South Carolina: Sweatman's Bar-B-Que
Route 453 North, Holly Hill SC (map)
Sweatman's Bar-b-que is the type of place that comes to mind when envisioning the Southern barbecue pit. Located on a dusty back road off I-95, the restaurant is housed in a cabin-style building with a smoke pit behind the main house. Pecan and hickory trees line the roads; fields of corn grow nearby. True to its rustic charm, the pit is only open two days a week, a vestige that Ed Levine chalks up to the logging industry's work schedule in bygone days. I've wanted to try Sweatman's ever since it was featured on No Reservations. Luckily for us, we were driving through South Carolina on a Friday (the restaurant is open on Fridays and Saturdays).
$9.35 gets you the all-you-can-eat barbecue deal, which includes chopped pork, ribs, rice, and coleslaw. I could have easily gone without eating their chopped pork, which, even when separated into "inner" and "outer" to denote the part of the pig that goes into the mixture, was extremely dry. Sweatman's ribs, on the other hand, were extremely tender and moist with a deep and smoky flavor. If I'm ever back in South Carolina, I'd go out of my way just to have those ribs again.
Sweatman's chopped pork incorporates the whole hog - almost, that is. When I asked the gentleman running the counter that day if they made use of the heads, he shook his own and replied that they bought their pigs headless. The pits are fueled mostly by hickory with a little pecan wood thrown into the mix.
A mustard-based sauce coats the ribs - subtly sweet with a mild spiciness, the sauce is the perfect complement for the pork. The ribs were moist and almost falling off the bone in a mass of shredded tendrils; while the meat was appropriately juicy, most of the fat seemed to have drained away the twelve to fourteen hour cooking time on the pit.
I lost track after my fourth or fifth visit back to the buffet line to get more ribs, but somehow, I found room for dessert. (The sides - fluffy Carolina-style rice and coleslaw - are unmemorable but not offensive. While there's plenty of crackly shards of skin to be served on the side, the skin was lacking in porky flavor, with a cardboard-like texture that was just slightly improved by a soak in the sauce.)
Sweatman's one and only dessert option is banana pudding, for the incredible price of 65 cents per perfectly portioned cup. The pudding is thick without being too cloying, the bananas and wafers are fresh-tasting, and most importantly, the entire concoction is served chilled.
Memories of those ribs and the banana pudding still linger, as does the feel of the restaurant itself. As I paid for my meal, I noticed Ziploc bags of pecans for sale - 5 dollars a pound - and inquired about the provenance of the nuts.
"Oh, we just rounded up a bunch of folks and got them to shell the pecans from the trees around this area," the man told me.
I bought only one bag, and have since spent many a moment regretting my foolishness in not purchasing the whole lot. Besides their rock-bottom price, those pecans were some of the freshest-tasting nuts I've eaten. The journey to Sweatman's off the I-95 may be a considerable detour, but it's worth going for the ribs and the incomparable banana pudding.