Local and State News

Bipartisan Barbecue Bill Rests on Shaky History

By Porter Barron Jr.
Wednesday, April 2, 2014
David Hite stirs a pot of hash at Hite’s BBQ in West Columbia, where the Hite family’s been slow-cooking pork and chickens over wood fires for three generations. Photo by Jonathan Sharpe.

Members of the South Carolina General Assembly are attempting, not for the first time in modern history, to legislate barbecue, to declare that fine porcine delicacy “the official state picnic cuisine.”

“Whereas, South Carolina is ‘The Birthplace of Barbecue,’” the bill contends in justifying its intent — but more on that shortly.

“Oh, you want to talk about that?” Sen. Katrina Shealy, a Lexington County Republican who introduced the bill, tells Free Times.

“Miriam Atria, she’s the executive director for Lake Murray Tourism, and she called me and she said, ‘Sen. Shealy will you introduce barbecue?’ and she wanted to call it the official state dish. I said, ‘Dish? That sounds like a plate. If we call it that, people will think we’re talking about china.’”

Shealy adds, “I said, ‘Miriam, I don’t like this kind of stuff. I gave my predecessor hell about collard greens.’”

Sure enough, one of Shealy’s campaign fliers from her 2012 electoral overthrow of Republican Jake Knotts, when she ran as a petition candidate after Knotts had ensured she and some 250 primary candidates statewide were disqualified over filing technicalities, read: “One of Knotts’ big legislative pushes: trying to make collard greens the state’s vegetable. That is not the leadership we need for our jobs.”
Consider hell given.

But Lake Murray’s tourism czarina wasn’t hearing it, according to Shealy. “She said, ‘You have to. You know the Forrest Wood Cup’s coming, the biggest bass tournament there is, and we just did the South Carolina Barbecue Trail. You really need to do this. It’s great for tourism.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to do it.’ She said, ‘But you need to do it for Lexington County.’”

Shealy caved: “It’s barbecue, and everybody loves barbecue, so I’m thinking, if you’re going to do something stupid, it might as well be something that people like.”

In claiming South Carolina to be “the birthplace of barbecue,” Senate bill 1136 echoes a shaky claim made in a state-sponsored advertising campaign that celebrates Palmetto State barbecue.

While acknowledging the controversial nature of its claim, the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism’s barbecue ad campaign insists “you’re ignoring the facts — probably even drinking unsweet tea — if you don’t believe South Carolina to be the birthplace of barbecue.”

Sounds like bluster, coupled with a taunt. After all, everybody knows the word “barbecue” is derived from the language of now-extinct Taino Indians, who controlled numerous Caribbean islands when the Spaniards arrived with their hogs in the late 1400s.

So Free Times consulted Barbecue: The History of an American Institution by Robert Moss — an overdue, thoroughly researched, page-turning telling of barbecue’s story — and confirmed the history of slow-and-low, wood-fired meats to be more complicated than S.1136 or the state’s public relations effort would have one believe.

While Native Americans from New England to South America slow-cooked game meats over smoky fires and shared that practice with innumerable groups of Old World émigrés, barbecue culture among colonists first took root with the landed gentry of Virginia, an aristocratic but pleasure-seeking society, Moss writes.

Meanwhile, South Carolina’s Lowcountry planter class was given to more formal entertainments and elaborate spreads. South Carolina barbecue culture really didn’t develop until the 1740s, arriving through the backcountry, as colonists, many of meat-loving German descent, made their way down the Great Wagon Road from Virginia and Pennsylvania, settling in the Palmetto State’s interior.

(That said, as a proud son of the Palmetto State, allow me to doff my reporter’s hat momentarily and join the state senators and spin doctors in disregarding the historical record to claim barbecue as ours. After all, ours is better than theirs, so to do otherwise would lack intelligence, legitimacy and, most importantly, defiance in the face of doubters.)

But back to the current barbecue legislation, which bears the names of seven Republican senators and two Democrats. We’ll have to see if this one sticks.

In 1986, Rep. Bubber Snow of Hemingway, then a Democrat, introduced a consumer protection bill that came to be known as the “Truth in Barbecue Act” once Gov. Dick Riley signed it into law. That act addressed the fraudulent modern trend of selling oven-cooked pulled pork as barbecue, which is still a problem today. The law allowed pork not cooked over wood to be labeled barbecue, but it required its purveyor to clearly display a decal from the Department of Agriculture that would specify to the consumer whether the meat served came from the whole hog or “part of” and whether it had been cooked over wood or “a heat source other than wood.”

Free Times found no evidence of this law ever having been enforced. Six years later, Carroll Campbell, considered by many to have been the architect of the modern South Carolina Republican Party, had won the governor’s office and ushered in an era of government restraint and deregulation. Snow then introduced a second piece of barbecue legislation, a bill to repeal his Truth in Barbecue Act, which Campbell signed into law in 1992, exposing South Carolinians to the predations of barbecue cheats who forgo the considerable time, effort, expense and cleanup required to achieve genuine barbecue.

As for the current barbecue bill’s sponsor, despite happening to have one of the biggest names in Lexington County barbecue — Shealy — the senator insists she is not related to the family that operates a barbecue restaurant in Batesburg-Leesville and bottles its delicious mustard-based barbecue sauce for sale in grocery stores.

“I wish I was. They’re the rich Shealys,” she says.

“I like their barbecue. I really like their fried chicken.”

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