Barbecue has been a vital part of American life as far back as the 17th century. It started when British colonists borrowed cooking techniques from Native Americans, and it became the country’s most popular form of public celebration in the 19th century. The 20th century brought with it the rise of barbecue stands and restaurants. Though barbecue almost faded into extinction in the 1970s, it has been revitalized in recent decades and remains a key part of our food culture today.
The state of South Carolina has played an important role in the larger story of barbecue. We asked City Paper food writer and Southern food historian Robert Moss to give us some of the highlights of barbecue’s history in the Palmetto State. On Sept. 19, Moss’ latest book, Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, will be published by the University of Alabama Press.
Ten Things You May Not Know About South Carolina Barbecue
Barbecue has a long and colorful history in South Carolina. Here are 10 of the more notable highlights from its 300-year story:
1. A Gentleman’s Barbecue Club: There is no record of any barbecues occurring in Charleston until after the Civil War. In the late 18th century, however, the Beaufort Hunting Club had a barbecue house located about a mile outside of town where the leading citizens would gather away from the common rabble to eat barbecued turkey and sirloin and drink plenty of rum. The boozing was not optional. One newly arrived visitor from Scotland refused to drink and was sentenced to a one-mile foot race. Given a five-yard head start, if he outran the entire “barbacue posse” he could do as he pleased; if caught, he would have to consume the proper quantity of liquor. Perhaps unsurprisingly, since he was the only sober one, the Scotsman outran his pursuers without trouble. The Beaufort barbecue house was destroyed by a hurricane in 1804, an event captured in verse by the Charleston Courier.
2. Elegant Backwoods Barbecues: In the 1770s, as families moved down along the Appalachians from Virginia into South Carolina, they carried the Virginia barbecue tradition with them into the S.C. backcountry. William Richardson, a Charleston merchant, visited a backcountry barbecue in the Camden district and, in a letter to his wife, described the meal as “two Hogs & a Quarter of Beef of the couler of a piece of Beef Tied to a string & dragged thro’ Chs Town streets on a very dry dusty day & then smoke dried.” He further advised his wife, “Don’t tell this to any of your squeemish C Town ladies for they … might think us cannibals & with some propiety, if they could suppose a half roasted hog, with the blood running out at every cut of the Knife, any thing like human flesh.” This fine meal, Richardson reported, was washed down with pails of water “not quite so transparent indeed as the Kennell water that runs thro’ your streets after a shower of rain.” Yum.
3. Fourth of July Barbecues: By the 1820s, the Fourth of July was celebrated in towns across the Upstate and Midlands in a very formal, standardized way. All the citizens would come into town from the surrounding countryside and, forming a procession led by local militia units in uniform, march to the courthouse or a church. The ceremonies opened with a prayer and a reading of the Declaration of Independence, then a prominent citizen would deliver a long oration on citizenship and patriotism. After the proceedings, the citizens would retire to a shady grove for a barbecue with pigs, sheep, and goats.
4. Sectional Politics: In 1856, at the height of the debate over the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina entered the floor of the U.S. Senate and beat Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner, knocking the New Englander unconscious with a brass-headed cane. Northern newspapers denounced the attack as an outrage against democracy and decency, but Brooks’ South Carolina constituents disagreed. They welcomed him home to Ninety Six with a massive barbecue in his honor attended by more than 8,000 people, and 10,000 pounds of beef, pork, and mutton were cooked for the event. It served only to enrage Yankee editors further, and the Brooks-Sumner affair helped fan the flames of sectionalism that led to the Civil War.
5. Welcoming Emancipation: On Jan. 1, 1863, several thousand black residents from the South Carolina Sea Islands gathered at Camp Saxton outside Beaufort to celebrate the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation and their freedom from slavery. Ten oxen were barbecued for the event. Susie King Taylor, a former slave who had become a schoolteacher on St. Simon’s Island, recalled the feast as “a fitting close and the crowning event of this occasion … Although not served as tastily or correctly as it would have been at home, yet it was enjoyed with keep appetites and relish.” African Americans throughout the South celebrated the anniversary of Emancipation Day with barbecues until well into the 20th century.
6. South Carolina’s Barbecue King: The leading barbecue man in 19th century South Carolina was Columbia’s Hezekiah “Kiah” Dent. Born in 1832, he was a farmer and a Confederate veteran, and he made a name for himself preparing barbecue for functions ranging from political rallies to Labor Day picnics. Upon Dent’s death in 1908, The State newspaper in Columbia noted that he was “jealous of his reputation as a cook and no one ever partook of a feast prepared by him who went away other than thoroughly satisfied.”
7. Barbecue Jurisprudence: In 1914, Henry M. Williams, a weaver at the Cotton Mills Company in Columbia, asked to be excused from work for two days to cook a barbecue. The request was denied, but Williams skipped work to barbecue anyway. When he returned to the mill a few days later, he learned that his loom had been given to someone else and he was going to be evicted from his company-owned house in the mill village. Williams brought suit against the mill and won. The company appealed the case to the S.C. Supreme Court. One of the key issues was whether Williams should have been allowed to testify about the reason he missed two days of work. The mill’s lawyers had objected, apparently recognizing that — in South Carolina, at least — knowing that a man skipped work to barbecue would likely bias any jury in his favor. Williams won the appeal.
8. Gimme a Bucket of ‘Cue: Commercial barbecue got its start in South Carolina when pitmasters began selling barbecued meat to the public on the Fourth of July and Labor Day. In Columbia in the 1920s, you had to bring your own bucket to the barbecue stands to be filled with meat. S. E. Perry sold his “Bucket Barbecue” for 60 cents a pound and hash at 30 cents, and though pork dominates Palmetto State barbecue today, all the Labor Day vendors in the 1920s and 1930s sold lamb and mutton, too.
