It can take up to 24 hours to cook a whole hog. For Rodney Scott, pitmaster at Rodney Scott’s BBQ in Charleston, it’s usually around 12. That’s 12 hours spent in a sweltering room tending to a splayed pig as it smokes over a wood-fired barbecue pit. But Scott, who has been cooking whole hogs since childhood, doesn’t mind the time, or the heat. “It’s a subtle moment, that you get to enjoy 12 secluded hours while you’re cooking,” he says. “It’s something special, like spending time with old friends that you don’t get to spend a lot of time with.”
In May, Scott won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast, marking just the second time a pitmaster secured the award for best chef (the first was Aaron Franklin, who was named Best Chef: Southwest in 2015). That the James Beard Awards crowned Scott for a restaurant that specializes in whole hog barbecue made the achievement all the more remarkable.
Whole hog barbecue stands apart from other barbecue styles. It’s intimately tied to tradition, earning a distinction as a regional food that hasn’t really spread much outside Tennessee and the Carolinas. And while anyone from these regions is likely familiar with with the nuances of whole hog barbecue, most outside of the South may wonder what the fuss is all about.
What is whole hog barbecue?
Whole hog barbecue is a regional style of barbecue in which (as the name implies) a pitmaster cooks an entire hog, whole. But it’s not as simple as throwing a pig onto a wood-fired pit. According to Pat Martin, who runs a chain of west Tennessee-style whole hog barbecue restaurants in Tennessee and Kentucky, a pitmaster must cook the three main sources of meat on the hog — the shoulder, the neck, and the belly — evenly, without overcooking them, over a period of 12 to 24 hours. “It’s very tricky,” Martin says. “It’s very hard. You really have to know how to manage a fire and manage heat.”
To serve, the pork is pulled from the various parts of the pig and dressed in a simple vinegar-based sauce. (Scott says he puts his sauce on the hog before it leaves the fire, which he thinks may set his barbecue apart from the rest.) At some whole hog barbecue joints, customers can pick and choose the parts of the pig they prefer, while at others, it’s all chopped up together. The pork is then served on a sandwich or on a plate with traditional Southern sides. As Martin describes, there’s nothing like getting a bite of all three parts of the pig with that distinct, but subtle, smoke flavor.
Martin divides whole hog into two different styles: West-Tennessee and Carolinas. Martin, who was born in Memphis but grew up in Mississippi and Connecticut, says Tennessee pitmasters use slightly larger hogs than elsewhere in the South, and the sandwiches at his restaurants always come with slaw. “We cook a little bit lower temperature, a little bit longer,” he says. “Whereas in the Carolinas, they cook hogs a little bit hotter, a little bit quicker.”
Outside of west Tennessee, whole hog barbecue pitmasters chop the meat with the skin, which can get crispy when cooked at the higher temperature. “We cook ours at such a low temperature that the skins never crisp up,” Martin says. “It’s always pliable, leather.”
What is its history in the South?
Whole hog barbecue is regarded as the oldest continuous form of barbecue in the United States. Historians can trace the cooking technique to the American Indians, but it flourished in the South, where slaves would cook whole animals on plantations to feed large groups of people. And when whole hog barbecue restaurants started opening in the 1920s, they would often carry the name of white owners while black pitmasters worked the pit. The skill was passed down through generations; outside of restaurants, whole hog barbecue has long been a celebratory meal accessible to everyone with space enough for a pit.
Most of today’s whole hog barbecue pitmasters came to it through family tradition. Scott learned to cook whole hogs from his father, and now his son works the pit at the Scott Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, South Carolina, where the elder Scott got his start. At Skylight Inn BBQ in Ayden, North Carolina, Sam Jones is running a whole hog business started by his grandfather in 1947, although according to family lore, the knack for the style can be traced back to Jones’s great-great-great grandfather, who sold barbecue out of the back of a covered wagon in the 1830s. Bum’s Restaurant, also in Ayden, is currently run by Larry Dennis, the latest in a long line of whole hog pitmasters (Dennis and Jones are distant cousins).
Today, only a few dozen whole hog barbecue joints in the country remain, and the majority of these are mom-and-pop shops, sometimes in the most literal sense. Grady’s BBQ in Dudley, North Carolina is run by a husband-and-wife team (Stephen and Gerri Grady), as is Atlanta’s B’s Cracklin (Bryan and Nikki Furman). Many worry that the style’s history of handing down knowledge through generations will eventually lead to it dying out. In 2016, Dennis predicted that Bum’s would die with him, given that he had no son, only daughters, to carry on the tradition. Martin says that when he was introduced to whole hog barbecue in Henderson, Tennessee in 1990, there were six barbecue restaurants in the town (population 6,500). Now, there are none.
But the style garners admiration from barbecue aficionados across country the precisely because of its deeply rooted history. Tyson Ho has no familial connection to whole hog, but he was inspired to open Arrogant Swine, New York City’s only whole hog barbecue restaurant, precisely because of its history in the South. “The original intention of barbecue was a celebratory feast for the end of harvest season,” he says. “By keeping the cooking process of this whole animal, we’re preserving that. It’s not about the poor making something cheap into something delicious. It’s about people who have nothing being able to celebrate something.”
