146: the weights of hogs, slaughtered, dressed, and delivered from a nearby abattoir.

Blood-smeared ID tags, once pinned to the trotters of hogs, littered the dirt. One read 137 in black ink, others 147, 144, 146: the weights of hogs, slaughtered, dressed, and delivered from a nearby abattoir.

Despite the salvage-yard aesthetic, there was order to the woodpile’s chaos, an intent and purpose in the preparation of coals. "The pecan gets hot quicker," Rodney explained. "The hickory wood stays hot a little longer. And the oak stays chunkier, thicker—nice smoke flavor to it. So out of those three, you got your instant heat, your steady heat, and then your big flavorful coals." Here, there is an art to the science of fire making.

Rodney’s son Dominic, a lanky teenager, sat on a wide stump dividing chunks of wood with the aid of a hydraulic log splitter. Off to the side, an older gentleman with time-wrinkled cheeks and a grizzled beard cut timber with an ax. After a few more strokes, noting my interest, he pointed to a broad piece of wood and handed me the ax. This was not like the handy branch splitter I used in Cub Scouts. This ax must have weighed thirty pounds. Its handle measured a good four inches around, its head a solid wedge of black steel. It looked and felt like a weapon straight out of Game of Thrones. The axman wasn’t much bigger than myself: I could do this. I squared my feet, hips, and shoulders, aimed for the log’s centermost growth ring, and gave the ax my mightiest swing.

Sproing! The ax bounced off the wood’s surface like Elmer Fudd striking a rubber tree, setting off a vibration that rumbled through my hands before tremoring through my entire body. The man was nice enough not to laugh.

This was Rodney’s uncle Sam, whom everyone, blood relations or not, calls Uncle Sam. Though he’s retired and doesn’t keep regular hours at Scott’s, Uncle Sam is Rodney’s right-hand man; he often lingers behind the scenes and almost always accompanies his nephew to cook at out-of-state events. Sweet and good-humored, he speaks, like his sister Ella, Rodney’s mother, in a soft lilt that sounds vaguely Jamaican, a singsong accent that manifested, somewhere down the family line, from the Gullah language spoken by, until recently, isolated African American communities that populate the coast and sea islands of the Carolinas and Georgia. Rodney teases that Sam just "swings an ax for a living" but privately and pridefully relates tales of his uncle wowing crowds at carnivals while driving the hammer at the strongman game. Last time they visited the state fair together, Rodney, no ax-swinging slouch himself, left after winning two teddy bears for his girlfriend, while his uncle kept on swinging—a modern day John Henry, ringing the bell over and over again.

Uncle Sam retrieved the ax from my still-aching hands and sliced through a few more logs while offering pointers. Use your entire body for power to build momentum in your chop. Follow through with your wrists to drive through the wood. Don’t miss. I gave it another swing. I missed. I tried again. And again. I tried until I could not raise my arms overhead. Frustrated and tired, I felt emasculated, unmanly. I quit and handed the weapon back to Sam. Dented and bruised from my meager blows, the log seemed to mock me just by sitting there, intact and whole. This time Uncle Sam laughed.

Ax in hand, Sam lined up for the kill and smashed the log squarely on its head. The ax ricocheted back. "Save you for later," he whispered to the log while stroking its bark. "Throw you in just like that later on." For a moment I felt redeemed, but returning to the woodpile later that night, and later that weekend, and the year following, and the year after, I have yet to get that ax to work properly.Whether split, chopped, or thrown into the fire whole, each scrap of oak, hickory, and pecan ends up in one of Scott’s three imposing burn barrels. The barrels are salvaged from abandoned gas tanks that Rodney unearths—typically while hauling away donated lumber—from local family farms that have gone belly-up over the past couple generations. The barrels are a brilliant but simple feat of engineering. The cylindrical drums stand upright, six feet tall, their tops lopped open to receive chunks of wood. Just below their midsections, a misshapen ring of fist-sized holes puncture the sides of each barrel. Truck axles poke out from these openings, like toothpicks in a potato, five in all, which trap the logs, keeping them suspended. Once set ablaze, the wood smolders slowly, forcing the resulting embers to drop between the axles to fall to the barrel’s base. There, a square hole has been cut from which the freshly formed charcoal is ready to be shoveled out and into the nearby pits. Above this fire door, three larger holes are carved into the side to resemble a face. Throughout the night, with the aid of a long metal pole, the fire is stoked by violently driving this shaft up and down, like using a water pump, causing more coals—redder, hotter coals—to fall to the floor.

