By Robert Moss
A few weeks ago I was returning from a barbecue road trip through the Piedmont of North Carolina, where over the course of two days I had eaten at nine superlative joints in and around Lexington and Winston-Salem. I stopped off for a restroom break at the South Carolina welcome center on I-77, and I had to chuckle as I approached the main building, for the entire front door was covered with one of those full-color vinyl posters declaring, “Bite Into the Birthplace of Barbecue.”
“This is getting out of hand,” I thought.
All along the interstate highways from Greenville down to Charleston, big billboards repeat the birthplace assertion. It’s part of a $1.2 million campaign by the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism (SCPRT) to lure visitors to sample our state’s four distinct varieties of barbecue. It includes a slick website with a range of information and resources, including the South Carolina Barbecue Trail, which guides diners to some 200 barbecue restaurants across the Palmetto State.
“The roots to this sacred Southern dish,” the SCPRT website declares, “are buried deep — five centuries deep — right here in South Carolina.” The propitious event, it seems, occurred way back in the 16th century at Santa Elena on what is now Parris Island, where Spanish colonists and the native Cusabo people came together and held the first barbecue. “You’re ignoring the facts,” the web site insists, “probably even drinking unsweet tea — if you don’t believe South Carolina to be the birthplace of barbecue.”
Last month, Free Times reported that the South Carolina General Assembly is working to codify this notion into state law via a bill declaring barbecue to be “the official state picnic cuisine.” The first clause justifying the designation declares: “Whereas, South Carolina is ‘The Birthplace of Barbecue’ . . .”
Now, I will admit to drinking unsweet tea on occasion (when you eat as much barbecue as I do, you have to trim a few calories somewhere), but I’ve never been one to ignore the facts. And, unfortunately, the historical record just doesn’t support all this “birthplace of barbecue” rhetoric.
And I know where it all comes from, too: Mr. Lake E. High, Jr. He wrote a book called A History of South Carolina Barbeque, which anyone passionate about Palmetto State barbecue needs to read. It has a wealth of great information about early South Carolina barbecue restaurants, and it’s worth the cover price alone just to get the recipe for Jackie Hite’s old-school string hash.
High has done as much as anyone to champion traditional South Carolina barbecue. He’s the president of the South Carolina Barbeque Association, which has purged the silliness from barbecue competition judging and advanced the gospel that the meat itself is all that really matters. The association has trained hundreds of judges to appreciate quality ‘cue and now sanctions some 40 barbecue competitions a year all across the Palmetto State.
But, Lake High and I don’t necessarily see eye to eye on everything. He, for instance, spells “barbeque” with a Q, while I spell it correctly. And, I’ve never quite been able to take the leap of faith required to conclude that barbecue was invented in the Palmetto State.
In his book, High makes a detailed case for Santa Elena. He convincingly establishes that the Spanish had lots of pigs in the colony and that, like Native Americans all up and down the Atlantic coast, the local Cusabo people cooked meat on a frame of sticks, the name of which eventually entered the English language as “barbecue.” But, the book doesn’t present — and I’ve never been able to find independently — any evidence that someone in Santa Elena actually hoisted a whole hog up on one of those frames and cooked it.
I phoned High to get to the bottom of the story.
“It’s supposition,” he admits. “Writing history, you either read what someone else wrote and pray that it’s accurate, or you analyze the things yourself, draw your own conclusions, and pray that it’s accurate.”
There’s wisdom in that. When it comes to history — and, especially, something as sketchily documented as barbecue history — you often have to take the few data points you have and draw the best conclusions you can. But, even if you grant that the Spanish may have cooked some pigs barbecue-style on Santa Elena, there’s no evidence that the American tradition spread outward from there.
By the early 18th century, the English were cooking barbecue all up and down the Atlantic coastline, even in New England. In 1733, Benjamin Lynde Jr., of Salem, Massachusetts, recorded in his diary, “Fair and hot; Browne, Barbacue; hack overset” — the first case of “barbecue” being used to refer to an event instead of a method of cooking. There are many other references to barbecues being held in New England during the colonial days, too, though by 1800 the practice seems to have faded out in the region.
