Barbecue, to southerners who learned to cook it the old slow way, is more about fellowship and sharing than it is about pork.
Ending up with fine meat to eat is a tasty bonus, but the process of hanging out with family and friends around a cooker all day or all night is what makes true southern barbecue.
Barbecue, the noun, is a testament to slower times and the pleasure of working together to create a special meal. Barbecue is not a verb where a propane tank is fired up and chicken legs are smothered in mass-produced bottled sauce, or hot dogs and hamburgers are grilled.
Since the first prehistoric southern Native American slow-cooked meat over a low-burning fire, barbecue became rooted in local foodways. Whether the word used for it was barbacoa, from Latin American neighbors, or barbakue from more phonetically literal Colonial Americans, the slow-cooking of hogs over wood coals evokes primal memories.
With that great grilling and barbecue holiday on tap Monday, which is Labor Day, two events at the beach this weekend boast barbecue at the centerpiece - the 8th annual Beach, Boogie& BBQ festival, featuring the S.C. Barbecue Championship, on the former Myrtle Beach Air Force Base, and Brews, Blues and BBQ at the House of Blues.
For those who consciously work to preserve the tradition, a recent proliferation of barbecue restaurants in the Grand Strand area has met with mixed reactions. On the one hand, diners like having choices. On the other, they see the possibility for dilution of what traditional southern barbecue represents.
The old ways
My first barbecue memory is growing up on a farm in the Toddville area (of Horry County), 33-year-old Andre Pope, a certified barbecue judge, said. It was what we had to do to have meat, and it had more of a family aspect. Its what makes tradition Its family time, hanging out, spending 12 hours cooking, the community aspect of it.
Radd-Dews (on U.S. 701 South), when I was growing up it was open only on Friday and Saturday nights, except in cold months when they had chitlins, so then it was open on Thursdays. Still today at Radd-Dews, I can go in there and know everyone, and it reminds me of growing up and what I found special. I hope this new trend in barbecue can capitalize on that somehow. Not just having a good product, but also the process of cooking, surrounding yourself with friends and family and having a good time.
The history of barbecue at political rallies theyd surround themselves with barbecue. It was what drove the community together. As we continue to grow and expand, it seems like were getting away from that and more toward the individual. [Shows like] BBQ Pitmasters glorifies certain things and pits people against each other, and thats not what barbecue is. I would rather surround myself with people who enjoy the process and sharing. At certain competitions you can find that, but at bigger ones theyre talking about my secret sauce and are not going to show you anything. For me, I do it as a passion more than anything else. My sauces arent a secret.
Pope is a graphic designer and marketer who teaches digital arts and does grant work for Horry-Georgetown Technical College and is co-owner of a news aggregator and co-work business. Hes also a partner in Proud Purveyors of Pork, a barbecue catering company that cooks hogs the old-fashion way. His two sauces are a spicy vinegar variety called Mop Bucket Swine Sauce, and Carolina Dreaming Mustard Sauce.
If you ask him hell share the recipes, especially if you come sit with him by the cooker and share a little of yourself.
Many locals know Jim Morgan, age 49, as Captain Morgan, a deejay on WEZV Easy 105.9 FM, but he is also known on the competitive barbecue circuit.
The Captain grew up in a rural part of Charlotte, N.C. and his grandmother lived in Yanceyville, N.C. Every October their church had a thorough cleaning on the day before its annual homecoming service. After a Saturday night fish fry for the cleaners, men constructed a temporary barbecue pit out of brick or concrete blocks topped with a heavy metal screen and set hickory and oak woods to slow burn in a barrel.
Theyd shovel coals into the box over the pig, Morgan said. When you got there for church on Sunday morning, the smell of that smoke was intoxicating Growing up in North Carolina, thats really barbecue country. They really, really love it up there. Of course we had our family favorite place to go for barbecue, and it was a hobby to go different places to try barbecue.
Our family had two sauces. A Piedmont/Lexington style, which was hot pepper vinegar with ketchup added. We had two versions mild and hot.
For years Morgan cooked barbecue at home for friends, but in the early 2000s he decided to spend a tax return on a pig cooker and catered for friends events.
