Every city-dwelling rib fiend knows the urban legend of the barbecue shack. Out there, we're told as we reach for another moist towelette, is the true barbecue, a holy hole in the wall where Yankees dare not tread. Authenticity is best served in a sweaty cage of two-by-fours, piled on plain white bread by a Civil War veteran whose meat-smoking prowess has somehow kept him alive for the better part of 160 years. It's a fact, after all, that pigs tasted better before Antietam.
Seeking to preserve the legend of old-fashioned barbecue in practice, the South Carolina legislature voted a "Truth in Barbecue" law into the books in 1986, demanding that barbecue restaurants in the state inform their customers up front whether or not they cook their meat with wood smoke. If pork were involved, restaurants would also have to inform their customers whether or not they used the whole hog.
When it comes to truth, however, execution is rarely as empowered as declaration. A cursory search of the state house's code of laws turns up no such act in effect, and the observation that few if any restaurants have purchased the stickers proffered as a means of proving authenticity indicates that truth in barbecue remains the purview of pit masters in the Palmetto state.
One of those masters, Rodney Scott, appeared at this year's Big Apple Barbecue Block Party as part of the panel discussion on Cut/Chop/Cook, a Southern Foodways Alliance documentary about his take on true barbecue in the small town of Hemingway. Positively inflamed by the film and by the words of John T. Edge, I put Scott's at the top of my list before hitting the highway.
The road to South Carolina provided a surprisingly affecting transition. While there seem to be few practical differences between the Carolinas today, I had never felt so squarely in the country as I did during my jaunt to Hemingway. Part of this distinction lied in the fact that many of North Carolina's barbecue hot spots are not far removed from the contemporary ones. In Lexington, Raleigh, Greenville and Ayden, the smoke joint itself is cozy and modern, a place of service that has taken its cue from competition with fast food and the restaurant business.
Scott's Variety Store tells a different story. Standing at an unremarkable crossroads in a town with fewer than 600 residents, the building itself exists outside Main Street and Wall Street. It's a rickety thing on solid ground, a no-frills construction sustained by its owners just as much as by its customers. To say that Scott's is a relic is to underestimate the feeling that this is as real as it gets. Simply looking at it, you can't help but ask: Are the legends of barbecue true, after all?
As I approached the building, I realized that I had never noticed respect for the front porch as I have in South Carolina. In Charleston, million-dollar homes place their front doors not at the entrance to the house, but at the head of an extended covered stretch that flanks each luxuriant building. In Columbia, my hosts and I spent much of our time on their modest suburban porch, sipping beer, putting out cigarettes and indulging their retriever in the occasional game of fetch.
Scott's porch plays no less a role. A summer's bounty of watermelons lines one wooden bench. Locals and employees rest on the other, holding court beside the Pepsi machine as customers come and go. I might take my shock at this scene as proof that I've been successfully absorbed into the collective urban mind that is New York; even so, my own dandyism doesn't preclude the possibility that this place really is that special.
Scott's only serves whole hog barbecue on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. During those three days the stores sells 15 to 20 hogs' worth (between 2,000 and 2,800 pounds) of smoked pork, attracting visitors from miles around. The rest of the week, Scott's is not much more than a half-stocked, rustic convenience mart with doors that seldom open for regular business. Dated beverage coolers laced with rust lay dormant. A pyramid of pre-sliced white bread faces off with boxes of pre-made pork rinds and the candy counter that houses the store's only register.
On cooking days, customers line up at Scott's barbecue for a crack at the takeaway menu, limited only to the meats that were cooked over the past day. The measure of a meal stretches from half a pound of chopped pork ($4) to a whole large hog ($425) and is punctuated by the option of chicken, possibly as an appetizer.
I took my styrofoam tray across the street, where a few picnic tables act as placemats. Flipping open the lid, the unmitigated scent of pork leaped out, heightening my senses as much as the stinging bites from fire ants that had crawled up my leg to demand a taste.
If these ants had learned to fight for barbecue, I had the Scotts to blame—their whole hog was nothing short of perfect. Apportioned in moist chunks and tender strands with chewy bits throughout, the barbecue here was as good as any I'd ever had. The natural sweetness of pork was tempered with just a bit of meaty funk. A double kick of dry seasoning brought my tastebuds into focus. Underneath it all was a deep, smoky undertone from the homemade wood coals used to cook Scott's hogs.
Just when I thought lunch couldn't get any better, I uncapped Scott's spicy barbecue sauce, a mighty two-step of pepper, then vinegar in a region where vinegar, then pepper is the norm. Thin and front-loaded, it unobtrusively coated the pork, leading into rather than interfering with the meaty body and smoky aftertaste of whole hog. It was the perfect complement that sauce should be, introducing a forward tang with a hefty pitch of heat behind it.
When I walked back into the store to thank Mrs. Ella Scott for one of the best meals of my life, she immediately called her son, whose truck pulled up within minutes. He gave me a full tour of the smokehouse, which operated much less on the principle of a master than it did on the principle of family. About seven family members—including the Mr. Scott, Sr., Mrs. Scott, and several cousins—comprise the core of Scott's operation, and while Rodney plays point man, he leads a cooperative effort.
Rodney was happy not just to talk about barbecue but also to trade travel stories and issue a sly warning about the girls on King Street in Charleston. Just before I hit the road, he extended an invitation to the Scotts' Easter picnic, a Hemingway reunion and all-day party held in their vacant lot and fueled by all kinds of southern cooking.
Truth in barbecue is its own personal law, one that results not from categorical technicality but from holistic craft. The full experience of eating at Scott's spelled this out in terms of pure satisfaction—this meal was more than an idyllic mirage.