9. Barbecue and Desegregation: Columbia’s Maurice Bessinger was involved in one of the test cases of the Civil Rights Act during the 1960s. A key underpinning of the act was the notion that, because it had the power to regulate interstate commerce, the federal government could outlaw segregation in restaurants because such practices inhibited interstate trade. A few days after the act was signed in 1964, J. W. Mungin, an African-American minister, was refused service at Bessinger’s Little Joe’s Sandwich Shop in downtown Columbia, and he brought suit. Bessinger maintained that his restaurants were not engaged in interstate commerce in any form since he only cooked meat from South Carolina processing plants and because his barbecue was “made exclusively for the taste of central South Carolinians … people from New York or North Carolina or Georgia have entirely different tastes for barbecue.” He also claimed that the Civil Rights Act “contravenes the will of God” and violated his constitutional right for free exercise of religion. Appeals made it all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court with Bessinger on the losing end.
10. The Brief Story of Little Pigs of America: The Little Pigs barbecue restaurants in Columbia, Greenville, and Asheville are remnants of the old Little Pigs of America, which sought to be an American barbecue empire. In the early 1960s, the Memphis-based company began selling franchises for barbecue restaurants nationwide. For a $6,000 up-front investment, Little Pigs promised franchisees a net return of $18,000 per year with no prior barbecue experience required. The company trained franchisees at their Memphis headquarters and helped them engineer the brick pits for their restaurants. A typical Little Pigs of America franchise sold a pork basket for 59 cents, a pork plate for 69 cents, and a rib platter for $1.59. The company announced a bold goal of opening 1,000 total restaurants, and by 1965 some 200 units had opened in the United States and Canada. Despite its rapid initial growth, the company turned a profit in only one year, 1963, and it filed for bankruptcy before the end of the decade, ending the brief run of what was America’s largest barbecue chain. Many individual franchisees kept the Little Pigs name on their restaurants long after the parent company was but a faint memory.
Excerpt from Robert Moss’
Barbecue: the History of an American Institution
The late 19th century was the era of “barbecue men,” experienced cooks who became famous in their communities as masters of the pit and were in high demand to cook at public festivals and private functions. It was during this era that hash, the classic South Carolina specialty, came into prominence. A thick gravy made from pork and various pig organ meats, hash is generally served over white rice (though sometimes grits or bread are used instead), and it is almost exclusively considered a side dish to accompany barbecue, not a meal unto itself.
Hash appears to have originated sometime prior to the Civil War in the counties on either side of the Savannah River, which forms the border between Georgia and South Carolina. Estrella Jones, a former slave who was born on Powers Pond Place near Augusta, Ga., recalled that when she was a child, the slaves would sometimes steal hogs from other plantations and “cook hash and rice and serve barbecue.” In 1861, at the opening of the Civil War, a barbecue was held to honor the Edgefield Riflemen, who hailed from the county in South Carolina just across the Savannah River from Augusta, as they prepared to leave for battle. The menu included “barbecued meats, and hash.”
On one level, hash is a way to use all of the pig slaughtered for a barbecue. In 19th century accounts, it is sometimes referred to as “giblet hash” or “liver and lights hash.” In most early versions, the cook would start with a hog’s head, the liver, and other organ meats and cook them with water in an iron stew pot over an open fire. Like the original Brunswick Stew recipes from Virginia, this combination was slowly simmered for many hours — sometimes a full day — until the ingredients had all broken down into a thick, consistent gravy-like liquid. Some cooks would add a few other ingredients, including red pepper, mustard, onion, and potatoes. But, in general, hash has always depended upon the slow-simmered meats for its rich, hearty flavor.
By the 1880s, hash was being served at barbecues as far north as Newberry, S.C., and as far south as Macon in central Georgia — much farther south than hash is found today. In fact, there seems to be a good bit of confusion in central Georgia between hash and Brunswick Stew. Sheriff John W. Callaway for Washington, Georgia, always called his barbecue side dish “hash”, but reporters frequently labeled it “Brunswick Stew.” But it doesn’t seem merely a renaming of a single recipe, for, according to a 1907 newspaper account, a Christmas barbecue Callaway cooked for Wilkes County convicts included “several gallons of hash and a like quantity of Brunswick Stew.”
It is possible that what Georgians call Brunswick Stew today actually evolved out of the hash tradition as a variant of the original recipe. Visiting the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta in 1895, Maude Andrews of Harper’s Weekly sampled Sheriff Wilkes’ famous stew and claimed that it, “for reasons not altogether clear even to its maker, bears the mysterious name of Brunswick.” Andrews got the recipe from one of the black cooks, and its formula is remarkably similar to that of classic South Carolina hash, with a few additions: “[Y]er jest takes the meat, de hog’s haid, an’ de libbers, and an’ all sorts er little nice parts, an’ yer chops it up wid corn and permattuses, an’ injuns an’ green peppers, an’ yer stews and stews tell hit all gits erlike, an’ yer kain’t tell what hit’s made uv.”
Hash remains an integral part of the South Carolina barbecue tradition today, where it is served over white rice at barbecue joints from Columbia down to Charleston. The hearty gravy is barely known beyond the borders of the Palmetto State, and visiting diners find it as puzzling as the region’s signature mustard-based barbecue sauce. In Georgia, Brunswick Stew reigns supreme as the standard barbecue side dish. A lot of hot air has been expended in the debate with Virginia over which state originated the stew — a pointless argument, since the Virginians clearly have the solid historical claim. Georgians would be better off looking over the Savannah River to their neighbors in South Carolina, for hash and the Georgia version of Brunswick Stew are likely distant cousins.