Barbecue, with a South Carolina Accent
Few culinary topics are debated more than the origin of barbecue in the United States, but South Carolina is home to centuries-old traditions that few states can match. It's also one of the few places where you'll find four different barbecue sauces — often on the same table.
Take a trip across the state following the BBQ Trail Map, where you can find more than 250 barbecue restaurants across the mountains, midlands and coast. Fear not, there’s plenty to wash it down with, whether that’s a glass of sweet tea or a stop at the breweries and distilleries on the Satisfy Your Thirst Trail.
Just don’t say we didn’t warn you if you’re drooling by the end of the story.
Barbecue, South Carolina Style
Let’s get one thing straight. Barbecue is a noun in South Carolina and it means pork and only pork. (Getting even more granular, it’s most often pulled pork cooked in a smoky pit.) Other meats, such as beef and chicken, can be (action word) barbecued, but only pork is referred to as barbecue.
“Slow and low” is a phrase you’ll hear a lot regarding South Carolina barbecue as meat cooked over low temperatures for hours over hardwood coals is the founding principle dating back to colonial days. The complete opposite of fast food, this laid-back approach to cooking is almost the embodiment of the Southern way of life. Barbecue is a way of gathering friends and family together, and more often than not, South Carolina barbecue joints are second- and third-generation owned.
Over time, four different barbecue sauces have emerged: mustard, vinegar and pepper, light tomato and heavy tomato. These can either be served on the side or brushed/“mopped” on while the meat cooks. While you might find all four sauces on the menu throughout the state, they each have a predominant hold in certain regions of the state. So grab your South Carolina BBQ Trail map and let’s dig in.
SC Mountains BBQ Trail
Head to the western and northwestern corner of South Carolina (essentially along I-85) if it’s that heavy, tomato-based barbecue you’re craving. It’s got a hint of sweetness — in fact, it’s sometimes called a tomato and sugar sauce. This tends to be the kind of barbecue sauce sold in grocery stores around the U.S., but obviously, the real thing is always better.
One of the most famous restaurants in this area is Bucky’s BBQ in Greenville. It started as a small roadside stop in 2000 and has since grown into a local staple with four locations. You could focus on one plate of meat (pork, chicken or ribs) but why not go whole hog, so to speak, if given the chance and try the sampler platter that includes 3 ounces of pork, 1/4 chicken and two large ribs with bread and your choice of two sides (think sweet baked beans, macaroni and cheese, Cajun pinto beans and homemade coleslaw).
At Creekside Bar-Be-Cue in Anderson, dishes are slow cooked with hickory and pecan wood, using the same recipes passed down through three generations. Dainty eaters may go for the pork, chicken or rib plates that are served with three sides (choices include a baked potato, collard greens and fried okra), but hearty eaters might choose to impress with the combo plates. Order a Triple (pork with two other meats), a Big Four (pork and three other meats) or the Mighty Five (pork, 1/2 chicken, shrimp, ribs and beef brisket) — which of course, also come with a choice of three sides.
If you make your selection based on cute names of what you’re about to eat, you’ve got The Jiggy Pig in Gaffney, The Little Pigs of Anderson, The Pompous Pig (Anderson), The Smokin’ Pig (Anderson, Easley, Pendelton and Williamston) and The Spotted Pig BBQ (Fair Play).
SC Midlands BBQ Trail
The northeast region of the state, known as the Pee Dee area after the Pee Dee River, is famous for its whole hog cooking. Tracing these traditions back to farm families who would slaughter a pig and cook it on a pit to share it, Pee Dee cooks typically use cinder block pits or brick pits full of hardwood coals and the whole hogs are cooked for 12 hours or more inside these pits.
When the meat is nearly ready, it is then mopped with the light tomato signature sauce of the Pee Dee region and upper middle part of the state. This light tomato sauce is basically a vinegar and pepper sauce with ketchup added for a little sweetness. Common side dishes include a slice or two of white bread, coleslaw, beans and perloo or chicken bog, which are regional rice dishes.
A mustard-style sauce, often thought of as South Carolina’s unofficial state sauce since this is the only place you’ll find it, is also used in the Midlands. Brought to the area by an influx of mustard-loving German immigrants in the 1700s, the sauce is a bright yellow color and can be almost pure mustard or more commonly it’s sweetened with honey or brown sugar and also contains cider vinegar or black pepper for a little kick.
Hash and rice is a popular barbecue side dish in the Midlands and if you’re thinking of hash browns, let me stop you there. Hash essentially makes use of all the parts of the pig that didn’t make it onto the plate already and turns it into a meat gravy of sorts.
Florence is known for its whole-hog barbecue at places like Roger’s Bar-B-Q House and Woodstone Barbecue. Open Fridays and Saturdays, Sweatman’s Bar-B-Q in Holly Hill has been smoking pork since 1977 and has been featured on the Travel Channel’s “No Reservations” as well as the Cooking Channel’s “Man, Fire, Food.” Antley’s Bar-B-Q offers its own take on the region’s sauce with its “Orangeburg Sweet Sauce”, which is sweeter and has a touch of ketchup.
SC Coastal BBQ Trail
As the name implies, the coastal trail stretches from Myrtle Beach down past Beaufort. This is where the vinegar and pepper sauce has had a stronghold for hundreds of years. It’s favored by those who like a bit of heat, thanks to the acidity of the vinegar.
Head to Charleston find the 2018 winner of the prestigious James Beard Best Chef: Southeast award, pitmaster Rodney Scott, who moved from Pee Dee to Low Country. At Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ, locally sourced wood is cut and chopped and used to slow cook the meat for 12 hours overnight; once the pig is ready, Scott’s proprietary concoction of red pepper and vinegar sauce gets mopped on the meat. Here is also where you can try a rib sandwich in which the bones and all arrive between two slices of white bread.
Open Thursdays-Saturdays, Baker’s BBQ in Summerville offers a unique dish called barbecue pie, which arose from a misunderstanding. The owners once had a sign boasting BBQ and pie (for their sweet tea pecan pie) and were asked for a barbecue pie. Not one to disappoint potential customers, the restaurant now serves a flaky pie crust filled with pulled pork, tomato sauce and cheese.
You can thank Summerville for that nectar of the gods known as sweet tea. A staple on menus in South Carolina thanks to a French botanist who brought the first tea plants to America, the state is home to Charleston Tea Garden, America’s only tea plantation, owned by Bigelow Tea, on Wadmalaw Island. From May through October when the tea is harvested, visitors can walk through the production facility and learn how tea is processed from green leaves to the finished product.
South Carolina is also home to another sort of brew, that of the potent kind: moonshine. Dating back to Prohibition when farmers were using backwoods stills to turn their corn and sugar into magic, these micro distilleries across the state today number more than 24 and produce bourbon, rum and vodka in addition to moonshine.
No stranger to craft breweries, South Carolina is dotted with more than 40 of them. Some of the brewery names give a nod to the region or state history, like Swamp Cabbage Brewing Co. in Columbia (swamp cabbage is the nickname of the palmetto, the state tree), Brewery 85 in Greenville (in reference to I-85) and Hilton Head Brewing on Hilton Head Island.
Whether you prefer alcoholic or nonalcoholic beverages, there is something delicious to drink no matter where in South Carolina you are. Download a free copy of the official Satisfy Your Thirst Tour map, but try not to fill up on liquids before you get some barbecue in your belly.
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