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Sep '08

The Four Corners of Carolina BBQ Road Trip

Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24: The Four Corners of Carolina BBQ Road Trip

Book Excerpts and Food Writing by Doug DuCap

(The Four Corners of Carolina BBQ Road Trip is part of FoodBuzz’s 24 Meals, 24 Hours, 24 Blogs, a worldwide event that took place in 24 cities on Saturday, September 20th)

(First Corner)

Thick billows of smoke were fleeing from the windows of the gray cinder block building like spirits from an exorcism, but no shouts of alarm rose with the smoke, no sirens cut into the cool morning air.

“Oh yes, oh yes,” I thought to myself as I wrapped duct tape around the steering column, “This is promising.”

The ‘house-afire’ atmosphere is business as usual at McCabe’s. The smokehouse, where the magic happens, is directly behind the restaurant. (If hunger, as the Spanish say, is the best sauce in the world, then the aroma of hickory smoke must be the best appetizer.) Inside, things were all hurry and scurry: McCabe’s wasn’t open yet, but they were preparing for the day’s inevitable siege.

McCabe's Bar-B-Q

“Are you the fella for the five pounds of barbeque?” the woman at the counter asked before I’d even had a chance to say hello.

“Uh, yep - that would be me.”

She finished taping down the lid of the stuffed-to-bursting take-out box and filled a small container with sauce. “Mr. McCabe’ll be out to see you in a minute. He’s just finishing up another order.”

Apparently I wasn’t the only one picking up a pre-opening order. Still, I was grateful that they’d remembered our conversation from the previous week and had let me in early so I could stay “on schedule.”

What they didn’t know was that I was already off schedule, thanks to a starter that decided to quit, rather inconveniently, on the morning of the trip. I woke my mechanic friend from a peaceful sleep and got his (somewhat grumpy) advice to “beat it with a hammer.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’d like to do. But what do I do really?”

“Seriously,” he said “beat on it with a hammer and try it again. If that doesn’t work, call a cab.”

Not wanting to spend the day watching a taxi meter climb into quadruple digits, I crawled under my truck and walloped the snot out of the starter, after which (believe it or not) the engine kicked over, and I was on my way. I didn’t know for sure if the truck would start again if I turned it off, but I knew with absolute certainty that at some point I would, no matter what, pull to a stop god-knows-where and reflexively turn it off. Hence duct taping the key in place; it’s easier to idiot-proof a system if you happen to know the idiot personally.

Since I was behind schedule, in addition to keeping my truck running the whole time like it was a getaway car, I would have to high-tail around and find a short cut or two. I did, however, still manage to take a small detour into the Bojangles drive-thru for sausage biscuits before hitting the highway. After all, a man has to keep his priorities straight, or chaos looms.

After he rang me up and wished me luck on my trip, I asked Mr. McCabe if he had any of the pork skins that I’d heard were not to be missed.

“Nope. Don’t have ‘em anymore. A fella comes and buys them all now. Don’t know what he does with them or where he sells ‘em.”

Oh well, I thought, scratch that idea. I was back in my truck and ready to leave when Mr. McCabe stuck his head out the front door, “Hold up just a minute.” He came back out with a small sandwich box.

“Just pulled these off one of the hogs,” he said, “Should have some nice smoke to ‘em”

Out on the road, I opened the box to find warm, crispy skins the color of fire opals. They were as smoky and rich as I’d hoped - and my first snack of the day.

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There are still cotton fields along Rt 301, which cuts between two of South Carolina’s major highways, but not many. The fields are a poignant sight: the plants themselves are surprisingly pretty, the white bolls set against the darkening leaves and stems of the low bushes, but one can’t help but imagine what grueling, backbreaking work it must have been to harvest them by hand in the South’s merciless heat.

Cotton, so bright and pure-looking, casting a shadow under these blue skies.

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(Second Corner)

There are four geographical regions of barbeque in South Carolina, with four distinct sauce types: Vinegar & Pepper; Mustard-based; Light Tomato; and Heavy Tomato.

