An Introduction to South Carolina Barbecue

The key things to know about the Palmetto State's long, proud barbecue tradition

By Robert F. Moss

Flag of the State of South Carolina
Some have argued that barbecue was invented in South Carolina, but the historical evidence on that point that is rather slim. What we can confidently boast, though, is that the Palmetto State has one of the country’s oldest and most vibrant barbecue traditions. In fact, the form of whole hog cooking practiced in the Pee Dee region is the closest approximation to the way barbecue was cooked back in the colonial and antebellum days. The details and trappings may have changed over time, but the fundamental essence of South Carolina barbecue — meat cooked low and slow over hardwood coals — remains the same.

In South Carolina, that meat is invariably pork — sometimes pulled from a whole hog, sometimes chopped from a slow-smoked shoulder or ham, but always deriving from somewhere on the pig. In fact, try this experiment. Take a South Carolinian to a barbecue buffet (there is not shortage of such operations in the Palmetto State) and ask him or her, “go get me some barbecue.” What you’re going to get back is guaranteed. The steam table may be loaded down with ribs, chicken quarters, and maybe even sliced brisket, but unless they just recently moved to the state from Ohio, your dining companion is certain to bring you back a plate piled high with pork.

Now, we do eat a lot of chicken cooked on barbecue pits in South Carolina, but it’s never referred to as “barbecue” but rather as “barbecued chicken,” implying, I guess, that it's a meat prepared in the style of barbecue. "Pork barbecue" sounds fine, if somewhat redundant, to a Carolinian's ears, but "chicken barbecue" just sounds wrong. Around here, it's always "barbecue chicken."

So we have to start out with pork, but from there things diverge in various parts of the state.

The Pee Dee

In the Pee Dee region—roughly the upper northeast quarter of the state that comprises the watershed of the Pee Dee River—is one of the last bastions of whole hog cooking in the United States. Pee Dee cooks typically use open pits made either of cinder block or of brick with an opening at the bottom into which they shovel glowing hardwood coals. Whole hogs are laid out on a grate inside the pits and cooked for 12 hours or more, covered loosely covered with sheet metal or flat pieces of cardboard. Typically, the pigs are cooked skin side up until the very end, when they are flipped and the meat is mopped with the region’s signature sauce, a simple blend of vinegar, salt, black pepper, and enough red pepper to leave your lips tingling. Once sauced, the meat is pulled from the carcass with tongs, the the leaner hams and tenderloin getting mixed together with the fattier shoulder. Wood-cooked and properly basted at the finish, Pee Dee-style barbecue is exceptionally tender and flavorful, with long strands of delicate pork steeped with tangy heat.

Finishing the whole hogs at Scott's Barbecue, Hemingway, SC
Finishing the whole hogs at Scott's Barbecue, Hemingway, SC (Robert F. Moss)

The Pee Dee style is a legacy of the region’s agricultural past, when farm families would occasionally slaughter a hog and cook it on a pit to share with friends and neighbors. Compared to places like Lexington, North Carolina, barbecue restaurants are relatively few and far between in the Pee Dee, and some are still sideline operations open just a few days a week. A slice or two of white bread is a common accompaniment for the pork, as are coleslaw and beans. Many Pee Dee restaurants offer perloo or chicken bog, rice dishes unique to the region and a reflection of South Carolina’s past history as a rice-growing state. Places like McCabe’s in Manning and Brown’s in Kingstree offer entire buffets with tempting sides like collards and mac and cheese, too.

The Midlands

The all-you-can-eat buffet is even more prevalent in the Midlands of South Carolina, which can roughly be defined as the eight counties surrounding the capital city of Columbia. A few Midlands spots, like Jackie Hite’s in Leesville and Hite’s in West Columbia, cook whole hogs, but shoulders and hams are far more common, and the tender pork is sometimes chopped into chunks and sometimes pulled into long shreds. By far the most distinguishing characteristic of Midlands barbecue is the sauce, which is immediately recognizable thanks to its eye-catching bright yellow color. That color comes from the solid base of mustard, and at some places (like Wise’s in Newberry) that sauce is almost pure mustard. More commonly, though, it is generously sweetened with brown sugar or honey and given a tangy bite with cider vinegar and black pepper. Outsiders are frequently baffled by the unusual color, but if they give it a chance most find that the sweet, tangy sauce is a lovely accompaniment to the rich flavors of smoked pork.

