For most of its 350-year history, Charleston, South Carolina, had no real barbecue tradition to speak of. It wasn't until the decades just after World War II, when the Bessinger and Dukes families brought their mustard-based sauce and hash and rice down from Orangeburg County, that the city adopted what passed for a local style. Now, though, something new is in the works. In just the past few years, Charleston has blossomed into something of a Southern barbecue hub, and it’s done so not by looking inward but rather by drawing on a range of traditions and influences from all over the place.
That great diversity of barbecue was on vivid display earlier this month at the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, where many of the events celebrated the joys of fire and smoke.
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In the heart of downtown, an entire section of the Culinary Village in Marion Square was given over to “Open Flame Feasts,” where local chefs cooked everything from porchetta to oysters on giant cauldron grills. Holding up the “wine” end of the Wine + Food festival, a “Pork + Pinot” tasting offered up a selection of Cloudy Bay wines chosen specifically to pair with smoked pork. It was held at Swig-and-Swine, a recent arrival in the West Ashley neighborhood, which serves smoked brisket, turkey, and pork belly alongside the pulled pork that’s more commonly associated with the Carolinas.
For those wanting to experience old-school South Carolina barbecue, the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) sponsored a “Highway to Hemingway” road trip. Two tour buses filled with festival-goers made the long drive out to Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, one of the standard bearers of the traditional Pee Dee style of whole-hog, burn-barrel barbecue.
Back in Charleston, though, it was a cavalcade of barbecue from all over the South. On Saturday night, the SFA held its annual BBQ Tent Revival at Jim ‘N Nick’s Community Bar-B-Q (itself an import from Birmingham, Alabama.) Each year the SFA honors one of the kings or queens of American barbecue, and this time around, the honoree was from Texas—Robert Patillo of Patillo’s Bar-B-Q in Beaumont, which has been in business since 1912 and is famous for its “grease balls” (spicy, garlic-laden beef sausage).
The festival closed out with “Toasted: Up in Smoke,” a barbecue block party that brought together more than a dozen teams of pitmasters and chefs.
Some, like Sam Jones of Skylight Inn in Ayden, North Carolina as well as the newly-opened Sam Jones Barbecue in Winterville, went straight down the middle with a chopped whole hog sandwich topped with coleslaw. Two Richmond pitmasters, Tuffy Stone of Cool Smoke and Josh Loeb of Q Barbecue, delivered a sampling of “Virginia pork barbeque,” while Mike and Amy Mills of 17th Street Barbecue in Murphysboro, Illinois, dished up barbecue ribs and baked beans.
Griffin Buffkin of Southern Soul Barbeque on St. Simons Island served up a classic Georgia-style Brunswick stew, cooked in a giant pot over a gas burner and stirred with a paddle. The savory blend of pork, chicken, and beef with tomato, onions, corn, and limas got a dose of Southern Soul’s barbecue sauces, resulting in a sweet, tangy, and eminently rich concoction.
Tennessee was well represented, too, with Carey Bringle of Nashville’s Peg Leg Porker teaming up with local farmer Tank Jackson of Holy City Hogs to cook a 180-pound mulefoot. For an added Tennessee twist, Bringle served it over jalapeno corn cakes (eating barbecue on corn cakes is an old middle Tennessee thing) and goosed it up a little with melted “pitmaster’s butter”—pork fat rendered from boston butts and blended with butter.
Other pitmasters veered away from the traditional. Rodney Scott’s Pee Dee-style whole hog got a cheffy touch from Trey Dutton of Southern Keep, who topped the tender strands of fiery, tongue-tingling pork with sweet corn chow-chow. The crew from Home Team BBQ, who were just days away from opening their third area restaurant, took a little time out to prepare brisket rillettes and smoked linguica sausage with Michael Gallina of St. Louis’s Rooster and the Hen.
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Brisket-master John Lewis, who recently moved from Austin to Charleston and is in the process of opening a new restaurant, teamed up with Wyatt Dickson and Ben Adams of the newly-launched Picnic in Durham, North Carolina, to create Hot Guts Corndogs—central Texas-style hot guts sausage smoked on Dickson’s whole hog cooker then rolled in a cornmeal batter and deep fried.
Swig + Swine’s Anthony Dibernardo and Jason Alley, chef/partner at two Richmond restaurants named Comfort and Pasture, collaborated on a Southern Bo Ssam, wrapping smoked pork inside a bright green collard leaf. Equally exotic was the mashup from three Atlanta cooks, Eddie Hernandez of Taqueria del Sol and Jonathan and Justin Fox of Fox Bros. BBQ, who concocted smoked short rib pastrami tacos topped with Southwestern slaw.
The sun was long set by the time I left the Toasted event and headed home across the big Ravenel bridge over Charleston Harbor, my jacket emitting faint whiffs of hickory smoke. Out on the harbor below twinkled the red and green lights of ships at anchor. Perhaps it’s fitting, I thought. Even from its earliest days, Charleston was a town of import and export, a nexus where ingredients and culinary traditions from around the globe came together. So why not for barbecue, too?
The Charleston Wine + Food events, I think, offered a sort of preview of the future of barbecue in one of the South’s great culinary cities. At least a half dozen new barbecue joints have opened in the city in the past year, and several more are still in the works. Their fare is as diverse and ambitious as the dishes served up at the festival, and in an upcoming installment we’ll take a survey of this evolving Charleston barbecue restaurant scene.