As New York prepares for the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party, one of the largest barbecue events in the country, pitmasters from around the country are preparing to bring the best of regional barbecue to a crowed of over 100,000. Rodney Scott is one such pitmaster, getting ready to truck at least two dozen hogs from his home base in Hemingway, South Carolina. He cooked his first hog at age 11 at his parents' general store and never looked back. He's since taken over its barbecue operations and continued roasting whole hogs every week for his rural community.
This weekend, he'll be roasting his hogs in a slightly different setting—Madison Square Park among the likes of fellow barbecue masters like Mike Mills and Ed Mitchell. We spoke to Rodney just a few days before his Big Apple Barbecue Block Party debut about how he's planning to take on the massive crowds, what goes into his prep work, and what role barbecue plays in his community down South.
How are you feeling about bringing your South Carolina 'cue to a big crowd in New York? It's an honor just to be able to get into the block party. And to bring what I do to New York City is just bringing the country all the way up to the city. It's a great chance to bond the city with the rural life of the country.
What kind of prep work is involved in such a huge operation? We cook with all wood, so we're getting the wood preparations together—and everything that we may need from pots, pans, products, all that kind of stuff—into the delivery trucks. Everything is getting shipped up through trucks and friends and all that good stuff. We expect to bring at least 24 hogs, to do 12 a day and stage them so that they're coming off hot all day long. We're doing everything in the park so everyone will be able to see how we cook 'em here at home.
At home, we butterfly them and put them flesh side down on a pit. And we roast them for at least 12 hours, then flip them over with the skin side down and continue to fire them with our dry seasonings and sauce while the skins bake. We're gonna start cooking Friday afternoon so we'll have everything coming off just right-nice and hot-on Saturday. The passersby will get a chance to see us taking some meat off as well as seasoning some up, pulling it apart, prepping samples for everyone in line. They'll get to see us at work.
How does your whole hog recipe differ from others that you've seen, say from Ed Mitchell's, who has appeared at the Block Party previously? I'm not sure, but I think Ed sauces his hog once he takes it off the fire. He breaks it apart and puts his touch on it from there. Ours is ready to eat when we pull it off the fire. The only thing that may be added to ours is a little extra sauce. But as soon as it's done on the fire, it's ready to eat.
The event emphasizes regional barbecue. How do you feel about representing the South Carolina area? Do you think Scott's is a good representation of that region? I feel great about it, eally positive about representing the area, because South Carolina—the lower region—is one of the regions that does mostly vinegar-based sauces. A lot of folks are not familiar with our particular style, they're mostly used to tomato-based and ketchup-based sauces. But to get a chance to introduce them to what we do, I feel confident about representing this area. If you don't believe in your product, who will? I always say a returning customer is the biggest reward you can get out of what we do.
Are you intimidated at all, cooking for such a large crowd, when you typically barbecue out of a small general store? Everyone that's in sight of me, I kind of see them as just taking a quick look. I don't ignore them, but I stay focused on doing what I do. I just pretend it's like a family reunion.
That's what barbecue's all about right? What does it mean to you personally, and your community? Yeah! Barbecue is family. It's a sign that says "Hey, everybody come over here!" It means bonding, family reunions, get-togethers. It's a moment where you let the world go and enjoy the food that's being prepared and the people you're with. Everyone comes for the same common reason, to eat the barbecue that's smoking.
Do you feel like Scott's, your general store, plays that kind of role in Hemingway? We play a big role in the community, but the community also plays a big role in our business. At this very moment I'm cutting a tree out of a driveway that fell down in a storm. A tree blew over and someone in our town can't get out of his driveway, and the tree that fell just happens to be the kind I need. So he's giving me the wood to clear his driveway, and in turn I take the wood to the hogs so that I can continue to sell barbecue throughout the week. It's hand in hand for us here.
Every Easter Saturday, we do a picnic giving back to the community. We do rice, collards, chicken, hot dogs, green beans. And everything is free; we give it away from 3 to 8 PM. So it's kind of our way of saying thank you.
Besides your food, what are you hoping to bring to New Yorkers, or teach us about what barbecue means? I hope to bring back the memories of what things used to be. We do barbecue in a way that a lot of families used to way back in the day. I hope it brings back a feeling that barbecue can be a peaceful moment. It doesn't have to be a competition or a particular style; it can just be one big gathering where everybody can get together, get along, and forget about all the problems in the world for a few minutes and enjoy a decent meal cooked off the grill, whether it's a rib, or a pulled pork sandwich. Hopefully New Yorkers can understand that "Hey, how are you?" mentality, that Southern hospitality that we can all share even in the north.
How did you get involved with the Block Party this year? I helped out with some friends of mine, Jim 'n Nick's Barbecue, last year. They have a chain of stores and three in South Carolina. I was invited by them and I got to experience the Block Party and see how it operates. I got to see all the people lined up, a lot of them who've never seen it or understood it. From there I just kind of connected with everybody: Kenny Callaghan and Danny Meyer, Mike Mills, Ed Mitchell. We all share the same common love: to cook barbecue. Eventually, they invited me up and I said of course.
This is the tenth anniversary for the Big Apple Block Party. And I have all these thoughts in my mind that ten is the perfect number. So I'm thinking this will be the perfect ten, the perfect time to introduce my style to all the rest of the styles that have already been there, to add a little more variety to what's already there. It takes all day to taste everything because you get so full so fast. I feel like this year a lot of folks are gonna come check it out.
This is kind of a rare chance to get together with this national community that do what you do. What's the spirit going to be like? I don't know about the rest of the guys, but where I'm gonna be standing it's gonna be a party. I like to cook to music, and if there's any music that I can hear around me, it'll be a party. It's a party within 10 feet of Rodney Scott, always.
Are you hoping to learn anything from your fellow pit masters? Always. There's always room for learning. Learning how to handle that crowd, I got a lot of tips from my friends here at Jim 'n Nick's. I've gotten a lot of recommendations on how to keep it going all day and not run out in the middle of the day. I've cooked for as many as 3,000, but never this many. One of the tips they gave me was staging. Pacing myself to have, say, four hogs ready by the time we're open. And just before those four run out, I'll have another hot four coming off. I'm guesstimating that ten hogs will be gone by this hour, but we'll have ten more ready for the next few hours.
Are you planning on chowing down on at the party? Anything you're hoping to eat while in New York that you can't typically access at home? Of course! It's always good to taste someone else's barbecue, because you get to see how much hard work someone else is doing. And you don't feel as bad because you're not the only one working that hard. I'm looking forward to the Watering Hole—they do lemonade and Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. That guy's amazing. I always like to go to the Watering Hole whenever things are done. I'm definitely looking forward to that. And a Shake Shack burger!