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Pig Tales from the Road

(Clockwise from top left) Looking out on King Street past the pig statue on the Barbecue Bus’ dashboard; Rien Fertel and Denny Culbert; Little Joe Brunson (also shown at left) removes a crisp pork skin from the pit at Sweatman’s Barbecue in Holly Hill. Photographs (4) by Denny Culbert

June 20, 2012

Pig Tales from the Road
The Southern Foodways Alliance’s Barbecue Bus is in town this week rooting out savory Lowcountry stories

Written by Harriet McLeod

A state-of-the-art eco-friendly RV cruising Charleston this week bears decals that say: “The Barbecue Bus” and “Oink if you love barbecue.” It contains food historian Rien Fertel, 31, and photographer Denny Culbert, 27, both residents of Lafayette, Louisiana. They are on assignment with the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) and the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture to complete the South Carolina portion of their ongoing documentary project, The Southern BBQ Trail.

That means Fertel and Culbert are delving into the history and culture of our barbecue from the Upstate to the coast: firing up pigs in all-night sessions with pitmasters, talking to small-town restaurant customers, and eating, eating, eating. We caught up with them at King Street’s Jim ‘N Nicks over lemon icebox pie.

CM: Define “barbecue.”
“A whole hog cooked over oak and hickory wood coals is the original form of barbecue. It’s a 12- to 24-hour process. Only a handful of places are still doing it throughout the South. What’s become more common now is the use of gas or electricity, charcoal even. But everyone has their own definition, just like everyone has their own spelling. Barbecue is whatever these restaurants say it is.”

CM: Where do you find barbecue?
“It’s the food most closely associated with the South, but barbecue is somewhat exotic to me. We don’t have any barbecue or any barbecue history in Louisiana. Tennessee does. Georgia does. South Carolina, North Carolina, of course. Kentucky has goat barbecue. Texas has beef brisket. Arkansas and Virginia have pork barbecue.”

CM: What can a food historian learn about barbecue in South Carolina?
“South Carolina is unique in that it has four sauce varieties. There’s a light tomato, a heavier tomato, a vinegar, and the mustard sauce. We’re trying to get at where those regions exist, why they exist. We’re going to the oldest, most historical places to get the stories behind them. Some of the barbecue houses are 70, 80 years old and still owned by the original families.”

CM: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve found in South Carolina?
Hash. No one hash looks like any other and certainly they don’t taste alike. It’s ground-up pork served over rice. Sometimes it’s pork and onions and tomatoes. The very first hash we had at Midway’s in Buffalo, South Carolina, was all beef. Midway also sold liver mush.
RF: Nowhere else in the South did we see hash.

CM: What about Charleston’s barbecue history?
Urban barbecue 100 years ago was rare. It really is a rural thing. The general consensus is that it came out of plantation culture, sharecropping or before that in slavery days, as a way to feed a lot of people that lived in one place. Charleston doesn’t really have a rich historical barbecue culture that is still going on. We want to interview one of the Bessingers here in Charleston. They’re doing the oldest barbecue in the area.”

CM: Who has the best barbecue?
At no point are we restaurant critics or food critics. Everyone says that their barbecue is the best. I definitely have a soft spot in my heart for whole hog barbecue.

CM: Is barbecue bad for you?
“We’ve definitely met some people who are into their 80s and 90s and eat barbecue every day.”

Follow the Barbecue Bus:
On the web:
On the blog:
On Twitter:!/TheBarbecueBus and!/potlikker
On Instagram:

Eateries from Texas to Alabama to Tennessee are already on The Southern BBQ Trail’s interactive map. Check it out here.

To read our July feature, “Asado Southern Style,” about a barbecue feast that Jim ‘N Nick’s executive chef Drew Robinson cooked up—and get his recipes—click here.

Thu, 06/21/2012