The real hotbed of barbecue was in Virginia, where the events became one of the chief forms of entertainment in the colony, and they’re described in dozens of travelogues and journals, including the diaries of George Washington. A “barbecue day” started early in the morning and ran into the night, with residents of all ranks joining together for feasting, drinking and dancing.
There’s no corresponding record of barbecues being held in coastal South Carolina. I’ve been looking for years and have managed to turn up just one tiny scrap. In 1753, London’s Gentleman Magazine published an ode by one “C.W.” from Charles Town, South Carolina. The writer is reveling in the arrival of spring and implores his fellow citizens, “Let’s each hold a gen’rous barbicu feast / And with toddy and punch drink rich wine of the best.”
That’s the only indication I’ve found that Charlestonians even knew what barbecue was before the Revolutionary War. Charleston society in the 18th century tended toward formal balls and banquets, and their culinary tastes ran more toward wild game, rice dishes and shrimp, not fire-roasted pork.
As best as I can tell, the main barbecue tradition in the Carolinas did not spread inland from the coast but instead was brought by settlers from Virginia as they made their way southward into the Piedmont of North and South Carolina. Charles Woodmason, an itinerant Anglican minister assigned to the western parishes in the 1760s, recorded in his journals “smelling a Barbicu dressing in the Woods upwards of six Miles.” Other journal and newspaper articles note a pig or a cow being barbecued at militia musters, horse races and civic celebrations.
The account of one Charlestonian, a merchant named William Richardson, suggests that folks from the Lowcountry found barbecues to be strange, crude affairs. In 1773, Richardson attended a horse race in the Camden District and described the accompanying barbecue in a sneering letter to his wife. He noted with derision the “clouds of dust arising everywhere” and “the Quarter of Beef Barbacuing in this dust and nicely browned indeed, but not with fire.” Two whole hogs were cooked for the occasion, too, and Richardson described them as “half roasted . . . with the blood running out at every cut of the knife.” He advised his wife, “don’t tell this to any of your squeemish C Town ladies for they will not believe you.”
To me, these data points suggest that barbecue did not get its start in Santa Elena and spread to the rest of the South from there. But, of course, I can only pray that that’s accurate. Ever the South Carolina partisan, Lake High is sticking to his guns on this one.
“Hell, you can believe it or not,” he told me. “I’m telling you they [the Spanish] were there for a full generation, they had the ingredients, we have the drawings [of the barbecue racks]. There’s no other place that can say, gee, we did it!”
Regardless of our position on barbecue’s birthplace, there is one thing we can agree on: that South Carolina maintains one of the country’s oldest and most vibrant barbecue traditions. In fact, barbecue as it is still practiced in the Pee Dee region — the kind you can enjoy at places like Scott’s in Hemingway or Cooper’s Country Store in Salters — is the closest of any regional style to the barbecue of the 18th and 19th centuries: whole hog cooked on an open pit over hardwood coals and dressed with a simple sauce of vinegar and pepper.
Perhaps one of our esteemed legislators could amend Senate Bill 1135 to strike all the “birthplace of barbecue” stuff and replace it with a more judicious statement about South Carolina’s rich, centuries-long barbecue tradition. While they’re at it, perhaps they could take out the whole “picnic cuisine” bit, too (what the heck is “picnic cuisine”, anyway?)
Why not just declare barbecue to be the official food of South Carolina? That’s the kind of legislative action I could rally behind.
Robert F. Moss is the senior food writer and restaurant critic for the Charleston City Paper and the author of Barbecue: The History of an American Institution (University of Alabama Press, 2010), the first full-length history of barbecue in the United States. His next book, The Barbecue Lover’s Carolinas will be published by Globe Pequot in January, 2015.
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