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Welcome to South Carolina: the heartland of American barbecue

Welcome to South Carolina: the heartland of American barbecue

by Great British Chefs 10 May 2019

Barbecue is a sacred, fiercely protected part of South Carolina’s identity – it’s where the American barbecue tradition began, and where the fires still burn the brightest. Join us as we take a trip around the birthplace of barbecue.


Barbecue is life in the American Deep South. Many a weekend here is spent in the backyard performing the rituals of barbecue – nursing a gentle wood fire, basting meats and occasionally mopping sweat from your brow before digging into your ice box for another cold beverage. This is cooking at its most instinctive and primal – just a fire, smoke, and something to cook over it, the way civilisations across the world cooked food thousands of years ago.

Travel across the Deep South and you’ll come across a huge variety of different barbecue styles, from the low-and-slow beef brisket barbecue of Texas to whole smoked hogs in North Carolina. Everyone has their own preferences and each state defends its barbecue practices zealously, but this tradition had to start somewhere. Live fire cooking is an art so old it’s almost impossible to trace, but US-style barbecue as we know it today – the art of smoking meat over a wood fire – started life in South Carolina, and thousands make the pilgrimage every year to get a taste of the state’s signature pork barbecue.

Trace barbecue back to its roots and you’ll find it all starts with the introduction of the humble pig to American shores. When the Spanish first arrived in the Americas in the sixteenth century, they brought pigs with them as a food source and introduced them to the islands and archipelagos of what is now Florida and the Carolinas. The practice of smoking food over wood fire already existed here – as it did all over the world – but for the first time, at the confluence of Spanish explorers and Native Americans, wood smoke and pork came together and American barbecue was born.

Barbecue has come a long way since then of course, but South Carolina remains very true to its roots. Barbecue here still refers to pork and only pork – you’ll find brisket and chicken in lots of barbecue joints, but no self-respecting South Carolinian would ever use the phrase ‘chicken barbecue’ (though they might perhaps call it ‘barbecued chicken’). Even in the state of South Carolina alone, there are four distinct regions each with their own traditions and styles – join us as we go on a pilgrimage around the birthplace of barbecue.

The Lowcountry

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The major difference between each of South Carolina’s barbecue sub-regions – roughly speaking, that’s the southeast coast, northeast, west and centre – isn’t necessarily down to the meat. Instead, it’s often the barbecue sauce that defines a regional style. If you find yourself in the southeast around the city of Charlestown, you’ll find barbecue deals strictly with whole hogs, which are smoked over the course of a whole day and regularly mopped with a thin vinegar and pepper sauce. Although it also works perfectly well as a dip, this sauce is used more as a wash that soaks into the meat as it cooks, giving the final flavour a lovely tangy heat.

This barbecue sauce originally came from African slaves, who combined native peppercorns and chilli flakes with vinegar or lime juice to create what was likely the very first barbecue sauce ever made. It’s not what we traditionally think of as ‘barbecue sauce’ in the UK – the sticky sweet brown sauce we know is really a Kansas-style concoction. In many ways though, the vinegar and pepper sauce of East Carolina makes a lot more sense – it cuts through the rich, fatty pork with rapier-like sharpness and leaves a nice tingle on the lips at the end.

The Midlands

By comparison, South Carolina’s Midlands are a little more varied than the east coast. You’ll find some barbecue joints stick to whole hog barbecue, but it’s far more common to see shoulders smoking away over the coals.

By all accounts though, it isn’t the pork that people flock to the South Carolina heartland to eat – it’s the sauce. Bright yellow Carolina Gold mustard sauce is what characterises barbecue here; it’s a combination of mustard, cider vinegar, black pepper, brown sugar and spices that lends sweet, sour and spicy notes to delicious savoury pork. The ratios of the above ingredients can vary wildly though – some joints will make sauce with a serious vinegar tang that evokes coastal barbecue sauces, whilst others are almost entirely made of mustard! It may not have the most traditional roots, but Carolina Gold is what springs to mind when most people think of South Carolina barbecue.

The arrival of mustard in the United States is largely attributed to German immigrants, many of whom arrived in South Carolina in the eighteenth century and brought their love for mustard and pork with them. In fact, many of South Carolina’s most famous barbecue joints still have German names – Hite’s BBQ and Jackie Hite’s, for example, both have German origins.

The Pee Dee

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The upper northeast corner of the state is known as the Pee Dee – roughly following the course of the Pee Dee River, which starts in the Appalachian mountains and runs all the way down into the Atlantic. Like Lowcountry pitmasters, Pee Dee cooks prefer to barbecue whole hogs in the traditional way – in big open pits over a pile of glowing coals, where the pig can smoke and spit slowly over the course of twelve hours, absorbing all that incredible smoky flavour. The pig spends the majority of its time cooking skin-side up – which allows the fat to render gently and melt into the flesh – before it gets flipped for the last bit of cooking. Though the vinegar and pepper sauce of the Lowcountry is common here, Pee Dee cooks also like to add tomato ketchup for added sweetness – the former is used as a wash, whilst the latter is more of a dip.

If anywhere can claim to be the true home of traditional barbecue, it’s probably the Pee Dee. Whole hog pit cooking is how the tradition began, and this really started in the Pee Dee, where farming families would slaughter a pig and share barbecue with their friends and families. As such, this is the region where you’re least likely to find anything other than pork on the menu at a barbecue joint; if you order barbecue, you may well just get a huge mound of moist, smoked pork sandwiched between two slices of white bread.

The West (Upstate)

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As you head further inland towards the border with Georgia and North Carolina, you start to drift away from traditional South Carolinian barbecue and into slightly more familiar territory. Your barbecue options are more varied here – whole hog is less common, but most barbecue joints offer classic pork barbecue in the form of pulled shoulders and butts, as well as brisket, chicken, ribs and more.

Certainly when it comes to sauces, the Upstate area is more accepting of other barbecue methods and flavours. Barbecue sauce here tends to be much heavier on the tomato ketchup – resulting in something closer to the Kansas City-style barbecue sauce that the UK is accustomed to, with plenty of tangy sweetness to complement the pork. Variety is the spice of life as they say, and western barbecue is all about variety – so you’ll still find vinegar pepper, Carolina Gold and other sauces available in most joints.

Barbecue side dishes

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Though different sides have their own origins in different places, you can expect to see a select group of staples wherever you go. Beans and coleslaw are a given – if you’re getting barbecue somewhere, you should be getting these two as standard. Rice is another traditional South Carolina staple; aside from being served with hash, it also comes in dishes of its own, including perloo (a derivative of paella that arrived with the Spanish some 300 years ago) and chicken bog – a pilaf-style dish made with chicken, sausage, onion and spices. Most joints will do a potato salad too – great for those hotter days when you want something nice and cooling on the side.

Wherever you decide to head in South Carolina, there’s sure to be some delicious barbecue waiting for you!

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Welcome to South Carolina: the heartland of American barbecue

 
 

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