bona fide bbq
That Tantalizing Smoke
A bona fide barbecue joint should be way out in the country. It’s best if it isn’t open seven days a week. People need to wait on it. They need to anticipate the approaching banquet. Moreover, a bona fide barbecue joint needs to sit where you can see the smoke rising off hog drippings and coals as red as magma. It needs to have ample parking because patrons will pilgrimage to their preferred porcine shrine as faithfully as the rising sun.
A bona fide barbecue joint should issue an intoxicating 200-proof smoky bouquet with primeval roots. BBQ, bar-b-cue, or barbecue—just don’t call it “que”—set our DNA ablaze when lightning sparked woods afire and early man caught the scent of burnt hog. Well, that’s one theory. Ever how barbecue came to be, people love putting meat to a flame for there’s something about the commingling of meat and smoke. Of his uncle’s smokehouse, author Harry Crews wrote, “From it came the sweetest smoke a man was ever to smell.”
Smoke and meat. It’ll make you ravenous. You can savor that intoxicating fragrance at three bona fide barbecue establishments in South Carolina. Before we pull into the parking lots, however, appreciate the fact that South Carolina possesses not two, nor three, but four barbecue regions. South Carolina is the only state where you can experience all four styles of barbeque and with good reason. Barbecue originated here. Ok, let’s see that tantalizing smoke grease up the sky. Fasten your seatbelt and let’s head out.
At 1427 Eutaw Road in Holly Hill stands a wooden-shingled farmhouse with a rusty tin roof with a handsome oak out front. Come Fridays and Saturdays you can dine here on fine barbecue. Is it good? Jonah Wolpert has a succinct answer: “The best you’ll ever eat.
If you like to spice your food with a little history, Sweatman’s is your kind of place. The farmhouse was built in the 1800s and was part of a 10,000-acre cotton plantation, according to Karl Parker. Its destiny was to become a barbecues shrine.
Mr. and Mrs. Harold Sweatman, locals know them as Bub and Margie, opened a small barbecue place in Holly Hill when Ike was president, 1959. When they closed that location, they limited their cooking to family gatherings in an “old dairy” a few yards from their home. The hankering to operate a barbecue restaurant just wouldn’t go away and the Sweatman’s found themselves in business again in 1977 when they purchased the old farmhouse. For over three decades they served up great barbecue. When they retired, Mark Behr bought the business. He knew a good thing when he saw it, and besides, he was a fan. The Behr’s grew up eating Sweatman’s barbecue.
That old adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” came into play. Behr kept the recipes and uses veteran cook, Douglas “Bubby” Oliver in a consulting capacity to keep the cooking end in place. Oliver’s passing on the torch, you could say. With thirty-five years under his belt, Oliver understands cooking hogs. “Gone cook seven hogs tonight,” he says as he jams a shovel into red-gold coals. Oliver says hickory, oak, and pecan give their barbecue flavor. Whole hogs cook over hot coals for twelve to fourteen hours, basted continuously with a secret mustard-based sauce. They separate pulled pork into two pans: charred “outside meat” with more intense smoke flavor and flavorful “inside meat.
I asked Oliver how many people they feed a weekend. “Ah man, got to be over a couple thousand.” Ever how many come, they leave happy thanks to the all-you-can-eat specials, BBQ sandwiches, plates, and a full take-out menu complete with barbecued chicken and side items that include baked beans, mac and cheese, green beans, and rice and hash.
Southern Living, Garden & Gun, and USA Today covered Sweatman’s as has the Travel Channel’s “No Reservations” and “Bar-B-Que Crawl.” So did The Cooking Channel’s “Man, Fire, Food.” You can find Sweatman’s down a lovely country highway. When you go, don’t miss the statue of the pig out front that wears a chef’s toque. That pig, along with the fragrant smell, tells you are in for a treat.
At 17245 Hunters Chapel Road near Smoaks, you’ll find a barbecue place in the Little Swamp Community. Some folks say it’s in the middle of nowhere. Go there, however, and you’ll be somewhere all right—in the middle of some good eating, that’s where.
A big, sandy parking lot fronts B & D, and that sand sees lots of tire tracks. It’s rustic out here. Something about seeing a tractor and farm equipment close by feels comforting and right. A split-rail fence reinforces the feeling that you are at an authentic barbecue joint. You can thank Bobby and Dixie George, one-time farmers, for some fabulous barbecue. Some two decades ago Bobby and Dixie chose to leave farming behind. The idea of setting up a barbecue joint appealed to them. After all, barbecue is the Southerner’s DNA, and their community was rich in barbecue knowledge. Today, the people line up come Saturday afternoons and evenings. People fill the seats as others queue up for take-out orders by the pound.