I read a lot about outdoor cookery and was having fun doing it, he said. I saw shows about barbecue competitions, so I entered a contest.
It was the Shriners annual spring Smoke on the Beach competition in Myrtle Beach, and Morgan placed sixth out of a field of 39. He later earned first place.
At Smoke on the Beach I got first place twice, second place twice and third place once. I didnt travel much into the circuit around the state because I had no one to help me usually, and its expensive and it can be hot. Its been four or five years now since I did it, because I thought it became too competitive. Everybody wanted to be the next Food Network chef, and people were spending crazy amounts of money to win contests.
Formerly a package delivery driver from the Charlotte area, Edward Gore, age 66, cooked barbecue and fried turkeys for family meals.
Since 1995 Edward and his wife of 43 years, Henrietta Gore, have served barbecue and other tasty dishes (creamy yams, award-winning chicken bog, sweet corn fritters) at Gores Bar-B-Que and Country Kitchen in a small wood building on Main Street in Aynor. Edward Gore cooks whole hogs for 8-10 hours, chops the meat and dresses it in mustard/vinegar sauce before vacuum packing and freezing it in 1-pound bags.
I learned way back, it was a family thing, he said. I grew up with it, and then took off with it and run with it I put the sauce on after its cooked. I chop it loosely, enough so that when you bite into it, it gives a little pull A lot of people overdo it. When you put barbecue together, some have a tendency to be dry. You gotta know how to do it.
Gore figures he goes through 120 pounds per week at his restaurant thats open only for lunch on weekdays. He likes to have plenty of time for fishing and for his minister duties at St. Stephens Free Will Baptist in Whiteville, N.C.
You want to be joyful, he said. Its a blessing to know that you have a product that everybody wants. When you come to that realization, then you can see yourself as a human being, not greedy. Some people constantly are going all the time, all the time, and never take any time for themselves. When it comes to the end [of your life], you want to be there with it, not have it come for you.
Pulled vs. chopped
If youve lived in the Carolinas for long, youve likely been to a pig pickin, which is when a half or whole hog (the difference between a pig and a hog is, a hog weighs more than 120 pounds) is slow-cooked for eight to 16 hours. Sometimes the cooker is a backyard pit ringed by concrete blocks with a piece of tin roofing laid on top. Other times its a barrel split in half with a rack inside. Folks with money might invest in a store-bought cooker. The fire fuel is wood charcoal taken from a separate pit or barrel where wood is slowly burned down to embers.
In order to have the meat ready for a pig pickin, the cooking process usually starts the night before and a party atmosphere prevails as friends and family sit around the cooker in camp chairs and talk to each other they actually converse! and its common for someone to pull out a guitar. A bottle of peach brandy might be passed around, especially if its a cool evening. Once in a while the meat is daubed with spicy vinegar-based sauce, and as stars are absorbed into the sunrise, a meaty tang hangs in the air.
Watching over the meat becomes critical at this point, not to ensure the meat isnt overcooked, but to prevent skulking fingers from teasing off ribs or pulling loose tenderloin shreds.
When the meat is done, people are either invited to come pull meat off the pig themselves (hence the term pig pickin), and in that case theres extra barbecue sauce to add as desired. The other method is when the cook pulls the meat off the bones and chops it before adding just the right amount of homemade sauce to make it soft and blissful.
Three or four or a multitude of sauces
Some barbecue anthropologists, like Pope, say there are three main sauces: vinegar, tomato and mustard. Others, like Morgan, claim there are four: North Carolina vinegar pepper, Lexington, N.C., style vinegar pepper with ketchup, South Carolina mustard (which came about because of German immigrants), and the Midwestern- and Texas-style thats thick and red and sweet.
But in reality there are thousands of sauces that are variations on the three main ones. A recipe used by the late Buster Camlin of Georgetown, who sometimes cooked 40 hogs at a time and owned a Pawleys Island restaurant called Camlins, called for vinegar, black pepper, red pepper, Worcestershire sauce, yellow mustard, sugar, salt and catsup. He made the sauce in multi-gallon batches and used a kitchen mop as a sauce brush.