(Click here to see a map of the 4 regions of SC BBQ.)

South Carolina is the only state where all four are represented, and my goal was to acquire all four types in one day and bring them back to Charleston for a casual barbeque party/taste-testing. This would be no easy feat, requiring about 10 hours of driving to establishments that almost by definition seem to only be found on back roads.

Before embarking on this little adventure, I’d consulted with Lake E. High, Jr., the wise and kindly president of the South Carolina Barbeque Association. He recommended Hudson’s Smokehouse in Lexington, SC as having “100 mile BBQ” and an excellent example of the Heavy Tomato sauce more common further north in the state “if you don’t want to go all the way to Greenville.” I’d originally planned to take that long, long ride north, but decided to take Mr. High’s sage advice since I was already far behind schedule and wanted to get back before my guests got hungry enough to notice that my chubby spaniel bears a strong resemblance to a piebald pig and that I have a very large smoker and a pile of dry hickory logs in my backyard.

Hudson’s Smokehouse doesn’t look promising at first glance. It looks suspiciously like a chain restaurant trying a bit too hard to look “authentic.” There are far too many windows (never a good sign, according to Calvin Trillin), properly stained wood (i.e., not painted, hence, not peeling in that proper shack-like manner), and (perhaps most egregious) a very inviting wrap-around porch, fer cryin out loud.

Closer inspection, though, reveals a proper smokehouse and proper firewood brought in on a trailer hitched to the back of a worn but well-maintained 1956 Ford tractor driven by a nice ol’ fella named Floyd. No matter what the facade looks like, in the back they keep it real.

Hudson's Smokehouse

Hudson’s Smokehouse follows, according to Mr. High, the “modern approach of putting several sauces on the table,” including vinegar & pepper sauce, a slightly sweet mustard-based sauce, and the aforementioned Heavy Tomato, which resembles the ubiquitous “western” style, but tastes far different from those gluey, syrupy messes calling themselves “BBQ sauce.” Their barbeque comes unsauced, but lightly flavored with a pleasantly salty pepper vinegar.

Modern, yes - but the end result is reassuringly old-school and very, very tasty. I discovered this early on because the aroma from the foil pan was making me dizzy and I had to pull over and sample some for ‘research’ purposes. My second snack of the day.

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Standing on the floor just inside the door of Hudson’s there is a large, nearly life-sized bronze pig with a slot in its back that serves as a piggy bank for charities. When I came in, a small white boy and a small African-American girl were sitting on the back, giggling and calling it their “pony” while the parents waited for their take-out orders.

Barbecue sauce may have boundaries in South Carolina, but barbeque doesn’t, and the shared love of it and other traditional Southern foods erases all lines. Class lines. Color lines. And even, in the case of this former Northerner who has been so generously welcomed here, the Mason-Dixon line.

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(Third Corner)

Aiken County, S.C. is very pretty country, and my shortcut to Batesburg-Leesville took me past verdant, gently rolling slopes and quaint, rusted-roof shacks dating to who knows when; peach orchards (some vibrantly alive and carefully tended; others as overgrown as Mayan ruins), and what can only be described as sand farms: wide fields stretching to the horizon containing nothing but evenly spaced rows of tilled sand. A curiosity in this very green landscape.

Just over on the “other side of the tracks,” Jackie Hite’s Bar-B-Q has the appropriate painted exterior and an almost nondescript sign. That’s fine, though, because every man, woman, child, or talking dog for many miles around can tell you where Jackie Hite’s is. (I suspect every hog for miles around knows where it is too, but would probably rather not.)

Jackie Hite's Bar-B-Q

Hite’s barbeque style is venerable; they do it up finely chopped and heavily sauced with a mustard sauce that is nothing at all like the sweetened mustard sauces popular here in Charleston. But that was exactly the reason I chose it: I wanted my guests to see the mustard-based sauce concept with fresh eyes and unbiased palates (otherwise, Bessinger’s golden nectar of a sauce would probably have an improper advantage.)