Unlike many barbecue joints, a big buffet isn’t part of the allure. What appeals to people is the savory barbecue. If you’re a fan of a heavy tomato sauce, this place will suit you to a T. They cook only the hams and they make a very good hash from the shanks. Sides are minimal. A mammoth exhaust fan pours that fragrant smoke into the air and the people come. As Ms. Dixie put it, “Around here barbecue is a community enterprise.”
Lakeethia Hallman Smalls would agree with Ms. Dixie. Smalls says it’s “the best barbecue in the Lowcountry,” adding a touch of sweetness, “the homemade cakes are superb.” She appreciates what good food like this means to the area. “Living in a small town sometimes when you want a bite to eat, you don’t feel like driving far when you want a tasty treat. You make a B & D run!” Smalls says their food is awesome and the prices are even better and the atmosphere is friendly. “It’s a place where when you hit the front door you feel welcome.” Smalls adds that Mr. Bobby and Mrs. Dixie and their daughter run a jam-up establishment. “My husband just wants them to add one thing to the menu and that’s BBQ chicken.”
B & D dishes out a distinctive heavy tomato sauce barbecue. How good is it? A huge sign on the end of a spacious red metal building proclaims that B & D “Serves the Best … Dixie-licious!” Stop by and see for yourself.
Scott’s Variety Store
A famous blues tune goes “I went down to the crossroads, fell down on my knees.” Go down to where Hemingway Highway and Highway 261 intersect and get on your knees and thank a barbecue place that looks and sounds like a general store for fine eating. Scott’s Bar-B-Que, 2734 Hemingway Highway.
Ella and Roosevelt “Rosie” Scott brought that tantalizing smoke to Hemingway in 1972. Today, they sell pulled pork, two types of skins, and smoked barbecue chicken as well as a smoked barbecue ribeye steak. You can get a half and whole pit-cooked hog. The variety store sells watermelons, sweet potatoes, pecans, chips, and locally made syrup among other items. As for barbecued hog, they cook 10 to 12 hogs a night and slather one of the spiciest vinegar sauces you’ll ever taste all over them.
The barbecue world is rife with stories of secret sauces and cooking methods handed down by family members for a reason. There’s something to that. Rosie’s uncle taught him how best to slow cook whole hogs over a wood-burning pit. After designing his own pits for maximum success, Rosie devoted himself to serving authentic barbecue that draws accolades. Its essence comes down to passion. In the Scott’s own words “we love what we do. We built our own wood-burning pits to slow cook the whole hog overnight. Come morning, we’re ready to sell our mouth-watering bar-b-que with a side of skins and our secret family sauce.”
Giving Back … The Scott family appreciates the Hemingway community’s support. In return, they host a free community picnic each spring. The Scotts plan their family reunion to coincide with the event to make sure they have enough help to serve the ever-growing crowd for this tasty rite of spring.
Good food makes people talkative. Valerie George believes Scott’s is the best pulled barbecue ever. “I drove down from Florence today and will be making this trip at least twice a month. The sauce gives it just the right kick.”
Scott’s tantalizing smoke even made it into the New York Times where John T. Edge wrote, “For aficionados in search of ever-elusive authenticity, Scott’s offers all the rural tropes of a signal American barbecue joint … the crowd that Saturday afternoon was typical: Half black and half white, half locals and half pilgrims.”
The Secret Ingredient
Down South barbecues possesses a mystique. When it comes to that smoky meat, that addictive flavor, folks love to speculate about secret ingredients and “tricks of the trade” we’ll call them, but that’s smoke of another color.
Bring-you-back-over-and-over barbecue does have a classified ingredient, but if you know where to look, behind a door or in an outbuilding, you’ll spot the secret—the cook, an artist with knowledge, technique, and years of experience—a sure-fire recipe for success, and Sweatman’s, B & D, and Scott’s understand that. To that they add consistency, continuity, and originality. As it all comes together, smoke signals rise into the Palmetto sky, and the people get the message. They come by the droves, mesmerized as it were, by that tantalizing smoke.
- Editor's Note: This feature first appeared in SC Farmer magazine. Images: All of the images in this story were taken by the author, © Tom Poland.