A big plate of pulled pork, ribs, and hash & rice from Sweatman's, Holly Hill, SC
A big plate of pulled pork, ribs, and hash & rice from Sweatman's, Holly Hill, SC (Robert F. Moss)

The Midlands is also the home of South Carolina’s signature side dish, hash and rice—a savory concoction that’s part of the long tradition of barbecue stews that include Virginia’s and Georgia’s Brunswick stew and Kentucky’s burgoo. Hash started out as a way to make use of the heads and the livers and all the other parts of the pig that couldn’t be cooked on a pit, and you can still find rich, succulent versions tinged with organ meats at places like Big T in Gadsden. Most restaurants these days, though, make their hash from pork shoulder and even a little beef along with onions and various secret seasonings. Many hash-makers add a generous dose of their mustard-based barbecue sauce, too, giving the finished stew a decidedly golden hue.

And Everywhere Else

This Midlands style of barbecue has headed eastward over the years, and it can now be found down in the coastal Lowcountry in and around Charleston. In just the past few years, though, Charleston has become something of a barbecue hub of its own, offering a wide range of styles imported from all over—including Georgia, other parts of the Carolinas, and even as far off as Texas. (That's a topic we'll take up in a later article.)

A lot of people have made a big deal about how South Carolina has four different barbecue sauces, but in practice there are really just two main ones: the tangy and sweet yellow mustard-based sauce of the Midlands and the fiery, fundamental vinegar/pepper sauce of the Pee Dee. The other widely-cited varieties—thin tomato and thick tomato—are really trappings of barbecue styles from other states that have dropped by for a visit. Though you can find those tomato-based versions in the western part of the state and along the banks of the Savannah River, the modes of barbecue in those areas have never coalesced into a discernible style the way they have in the Pee Dee and Midlands. There is also what I like to call “The Fifth Sauce”—a rust-colored blend of ketchup and mustard that’s the hallmark of Dukes family in Orangeburg County, but let’s not overly complicate things. No matter how you parse and slice it, there is plenty of delicious barbecue to be found in South Carolina, and it’s quite unlike what you’ll find anywhere else in the United States.

One final thing to keep in mind when you set out to sample all this delicious barbecue: call ahead. Many of the state’s most esteemed joints are open just a few days each week, and their hours can be limited and somewhat arbitrary. This is a legacy of the way commercial barbecue got started in the Palmetto State, for early restaurants tended to be casual operations that were a sideline to someone’s regular line of work. A farmer, for instance, might cook a couple of hogs a Friday and sell them until the meat was gone. Irregular hours and days of operation persist at many South Carolina restaurants to this day, particularly the older ones in small towns or out in the countryside. Some, like Jackie Hite’s in Leesville, S.C., serve lunch only, while others are open only at night. A lot of the family-run places might close down for a full week or more if there’s an illness in the family or the owners decide it’s time for a little vacation. If you make the long drive down a country highway to seek out of a highly-recommended joints but don’t call ahead to confirm they’re open, well, the odds are high you could end up hungry and crestfallen.

You have been duly warned. Now get out there and eat!

Read More

South Carolina Regional Barbecue Guide

South Carolina Hash: A Primer

About the Author

Robert F. Moss

Robert F. Moss is the Contributing Barbecue Editor for Southern Living magazine, Restaurant Critic for the Post & Courier, and the author of numerous books on Southern food and drink, including The Lost Southern Chefs, Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Southern Spirits: 400 Years of Drinking in the American South, and Barbecue Lovers: The Carolinas. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina.