Tuesday, June 9, 2009
Pig, Smoke, Pit
By JOHN T. EDGE, NY TIMES
AT 3:45 on a recent Saturday morning — as frogs croaked into the void and a mufflerless pickup downshifted onto Cow Head Road — Rodney Scott, 37, pitmaster here at Scott’s Variety Store and Bar-B-Q, gave the order.
“Flip the pigs,” he said, his voice calm and measured. “Let’s go. Some char is good — too much and we lose him.”
A. J. Shaw, a college student home for the summer, and Thomas Lewis, a onetime farmer, left their seats and joined Mr. Scott in the pit room, a rectangular shed dominated by two waist-high concrete banks, burnished ebony by wood smoke, ash and grease.
Ten butterflied pig carcasses — taut bellies gone slack, pink flesh gone cordovan — were in the pits when Mr. Lewis reached for the sheet of wire fencing on which one of the pigs had been roasting since 4 the previous afternoon. In lockstep, Mr. Shaw topped that same pig with a second sheet of fencing, reached his gloved fingers into the netting, and grabbed hold.
As the men struggled, the 150 pounds of dead weight torqued the makeshift wire cage. When the carcass landed, skin-side down, on the metal grid of a recently fired pit, skeins of grease trailed down the pig’s flanks, and the smoldering oak and hickory coals beneath hissed and flared.
“I cooked my first one when I was 11,” Mr. Scott said, as he seasoned the pig with lashings of salt, red pepper, black pepper and Accent, a flavor enhancer made with MSG.
Working a long-handled mop, he drenched the pig in a vinegar sauce of a similar peppery composition. “You’ve got to always be on point, when you’re cooking this way,” he said.
Cooking this way isn’t done much any more. This place, a couple of hours northwest of Charleston, as well as the Scott family approach to slow-smoking whole hogs over hardwood coals, appears to be vestigial.
For aficionados in search of ever-elusive authenticity, Scott’s offers all the rural tropes of a signal American barbecue joint. The main building is tin-roofed and time-worn. Dogs loll in the parking lot, where old shopping carts are stacked with watermelons in the summer, sweet potatoes in the fall. On church pews under the eave, locals visit with neighbors and barbecue pilgrims commune with foam clamshells stuffed with pulled pork, $8 a pound.
The cookery is simple, but the processes used by the Scott family are not.
In the manner now expected of the nation’s white-tablecloth chefs, the Scotts shop local, whenever possible. They buy pigs from farms in three nearby counties. And they turn to Mel’s Meat Market, in the nearby town of Aynor, for butcher work and delivery.
That commitment to local sources extends to the tools of their trade. A local welder constructs the burn barrels, where wood burns down into coals, from salvaged industrial piping and junked truck axles, the latter from a mechanic just down the road.
And then there’s the issue of the wood itself. Barbecue, as it’s traditionally defined in the South, requires loads of it. Some North Carolina restaurants buy surplus oak flooring from planing mills. Some Tennessee pitmasters bargain for hickory off-cuts from ax-handle manufacturers.
The Scotts take matters into their own hands. They trade labor and chainsaw expertise for oak, hickory and, occasionally, pecan. “If you have a tree down, we oblige,” Rodney Scott said that afternoon, following the all-night pit vigil. As he talked, his father, Roosevelt Scott, 67, founder of Scott’s, stood on the highway, negotiating with a man who had arrived with a limb from a live oak and the promise of two to three truckloads of pit fuel.
“We keep our own wood in reserve,” the younger Mr. Scott said. “We’ve got 100 acres. But most of it comes walking in. Everybody knows we’ll bring some boys and cut your tree for you, so long as we can get to it and it’s not hanging over your house or your garage.”
The crowd that Saturday afternoon was typical: Half black and half white, half locals and half pilgrims.
Locals, many of whom work at the Tupperware plant, on the other end of Cow Head Road, came to pick up half-pound orders, pulled from various quadrants of the pig and tossed with sauce in the manner of a meat salad. They knew to ask Virginia Washington — Rodney Scott’s cousin, the woman behind the high-top order counter — for a cook’s treat of fried pig skin, still smoky from the pit, still crisp from the deep fryer.
DeeDee Gammage planned to eat her barbecue between slices of white bread, in the car, on the way home. Lou Esther Black told Mrs. Washington that she would serve her take-away atop bowls of grits on Sunday morning. “I let the grease from the meat be my sauce,” Ms. Black said. “You don’t need butter.”
Locals knew that if they dawdled until the serving table ran low, Jackie Gordon, Rodney Scott’s aunt, would break down another pig on the bone table. They knew that, with a little luck, they might score a rack of spareribs, wrenched hot from a carcass.
Pilgrims lacked the locals’ foresight, but made up for it in appetite. The average out-of-town order was two pounds.
In addition to pork, day-trippers bought sauce by the gallon, hot or mild. (They were probably not aware that the sole difference is how far Mrs. Washington dips her ladle into the jug and whether she stirs, to loosen the pepper sediment.)
At the register, out-of-towners bought quart jars of locally grown and ground cane syrup from Ella Scott, the 67-year-old mother of Rodney Scott, and wondered aloud whether any of that syrup made it into the family’s sauce. (When asked, all the Scotts will say is that it has “a little sugar.”)
Visitors took side trips to the smoke-shrouded pit house where pigs lay splayed and sauce-puddled. They stared down into the mop sauce bucket, where sliced lemons bobbed.
They ogled the five-foot-tall burn barrels, where hunks of wood the size of footstools flame, then smolder, then break down into the coals that Mr. Scott and his colleagues shovel into the pits. They traded theories about the barrels’ construction, about how the coal grates within are formed by piercing the steel barrels with a crisscross of truck axles.
“Back home they’ve just about gone to gas for cooking,” said David Hewitt of Florence, S.C., as he waited for his order. “And they serve on buffet lines. This place is the last of a breed. If you like history, this place is full of it.”
At Scott’s, pilgrims like Mr. Hewitt don’t often notice the bits of vernacular engineering that have become family signatures, like the two-burner hot plate, set on a milk crate, beneath the metal table where Mrs. Washington doles out barbecue orders. (Those burners keep the barbecue at a temperature preferred by regular customers — and the health department.)
Similarly, the flattened cardboard boxes scattered about the cement floors may seem to be just a part of the ambient mess. But that corrugated carpet, stretching from bone table to the serving table, soaks up the grease that trails from pigs in transport and cushions Mrs. Washington’s feet.
The Scotts take pride in the traditions they uphold — and the innovations they have introduced.
“I started out working on cars in the front and pigs in the back,” Roosevelt Scott said, as crowds began to dwindle after the eighth pig of the day was hauled to the bone table. “We had a pool hall and, next door, a garage.” For a while, barbecue was secondary. The primary family business was what the elder Mr. Scott calls a “one door store,” stocked with dry goods, and that pool hall, which opened in 1972.
“This is a business for us,” he said. “We don’t do it the old way. We do it the best way we know how. That means a lot of oak. That means a lean pig, which means less grease and less a chance of grease fires. No matter which way you do it, though, some folks don’t want you to go nowhere.”
His son echoed his feelings. “People keep talking about how old-fashioned what we do is,” he said. “Old-fashioned was working the farm as a boy. I hated those long hours, that hot sun. Compared to that, this is a slow roll.”