Why hasn’t it spread beyond the Southern states?
Even as other regional barbecue styles have spread to the coasts, whole hog barbecue remains a bastion of the South. In fact, Ho’s Arrogant Swine in New York is the only whole hog barbecue restaurant outside of the region.
Texas-style barbecue in particular has steadily grown in popularity over the last several years. In a 2015 piece for First We Feast, Jim Shahin, author of the Washington Post’s barbecue and grilling column “Smoke Signals,” attributed the national recognition to a few different factors: the relative ease of cooking Texas barbecue-style brisket, the rise of Aaron Franklin (Beard award included), and awareness of Texas-style barbecue in New York City thanks to early Texas-style barbecue spots like Hill Country. And, he surmises, New York media’s awareness of put made it a part of the national food conversation.
Tiffani Faison opened Boston barbecue restaurant Sweet Cheeks doing Texas-style barbecue, “in theory.” Most important to Faison was letting the meat shine, but “because we are not in the middle of a regional barbecue identity, we also wanted our guests to have the experience they want to have,” she says. As an example, diners at Sweet Cheeks can put sauce on their meat, or not. “We didn’t want to create any barriers to people enjoying it if that’s what they wanted.”
Faison says that while whole hog barbecue is one of her favorite things to eat, cooking that style in particular was never an option for a number of reasons — chiefly, its roots in the South. “We’re now slowly addressing [barbecue] as a trend,” she says. “Barbecue is not specific to where we are. It’s similarly asking why a specific type of chowder isn’t being sold in South Carolina — because that’s not what the abundance of that region provides.”
There are also logistical regions. Cities like Boston and New York are set up differently than the Southern cities and towns where whole hog is endemic. “The financial cost of having a giant pit in the middle of the city is so much different than when you have a good amount of land,” Faison says. “Then you get into the totally boring conversation about fire codes and being in a building or next to a building with lots of people and the consequences of that.”
Although Ho found the space for a pit in Brooklyn, securing the rest of the whole hog setup took some work. The smoker was the first logistical hurdle: “It’s not a product that you can just buy. You need to get someone to order it for you,” he says. And although Ho says it’s easy enough to purchase a whole pig from a supplier in his area, the pigs usually aren’t big enough for whole hog barbecue. Ho works with a farm in North Carolina to source pigs of the 180- to 200-pound heft required for the style.
Additionally, cost isn’t on the whole hog barbecue pitmaster’s side no matter the region. While Ho describes brisket as “almost pure profit,” the ratio of meat to bone with whole hog is less favorable. Martin explains, “If I go buy a 20-pound whole shoulder, and I cook it for 22 hours, there will be 10 and a half pounds of meat left. In other words, the yield on it is 55 percent. If I go cook a whole hog that’s 200 pounds, we get 65 pounds. The yield on that is 32 percent.”
On top of that, pitmasters can’t charge that much for barbecue. “What I’m charging now is nowhere near what we should be getting for it,” Martin says. “We should be getting $10 for a sandwich that took 22 hours to produce.” Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joints charge around $6 for a sandwich, up just $2 from the prices he charged 12 years ago when his first restaurant opened.
After embarking on a tour of the South to learn about barbecue, Ho fell in love with the style, but he can see why it doesn’t make sense for other restaurateurs. “If you’re a new guy trying to get into the barbecue business and I told you you have to work your ass off for a product that most people really don’t appreciate all that much and they’re not going to pay you all that much for, it’s hard going.”
So, is whole hog dying out?
Whole hog may be slow to break from tradition in myriad ways, but it’s no longer a dying cuisine. “Whole hog and barbecue in general, around 2010, became real sexy with hipster chefs,” Martin says. “And I actually mean that in a good way, because hipster chefs really were refreshing for our culinary landscape.”
The style is also pushing its way outside of Tennessee and the Carolinas more often. Martin recently opened his second restaurant in Kentucky, and both Martin and Scott have plans to open whole hog restaurants in Birmingham, Alabama this fall. “I feel like it’s a different version of the South being introduced to a new area of the South,” Scott says of his second location. “I plan to bring a whole lot of confidence to Birmingham and a whole lot of love.”
Scott pictures a future in which whole hog flourishes outside of the South, too. Earlier this year, he told the Eater Upsell that he wants to one day open Rodney Scott’s BBQ much further afield: in New York City. It’s growth fueled in part by recent national recognition. “It’s an inspiration to a lot of guys: If it goes all the way to James Beard Awards, they can start doing it in their backyards and practice until they’re satisfied to present it even further into a business or a catering job,” Scott says. “It’s on the table now.”
Monica Burton is Eater’s associate restaurant editor. Leslie Ryann McKellar is a Charleston-based photographer.
Editor: Hillary Dixler Canavan