HISTORY: South Carolina barbecue

S.C. Encyclopedia | South Carolina barbecue is slowly cooked, hand-pulled or shredded pork that is flavored with a tangy sauce and usually served with side dishes such as rice, hash, coleslaw, sweet pickles, white bread, and iced tea. Barbecue often is served on festive occasions such as holidays, family reunions, weddings, church and community fundraisers, football tailgating parties, and political meetings. It varies widely across the state with respect to cooking methods, cuts of pork, sauce type, and side dishes served. Barbecue is often the topic of friendly debate since many South Carolinians have strong preferences for particular types that reflect the cultural character and identity of specific regions or places.

Traditionally the pork is cooked in an open pit fueled by hardwood coals. The pit usually is a rectangular cement block structure of variable length, about three feet high and five to six feet wide, with either iron or steel rods across the narrow width. Openings at floor level allow for refueling and air circulation control. Hot hickory or oak coals are placed at the bottom, and the meat is suspended above the coals on the rods. The pit usually is housed in a shelter-like building with partially screened walls. Many restaurants have converted to gas or electric cookers and abandoned the open pit because it is labor intensive and the cost of wood is high. There is an endless variety of portable cookers, and each’s design is as much a point of pride as is the barbecue.

The whole hog typically is cooked in the coastal plain regions, while shoulders, hams, or Boston butts are used in the Piedmont. There are at least four basic sauce types. Watery thin and fiery hot pepper and vinegar concoctions dominate the Pee Dee region, while the upstate and Savannah River areas favor peppery tomato or milder ketchup-based sauces. A yellow-mustard-based sauce is favored in the Midlands. As sauce types differ from place to place, their uses also vary. Some use sauce as a baster while the meat is cooked; others douse the meat with sauce after it is cooked; and sometimes the meat is served without sauce, allowing consumer discretion. Sauces often are derived from secret family recipes, and each sauce has a strong regional following.

Some barbecue restaurants serve one or two side dishes, while all-you-can-eat barbecue buffets in the coastal plain regions include a wide assortment of regional specialties. These may include greens such as turnip, mustard, or collard; baked beans, green beans cooked in fatback, or butter beans; peas such as crowder, field, or black-eyed; sweet potatoes; fried okra; and sweet or creamed corn. Barbecued and fried chicken, pork skins, ribs, and banana pudding are other common buffet selections. Regional specialties such as chicken bog and liver hash are served in the Pee Dee, while the northeastern Piedmont is known for its hash barbecue and chicken stew. Many barbecue restaurants post a familiar sign urging patrons not to waste food: “take all you want, but eat all you take.” Most cater to families and rarely serve alcoholic beverages.

— Excerpted from an entry by Charles F. Kovacik. To read more about this or 2,000 other entries about South Carolina, check out The South Carolina Encyclopedia, published in 2006 by USC Press. (Information used by permission.)

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