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Want Great Barbecue? Come to South Carolina

Gwen Fowler Gwen Fowler
Discover writers share all of the places, activities and adventure that South Carolina has to offer. Read more from some of South Carolina’s locals and discover what’s happening in the Palmetto State.
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Thinking of taking off on a road trip to sample all the different types of delicious barbecue there is across America?

Come to South Carolina, one of the only places in the nation where you'll find all four of the basic types of barbecue.

"When you're talking about barbecue, South Carolina is where you have the diversity," said Lake High, president of the S.C. Barbecue Association.

Of course, barbecue in South Carolina means pork and only pork. Other things, such as beef and chicken, can be barbecued, but only pork is referred to as barbecue.

The four types of barbecue are distinguished by the sauce used, either basted on during cooking, added after cooking, or both, said High, who has traced the history of barbecue in the state.

A Barbecue Association map shows which regions traditionally serve what type of barbecue. Along the coast, you'll find a spicy vinegar-and-pepper sauce, which, High said, dates back hundreds of years.

In the Midlands of the state, and in a band that stretches toward the coast, you'll get mustard sauce. That distinctive sauce, unique to South Carolina, can be traced back to German settlers, he said. It's the type that Maurice's in the Columbia area has been serving for almost 60 years.

Light tomato sauce - basically a vinegar and pepper with ketchup or tomato added, High said - is found in the Pee Dee and in upper middle part of the state.

Heavy tomato sauce is the choice in the western and northwestern part of the state, as well as most of the nation, High said. It's the kind most like Kraft and other brands on the grocery store shelves.

At one time, you'd know what type of barbecue you'd be served just by knowing what part of the state you were in. But these days the lines have blurred somewhat. You can blame that partly on the Barbecue Association, High said. Through intensive training of judges and barbecue competitions held all over the state throughout the year, people who cook barbecue and those who just love to eat it have learned about all the other sauces out there and they want to try it.

"Barbecue is a complicated subject," he said. "It includes all this history, all the culture, all the changes. It's a very dynamic thing."

That means that now a restaurant anywhere in the state might give diners a choice of three or four types of sauce to add to their barbecue.

High said most people prefer the type of barbecue they grew up eating. His preference? "Whatever is on the plate in front of me."

So take a tour and try it out for yourself. Here are a few places that would make a good start.

Scott's Bar-B-Que, Hemingway

Years ago, Roosevelt "Rosie" Scott started cooking a pig once a week in the back of his auto repair business. His barbecue was so good that soon he was cooking five to 10 pigs a week.

Things just kept growing from there, and the garage became a barbecue pit, said his son and now the pitmaster of Scott's Bar-B-Que, Rodney Scott.

Today, the barbecue is cooked much as it was 38 years ago when the Scotts went into business. The first step is getting enough wood to cook 15-25 hogs on the three days Scott's is open.

"Every week I go out and get the wood myself," Rodney Scott said. Hardwoods, mostly hickory and oak, are used. Folks donate wood, because they know Scott and some of his family will be happy to come cut any trees that need to be removed. Scott uses a log splitter to prepare stacks of wood for the burn barrels, which are made with criss-crossed truck axles in the bottom.

As the wood burns and hot coals fall to the bottom of the barrel, Scott and his helpers shovel coals into the bottom of the cement pits.

Pigs are placed on the pit, skin-side up, and cooked for about 12 hours before being flipped, mopped with a vinegar and pepper sauce, and then cooked for another half hour. Not only does that cooking method mean perfect barbecue, it also means perfect pig skins, a delicacy here. Some skins are bagged just as they come off the pit; others are deep-fried.

The Scotts also barbecue chickens on their pits, but they stop at chickens and pigs. There's no buffet line here, no sides at all. Order a barbecue sandwich and you get a mound of barbecue accompanied by two slices of white bread.

Rodney Scott has been helping cook since he was a young boy and cooked his first pig on his own at age 11. He wanted to go to a high school basketball game, and his daddy told him he could if he could cook a pig perfectly.

"I made sure not to burn that pig," he said.

Scotts Bar-B-Que is on S.C. Highway 261, a quiet road that passes through Hemingway in Williamsburg County. The old store next to the garage is where folks come to pick up their barbecue, buy a soda and chat with friends. Often, Rodney Scott's mother, Ella Scott, will be at the register to ring up the orders. Out front, a shopping cart is loaded with watermelons, and a bench is a gathering spot for old men.

Scott's has been the rock star of South Carolina barbecue in the past year or so. Rodney Scott attended a barbecue party in New York City in June, where a Southern Foodways Alliance documentary about the business, "Cut/Chop/Cook," was shown.

Rodney Scott says the barbecue is so good because of a secret ingredient: Love is cooked into every batch of that vinegar and pepper sauce.

Hite's Barbecue, Batesburg-Leesville

Jackie Hite should know a thing or two about barbecue: He's been cooking it for about 60 years.

His restaurant, Hite's Barbecue, attracts a crowd on the five days a week he's open. They come for the mustard-sauced pork barbecue and the usual Southern favorites on the buffet: fried and barbecue chicken, rice and barbecue hash, macaroni and cheese, vegetables.

Hite's father cooked barbecue for special occasions, such as fundraisers to support the fire department or to feed law officers. Hite helped out or made deliveries. Since 1979, he's run the restaurant on Church Street, or U.S. 1.

Batesburg-Leesville is a small town in western Lexington County, but it boasts two popular barbecue destinations. Shealy's Bar-B-Que also is there, and Hite guesses the two eateries "probably cook and sell more barbecue per capita than any place."

Hite cooks pigs the old-time way. He burns hickory wood - it doesn't pop or crack as much as other woods - in barrels out behind the restaurant.

"It's not real barbecue if it's not cooked over hickory wood."

Glowing embers are shoveled into the bottom of the pits, and the pigs cook for hours before they are turned.

"When we turn the hogs, we put on the mustard sauce so it cooks in there, and the sauce drops on the coals and gives it a good flavor."

Friday mornings are reserved for cooking the "stringy" hash. Beef and pork go into a 78-gallon washpot with onions and salt. After it's cooked, it's pulled by hand or "strung," with the fat and gristle taken out. Then mustard and pepper are added.

Friday is pig picking day, when a whole hog is spread on the buffet from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Cooking barbecue the way he does is hard physical work, and he has a group of long-time employees who make it possible.

"You've got to like it," he said. "If you don't like it, you better stay away because it's hard work."

Hite's Barbecue is at 467 W. Church St., Batesburg-Leesville. Hours are 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday. (803) 532-3354.

Roger's Bar-B-Que & Seafood Restaurant, Florence

The crowds show up regularly at Roger's Bar-B-Que for more than barbecue: They're also lured by the buffet, with about 40 items that change daily.

Along with the barbecue, there might be fried chicken, catfish stew, sweet potato soufflé and all types of home-cooked vegetables. At night, seafood is added, such as fried shrimp, fried clam strips, deviled crab, flounder or catfish.

When Rob Goff and his parents bought the restaurant eight years ago, they knew the restaurant buffet business. They'd owned Mr. B's Seafood in nearby Lydia for years. But barbecue was new to them, and the previous owner showed them how he made barbecue.

"It's a vigorous learning process to learn to cook barbecue properly," Goff said.

Anywhere from 20 to 40 hogs, depending on the season and catering functions, are cooked each week on rotisserie cookers.

Because the cookers are flush with the kitchen wall and actually are sitting outside, they're influenced by the outside temperature. That means the cooking process might take only eight hours in the summer but as long as 12 hours in the winter.

"After the pork is cooked, it's actually laid out on a table so that it can cool down and be handled by hand," he said. "Employees separate the meat from the skin, bone and gristle."

The meat is then chopped, and a vinegar-and-pepper sauce is added. The skins are deep fried for homemade pork skins, served in the restaurant and also bagged and sold there. They sell out fast, Goff said.

Roger's Bar-B-Que also makes a type of hash that is unique to the Pee Dee region. Goff calls it liver hash gravy, and it is made with ground pork liver and seasonings.

"You put it on top of rice. Some people put it on top of chicken bog or their barbecue."

Roger's is at 2004 Second Loop Road. Hours are 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesdays; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays. 843-667-9291.

Click here for a list of what the S.C. Barbecue Association's certified judges call the state's best barbecue joints.

Gwen Fowler
Discover writers share all of the places, activities and adventure that South Carolina has to offer. Read more from some of South Carolina’s locals and discover what’s happening in the Palmetto State.