Reality and chef-driven barbecue shows helped fan the pig pickin flames. Some TV pitmasters turned the gentle overnight process, when friends share bottle nips and sauce recipes while tending the cooker, into a battle royale complete with sabotage.
Suddenly regional barbecue competitions turned into bloodthirsty television auditions overseen by judging entities such as the Kansas City Barbecue Society, the South Carolina Barbecue Association or the newest such organization in South Carolina, the South Carolina Barbecue Network, which was founded about two years ago.
At age 25, Pope became the states youngest certified judge with the SCBA. Now he is also certified by the SCBN, and he says the new group is doing a good job giving competitors feedback and encouraging a sense of fellowship.
Here in Myrtle Beach, two barbecue events scheduled for this weekend symbolize the differences between new ways and tradition. The Beach Boogie & BBQ Festival, now in its eighth year, is offering $10,000 for first place, $3,000 to second place, $2,000 to third place, $1,000 to fourth place and $500 each for teams placing fifth through tenth. Professional barbecue teams will pull in, some with $100,000 recreational vehicles and pulling $30,000 cooking rigs. For many, their recipes are secrets and their goals are to become wealthy and/or famous.
That takes place on Saturday, for the official S.C. Barbecue Championship, and proceeds benefit Omar Shriner charities. On Friday night, Shriners have their own little friendly competition and fund-raiser. Thats when the old barbecue traditions are strongest, at least during the Beach Boogie & BBQ.
Theyre sitting around talking, discussing, sharing, having memories together, Pope said. I like the Friday night event when the Shriners are cooking.
Another barbecue event this weekend is Saturday night at The Deck at House of Blues. Called Blues, Brews & BBQ, it is a model of community fellowship with HOB inviting other restaurants to join their own culinary staff and show folks what their Q is all about.
The notoriety that reality TV programs gave the competitive barbecue circuit has helped spark interest in barbecue restaurants. Several new ones opened within the past few months on the Grand Strand.
For years locals went to Little Pigs, Radd-Dew Bar-B-Que Pit, Prossers, Big Ds, Hog Heaven and Gores (which are all still in business) for authentic slow-cooked barbecue. Some provide dinner music with the rhythmic thunk-thunk-thunk of their cleavers chopping the meat, while others pull the pork into long shreds. Most of the old-timers sauce the meat themselves, but lately there has been a trend even among those bedrocks of the barbecue community to start offering other sauces that customers can add at will.
A few more barbecue restaurants opened during the past several years, and ones still in business include Big KTs Barbecue Shack, Twisted Pig, Smokin Hot Southwest Grill and a second Little Pigs with different owners from the original. Barbecue chains also opened, such as Sticky Fingers and The Bar B Que House.
The people who appreciate barbecue for its fellowship as much as the end product say they hope the local Q explosion encourages a sense of community over cutting corners and going whole hog for profits.
The five newest barbecue restaurants are:
Old South BBQ Company at 1020 Sea Mountain Highway in North Myrtle Beach is headed up by Butch Rives, who learned to cook barbecue over a backyard pit and still slow-cooks pork overnight before chopping it and serving it with a choice of four sauces.
Simply Southern Smokehouse BBQ & Country Buffet at 1913 Mr. Joe White Ave. in Myrtle Beach has two kinds of barbecue one with vinegar sauce and one naked with more sauces on the side. The restaurant is also developing a flavorful fried barbecue that will hopefully soon be on the menu.
Big Ds BBQ Trough is at 2917 Church St. in Conway, and its from the same couple who for years have owned Big Ds Bar-B-Que Barn in Myrtle Beach. They serve two pre-sauced barbecues: vinegar or mustard.
Rockabilly BBQ at 3401 N. Kings Highway in Myrtle Beach is open only for lunch, and its barbecue pork is served sliced in a manner similar to corned beef. Its served naked, and three sauces are on the tables.
Dickeys Barbecue Pit at 3731 Oleander Dr. in Myrtle Beach is scheduled to open Thursday (Aug. 29). Its a chain restaurant founded in Texas that serves pulled pork with three types of tomato-based sauces: original, sweet and spicy.