When South Carolina Barbeque Association president Lake E. High, Jr. curated a whole hog lunch for Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, he proclaimed that South Carolina is "absolutely the barbecue capital of the world."
This isn't the wildest claim a barbecue evangelist can make. I can count at least four barbecue capitals of the world in the American South, and to be perfectly honest I'd like to see at least 50 more vying for the title. The environmental toll of all that burning wood may be an overriding concern. Then again, I may be a hungry man.
High's claim was partly based on the fact that South Carolina is the only state with four prominent barbecue sauce traditions: tomato, light tomato, vinegar, and mustard. Since mustard sauce, served in a region stretching from the greater Columbia area down to the coast, is the only one of these four that is limited to the Palmetto State, I made it a priority on my recent barbecue road trip through the Carolinas.
Shealy's Barbecue: Batesburg-Leeville, South Carolina
The most monumental smokehouse I visited was Shealy's, a local favorite of my hosts in Columbia. It exemplifies the area's no-holds-barred barbecue service. While barbecue houses in North Carolina tend to offer small sandwiches and modest trays of food, Shealy's houses a complete Southern buffet, salad bar and dessert bar, all covered by the all-you-can-eat price tag of $10.80.
In addition to two trays of pre-sauced whole hog barbecue—one doused in mustard sauce, the other in vinegar and pepper sauce—the buffet bar featured a full throttle of Southern sides and a particularly glorious mountain of southern fried chicken. Children swarmed and scattered—apparently, a beauty pageant had just gotten out, and from the count of tiaras, everyone aged four to 14 was a winner—as I cradled my tray through the bustle and sought a seat in one of many massive dining rooms.
Unfortunately, I wouldn't call it the best place to sell someone on mustard sauce. Although the barbecue at Shealy's was plenty tender, there was so much sauce that mustard dominated all other flavors. I'm hesitant to adopt many barbecue rules, but sauce on the side is an option I treasure dearly. While sauce can certainly heighten the pleasures of well-smoked meat, it can just as easily overwhelm the subtle flavors that pit masters work so hard to achieve.
Shealy's hash had the same overwhelming flavor: strong tang bordering on acridity. As with the barbecue anywhere, I remain hopeful for the quality of the cooking, but I worry that adding too much mustard hurts what could have been fantastic food. In addition to this imbalanced flavor, a more watery texture left this hash on the side of "OK."
After sampling the barbecue, I dove into the buffet bar's other options and discovered that fried chicken was the secret star of the house. Moist and hearty with a fluffy and crispy crust, Shealy's chicken was a simple Southern joy I'd be happy to relive.
340 East Columbia Ave., Batesburg, SC 29070 (map); 803-532-8135
Jackie Hite's Bar-B-Q: Batesburg-Leeville, South Carolina
Just a few waddles away, Jackie Hite's feels like the polar opposite of Shealy's. Instead of interlocking dining halls, there are just a handful of tables, and the din of a communal barbecue gives way to the stark calm of an unadorned dining room.
Jackie Hite's setup, however, is essentially identical to Shealy's. A buffet bar, smaller in its spread but no less bountiful in its offerings, houses full trays of whole hog barbecue, hash, cracklin', fried chicken, sides and dessert. Eager to try more of the regional specialty, I picked up a buffet tray and went to town on mustard-sauced pork.
The Hite family hog, which has been smoked low and slow over wood coals for over 50 years, struck me as an improvement over the barbecue at Shealy's. The saucing was still too heavy-handed for my tastes, but a strong smoky flavor permeated the meat and made it through the forward taste of mustard, giving Jackie Hite's an edge on the day I was lucky enough to try both plates back to back.
Jackie Hite's Bar-B-Q
467 W Church Street, Batesburg-Leesville SC 29006 (map)
Sweatman's Barbecue: Holly Hill, South Carolina
Neither Shealy's nor Jackie Hite's—or most meals, for that matter—could compare to the experience of eating at Sweatman's in Holly Hill. Just getting to this legendary restaurant, a private residence turned barbecue lodge in the countryside of Orangeburg County, constitutes a visit to the rural roots of South Carolina's barbecue.
Taking the best of both buffets, the interior of Sweatman's houses multiple dining rooms, each approaching quaint without being too fussy about it. The buffet is even more minimalist than those of Shealy's and Jackie Hite's, offering whole hog barbecue, hash, slaw, cracklin' and (yes!) ribs.
One distinction of Sweatman's service is the separation of pork into "light" and "dark" portions. It's a brilliant move—diners can choose from the more tender inner portions, the greasy, chewy outside meat pulled from the edges of the hog, or a mixture of everything on the table. Both are pre-sauced just enough to add a bit of twang without overtaking the flavors of pork, fat and smoke. If you decide that lots of mustard sauce really is your thing, a water cooler full of the stuff rests above the buffet bar for dispensing into styrofoam cups.
Sweatman's "dark" meat carries the smoky taste of the oak, hickory, and pecan wood that fuels its cooking process. It's a chewy, porky, savory triumph. The quality of the barbecue here, accompanied by a small splash of the house's well-balanced mustard sauce, is something I hope every barbecue fan gets to try at some point.
Throw in the smokehouse's meaty, tender pork ribs and its stellar barbecue hash, and I'd say this is also a solid case for "one hundred mile" barbecue—food so good that I'd easily make a hundred mile pilgrimage (maybe even a 500 hundred mile pilgrimage?) to fall down at Bub Sweatman's door. As long as places like this wear the barbecue pants in South Carolina, the mustard belt will be one Hell of a fit—well, at least until closing time at the buffet bar.
1313 Gemini Drive, Holly Hill SC 29059 (map); 803-492-7543
About the author: James Boo has been a Serious Eats contributor since 2010. Working as a freelance journalist, he is also the founder of Real Cheap Eats and a documentarian. Check out his food-and-travel blog, The Eaten Path, for more journeys to the real meal.