Aglow and burning with flame, the barrel looks very much alive: a creature vomiting fire and ash, its head emitting sparks that loft ten feet high to singe the leaves of overhanging trees.

The genius of the burn barrel’s design has been recently replicated by businesses and backyard pitmasters nationwide, while its image has become an iconic facet of the Scott’s experience. Over time, the repurposed gas tanks warp and melt under the intense heat. Aglow and burning with flame, the barrel looks very much alive: a creature vomiting fire and ash, its head emitting sparks that loft ten feet high to singe the leaves of overhanging trees. At night, and especially during those evenings when the mercury drops to lows that make holding a cold brew a bitter and unwelcome act, Scott’s pit workers huddle around the barrel, often joined by other men from the community who sometimes arrive full of drink stronger, warmer than beer. These men lend a helping hand—splitting wood, shoveling coals, telling good stories and great lies. They sit circling the barrel as if worshipping an angry three-eyed god who stands waiting, waiting, waiting for its sacrificial offering.

For Rodney Scott, these fireside gatherings define barbecue more than meat and sauce. For him, barbecue is a place, a space for people to commune. When asked for his definition of barbecue, instead of repeating the dogmatic "barbecue is a whole hog cooked over wood coals," Rodney offered a twist. Barbecue is "a gathering," he told me, "because you rarely find an event without a grill or somebody who is barbecuing or grilling. And, of course, for us it’s been a business as well, but we still try to interact with our people in the community to kind of remind them that it’s just a laid-back type of thing."

This was barbecue as social theory, barbecue as something deeper than barbecue. This was a pitmaster moving toward the development of a philosophy of barbecue. A barbecue is "a reunion," he emphasized, "a party for everybody to come and join in and enjoy each other’s company." He’s right. Nobody grills alone, no publishing houses are rushing to release a cookbook titled Going Solo at the Pit or The Pleasures of Barbecuing for One.

And at Scott’s, unlike most pit houses, no one ever works alone. There are always at least two men on the clock. Oftentimes, I’ve noticed over the years, I cannot distinguish the employees—an amorphous network of relatives and neighbors—from those gathered here just to be here, to join the circle around the burn barrel, to enjoy one another’s company.

That unseen but understood welcome sign extends to visitors from outside the community. No one has ever chased me away at Scott’s, no one has ever told me not to print this or photograph that. In fact, Rodney welcomes visitors to tour his smokehouse, to take pictures (which he’ll pose for) and ask questions (which he’ll do his best to answer above the din of the stereo’s speakers). "My whole business plan is to let them share my world," he told me. "Food, music, family."

This is open-source barbecue, barbecue as social leveler.

Rodney might not tell you what’s in his barbecue sauce (in my opinion, some of the best that’s ever come into contact with pork), but his pit hands won’t stop you from daring to peek into the tall stockpot of liquid simmering on a portable propane stove. A whiff and a glance will tell you all you need to know to replicate a close approximation at home: vinegar, great scoopfuls of red and black pepper, and, the secret ingredient, lemon slices.

To showcase the transparency of his pits, the openness with which he operates, Rodney challenged me to "name one time you were standing by a grill and someone didn’t ask you a question." Did you marinate it? What’d you put on it? Where you from? How do you cook where you’re from? The barbecue pit was our nation’s first office water cooler, a safe space for convening and conversation, a site that harkens back to our love affair with fire: gathering around the fire, seeking warmth at the fire, talking near the fire, staring contemplatively into the fire. And what better fire than this: a fire that provides enough work for at least two and usually many more men; a fire that will guarantee enough meat to feed all who could possibly gather; a fire that assures time to sit and think over enough hours in which to dissect the universe.

What better fire to unite, to bring a community together, than a whole-hog fire.

Excerpted from The One True Barbecue: Fire, Smoke, and the Pitmasters Who Cook the Whole Hog, published by Touchstone Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Copyright © 2016 by Rien Fertel
Rien Fertel is a Louisiana-born-and-based writer, historian, and teacher who grew up washing dishes and busing tables in his family’s chain of restaurants. While earning a PhD in history, he spent four years on the road documenting barbecue for the Southern Foodways Alliance. He lives in New Orleans.
Photos by Nick Solares

News

The Largest Meal Kit Company in America Could Be the First to Unionize

Recipes

A Vibrant BLT Salad That Makes the Most of Summer Tomatoes

COVID-19

The Great Shortage

Sign up for the Sign up for the Eater newsletter

The freshest news from the food world every day