The morning before my father’s 40th birthday, a huge mysterious object wrapped in plastic showed up on our back porch. I was nine and not allowed to touch it, so naturally I snuck out there the first chance I got and peeled back the wrapping to take a peek. I can’t really say what I expected to find, but when I stuck my nose into the honker of a dead pig, I was a little traumatized. Later that day, Dad’s friends pulled into our yard with a trailer full of hickory and this giant, black metal grill. The following hours were filled with the aroma of this tantalizing, decadent smoke.
That smell was all I needed to reconcile my remorse for the dead pig. I was excited to eat some barbecue. Sorry, Wilbur.
Turns out, the giant, black metal grill producing that smoke wasn’t a grill at all. A grill cooks meat directly over the flame. That, no matter what anyone from outside the South says, is not barbecue. Barbecuing meat to its juicy, moist perfection requires a very specific preparation beginning with an offset smoker. Everything about the smoker is controllable, from the type of wood used to build the fire to the heat and smoke flow into the cooking chamber to the air flow out of the chimney. There is a special title given to anyone who can command a barbecue smoker with craft and expertise: Pitmaster.
In an article for Tasting Table, John Lewis wrote “I’m often asked what my barbecue ‘secret’ is. People think it’s a special rub recipe…but what it really boils down to is the machine. I can attribute my barbecue’s taste, texture and consistency to the pit… I’ve been obsessed with the process and controlling the perfect temperature and smoke. That’s what makes a dedicated ‘pitmaster.’”
Pitmaster Lewis is a Texas native, and perhaps the greatest commander of the smoker of this generation. The top of his restaurant’s website reads, “The first thing you’ll notice when you pull up to Lewis Barbecue are the massive, custom-made smokers, welded by the pitmaster himself.” The man has reinvented the smoker to curate his perfect meats. But Texas-style barbecue isn’t the same as what Carolinians are used to. See, out in Texas, there are open ranges perfect for raising cattle. Texans like John Lewis got so good at smoking these cows that the whole-hog purists of the Carolinas began craving beef brisket. So, he opened a restaurant in Charleston in 2015.
Lewis Barbecue is the kind of place that was obviously meticulously designed. From the bronze light fixtures to the square bar that you can sit at either inside or out, it is clear you are meant to feel comfortable. The space feels like modern Texas: clean swept, broad and well lit, with enough space to hang your hat, stretch your legs and drink your mezcal (or try the fantastic watermelon and jalepeño Sandía).
I ordered the brisket sandwich, and it was the best barbecue I have eaten in Charleston. I was able to slice it like butter right down the middle with a plastic knife and enjoy it simply: meat and bread. After a few bites, I decided to switch things up and added some of the house-pickled red onions and cucumbers with a dab of the green sauce, and was just as impressed.
You may have noticed I said the beef brisket was my favorite barbecue I ate in Charleston. For a Carolinian like me, a statement like that is almost blasphemous. No one is sure of the exact origins of barbecue, but Native American and African methods of indirectly smoking meats definitely influenced the European immigrants. That being said, barbecuing as we know it became popularized in the Southeastern colonies, specifically the Carolinas. In the early settlement days, it was hard to take care of livestock because resources were scarce. Farmers would release their pigs into the wild where they could survive on their own (something cows can’t do). When it was time for a feast, hunters would catch the semi-feral swine and cook them.
Wild pigs become leaner than farm pigs, so southerners utilized the “low and slow” technique of offset smoking to tenderize the meat. The low heat and slow cooking kept the fat from burning off, which is why properly barbecued meat is tender and juicy. This is something that the true-blue Carolinian Pitmaster Rodney Scott understands to perfection.
Rodney Scott’s BBQ opened this year, and it brought with it the hometown-diner feel of his family’s restaurant in Hemingway, South Carolina. The space is naturally lit by large windows, each wall is lined with booths and a long community table runs down the middle. By the time you order, get your drink at the soda fountain and sit down, a server is bringing your food with a charming smile. One bite of his pork and you understand what South Carolina barbecue really is. Scott’s website states, “the fresh whole hogs are first cooked belly down for 12 hours before they’re flipped over on their back, seasoned and doused liberally with Rodney’s Sauce and allowed to cook a little longer to let the flavors soak in.”
The resulting flavor and feel of his pork is pure Carolina. The way he cooks the meat makes it a little more savory and spicy than most pulled pork. It takes on the decadent seasoning of the soul food the Carolinas are known for. His pulled pork tastes like it’s telling you to slow down and enjoy life, and really there is nothing else you can do while eating BBQ.
“Slow down and enjoy life” is definitely a southern sentiment. Even in the early colonies, when people were starving and capturing pigs out of the woods to cook, they didn’t rush the process. Barbecuing is a time-honored tradition. No matter if you are in a backyard like mine on my father’s 40th birthday or a restaurant in Downtown Charleston, barbecue is meant to be cherished. It is something southerners can connect back to their hometown, when not a lot was enough and a little excitement was a treat.
“I’m excited for some barbecue!” I told the server at Home Team BBQ. “There’s no other way to be when it comes to barbecue,” he responded. Home Team BBQ embodies the comfort of your hometown, but throws a little whiskey and excitement into the mix. Whether you’re seated at the huge bar made out of reclaimed wood or outside on the patio, it is the kind of place where you can wear your comfortable jeans, drink your whiskey straight and indulge in some of the most inventive sauces in town. The pulled pork, juicy enough on its own, only gets better when you add the Hot Red or Pepper and Vinegar sauces. The Hot Red’s peppery seasoning will remind you of salsa, and as its name implies, you might have to chug a little water.
The standout sauce, though, is the Pepper and Vinegar. You can pour it on without overpowering the flavor of the meat. It is subtly tangy and spicy, slightly modifying the meat and making you want more. Home Team’s delicious barbecue and sauces are reminiscent of the way your mom made your favorite dish taste the way that only she can. You remember and crave it, but can’t get it anywhere else.
Barbecue is a culture rooted in community and history, one that takes dedication and commitment above all else. Every tiny detail in the preparation process is vital. But it is good because it takes hard work. Barbecue is something that America’s diverse ancestors developed to remedy difficult situations, to nourish the community and to give everyone something to look forward to. Lewis Barbecue, Rodney Scott’s BBQ and Home Team BBQ are all very different, but the underlying similarity between the three is the understanding that their work is honorable and for the people. They chose a hard job in smoking good meats because they want to feed the community of Charleston good food. And for that, we thank them.