Folks go to Hite’s for their tasty-looking buffet (which I heroically bypassed), but they also go for barbeque in bulk: when I ordered 5 pounds, the woman behind the counter reached into a very large fridge right next to the register and extracted pre-packaged rolls of it wrapped in butcher paper.

In generally accepted barbeque joint theory, cleanliness is not a strict requirement; pit masters tend to take the long view of things, and unimportant short-term details like perfectly scrubbed floors just don’t engage their interest the way achieving barbeque perfection does. Still, the interior of Jackie Hites’ was shockingly clean to the point of looking like it had been sterilized.  Even the ceiling gleamed. Imagine that.

Spotless as it may be, they do show an encouraging disdain for details in other ways. The customer before me at the take-out counter asked for salt and pepper. “We don’t have any packets,” the woman at the counter said, “but I can put you some in a napkin if you like.”

At this point in the trip, I was famished, and along with my order, I grabbed an overstuffed barbeque sandwich (my third snack of the day) for the ride to my next stop.

The shortcut to Trenton Bar-B-Q was quite a bit different from the ride to Jackie Hite’s. It took me through formerly bustling little hamlets that looked like they’d once been peach farm company towns, and down tertiary roads that looked like they were about to turn to gravel/dirt/cornfield at any moment.

When I arrived, I found an architecturally fascinating building-within-a-building that housed one of the most mouth-watering buffets I’ve ever seen. It took every bit of strength I had not to audibly whine at the thought that I couldn’t sit down and eat everything in sight until the sheriff or the paramedics came to haul me off. But the owner took pity on me and, in addition to my barbeque order, he sent me off with a big ol’ sample of the most tender and breathtakingly delicious barbecued pork ribs I’ve had the great good fortune to eat.

“Wait til you taste this,” he told me as he handed me my last snack of the day, “You’ve never had a rib like this anywhere.”

And he was so right.

Trenton Bar-B-Q

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(Fourth Corner…The Party at the End of the Road)

The Goodies!

The party was a great success and a fine time was had by all. There was beer and boiled peanuts and stories and laughs (encouraged by a “canape” of skewered pineapple chunks that had spent a few days in a certain clear liquor known in the South as “squeezins”)

Along with five pounds of barbeque from each of four legendary joints, we had the simple traditional accompaniments of cole slaw, hash & rice, pickles, and Sunbeam King Thin bread. When the dust of competition settled (i.e., everyone had ‘taste-tested’ to the point of stupefaction), there was a tie for the title between McCabe’s thin, peppery vinegar-based sauce and Trenton Bar-B-Q’s mildly tangy, light tomato based sauce.

Moonlight Buffet

Friends Indeed!In truth, though, they were all excellent and worth the drive. Hudsons’ chopped barbeque was at least as yummy as McCabe’s long, shreddy chunks of whole hog, and Hite’s lemony mustard sauce was a complete reboot of the concept for the Charlestonians in attendance.

Best of all, it was a chance for all of us to share in a meal that was about celebrating diversity in our own state. South Carolina barbeque is very special, and like all regional and local specialties, it should be preserved and cherished.

The McD’s of the world want to inflict a terrible sameness on us by homogenizing our food choices. Local specialties are the antithesis - and the antidote - for the dumbing down of taste. Get out there and explore your region’s foods whatever they are, before they become a thing of the past. Celebrate life by tasting the differences!

Pork on Foodista
McCabe’s Bar-B-Q
480 N. Brooks St.
Manning, SC
803-435-2833

Hudson’s Smokehouse
4952 Sunset Boulevard
Lexington, SC
803-356-1070

Jackie Hite’s Bar-B-Q
467 W. Church St.
Batesburg-Leesville, SC
803-532-3354

Trenton Bar-B-Q
5005 Edgefield Rd
Trenton, SC
803-275-6465

Blog Fast ForwardPlease join us on Wednesday for our upcoming post, Take a Virtual Food Lover’s Trip Around the World With The Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24 Series.

Hugging the Coast Blog Fast Forward

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(Photo Credit: Doug DuCap Food and Travel on Flickr.


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