clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Soul of Barbecue Is Being Reimagined in Charleston

How two men and a tireless process define one of food’s greatest quests: to perfect cooked meat—whether hog or beef

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Welcome to The South Week at The Ringer. For the next several days, we’re celebrating — and reporting on — the richness of the region. You’ll find stories from all over the map, exploring topics such as the enduring legacy of Confederate monuments in Richmond and Montgomery, the evolution of Charleston barbecue, and the intersection of faith and football in Lubbock. We’re also ranking the best Southern rap albums, imagining the André 3000 mixtape we all deserve, and arguing about what even constitutes the South anymore. In the words of two great Southerners, nothin’ is for sure, nothin’ is for certain, nothin’ lasts forever.


On February 9 in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, Rodney Scott, one of the most celebrated pitmasters in the world, opened Rodney Scott’s BBQ, a shiny new outpost of his original business, which is about two hours north in Hemingway. Less than 12 months earlier, on June 28, 2016, John Lewis, one of the pitmasters who turned Austin, Texas, into the hottest barbecue destination in America through his work at Franklin and La Barbecue, opened Lewis Barbecue half a mile away. The brief jaunt along Romney Street, under the I-26 overpass that knifes between King Street and Meeting Street, is more or less all that separates two barbecue giants at the height of their craft.

Proximity ties the two men together, but it’s their differences that weave Charleston’s new, compelling barbecue narrative out of cultural dichotomies older than America itself. Scott’s calling is the hog; Lewis’s is beef. Scott is black, Lewis is white. Scott is the native son, bringing Charleston a vision of South Carolina’s rural Pee Dee region that had been absent from the state’s premier food destination; Lewis is the interloper, a Texan who had the balls to have a mural painted at his restaurant depicting a bull, almost Vedic in design, accompanied by the words “ALL HAIL THE KING” — in pig country. Scott and Lewis have brought over half a century’s worth of barbecue knowledge to the Holy City. Together, they make up the biggest, most important piece in barbecue’s modern puzzle. Their origins, techniques, and perspectives may be different, but their fated union in Charleston wasn’t ever about determining one’s superiority over the other. In a short time, it’s become proof that excellence is not inherently adversarial.

“You have the master of Texas and the master of Carolina,” Sean Brock, the James Beard Award–winning chef of Husk in Charleston and Nashville, told me. “With those two guys in the same city right beside each other, that’s a one-two punch, and I don’t think you can beat it.”

Barbecue is a process of coaxing out secrets; barbecue is a romance. It requires patience and commitment, which over time reveal patterns and rhythms. A brisket will dance for you when it feels like it — and only when it feels like it. Its undulations are a sign that conditions are exactly right. That it’s done. In an open pit, a whole hog’s hiss through a steady drip onto wood embers is its own love language. The meat will let you know when it’s ready, but the message isn’t so easily deciphered by a novice. It takes years to develop the proper vocabulary and recognition of certain physical cues. But once you reach that level, understanding when a piece of meat has yielded itself completely takes nothing more than a touch.

Charleston’s renaissance of smoke has become a national story in the past year, but the seeds were planted in the summer of 2014. Lewis, the Texan, traveled to Charleston for the first time to cook at the SC-TX BBQ Invitational. He was stationed alongside Scott. It was the first time Lewis had seen meat barbecued directly over coals; it was the first time he’d tasted whole hog. It was also the first time most Charlestonians had ever had beef barbecue on the level Lewis was capable of producing.

“People were freaking out about the food that we were making,” Lewis said. “I don’t think anyone had had anything like that out here yet. It was just a really good reception to what I was making. So that made me think maybe this could work here.”

Barbecue culture has long been a cipher for American culture, often coming down to affirming regional superiority. Battle lines are set around cities like Memphis, Kansas City, and Lockhart, Texas; these battle lines become hash marks in the Carolinas, where allegiances are split between Lexington and Eastern styles up North, and Midlands and Pee Dee styles down South. Today, Charleston stands not only as a neutral ground, but a demilitarized zone of barbecue, where tradition, personality, and innovation have become entangled on the world’s stage. With Scott and Lewis in the lead, the city is now a beacon for where the future of American barbecue is headed: everywhere.

“The most important thing to know about Charleston is that it wants to be the best at everything,” said Hanna Raskin, a James Beard Award–winning food critic for the Post and Courier. “So that’s it. This guy [John Lewis] is the best pitmaster in Texas? Of course he should be here. Not that he’s violating any sort of local tradition. It’s that he’s totally in line with the tradition it’s had for [almost 350] years.

But in those 350 years, barbecue didn’t have a firm place in Charleston until the beginning of the Cold War, which — to borrow a phrase from Raskin — in Charleston time is like yesterday. “Historically speaking, there was really no barbecue culture at all in Charleston, unlike much of the Carolinas,” said Robert F. Moss, a lifetime South Carolinian and the author of Barbecue: The History of an American Institution. “Barbecue just wasn’t a thing that was done in the rice-planting culture well until the 20th century.”

In fact, in the city’s early days, some Charlestonians looked upon barbecue with disgust. In his book, Moss shares one of the earliest accounts of a South Carolinian barbecue: a letter written in 1773 by William Richardson, a Charleston merchant who had moved north within the state to become a planter. In the letter, he describes to his wife, still living in Charleston, the horrors of a barbecue celebration — the lack of formality in the tablecloth, the uneven distribution of knives and plates, the pork and beef (yes pork and beef) that he described as being “dragged thro’ [Charleston] streets on a very dry dusty day & then smoke dried … their looks not inviting & in taste resembling Saw dust.”

Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In the same letter, Richardson told his wife: “I absolutely saw one lady devour a whole Hog head except the bones, don’t tell this to any of your squeemish C Town ladies for they will not believe you.”

After World War II, a population boom in North Charleston near the Naval Shipyard brought people from the rural areas up north down into Charleston, particularly from the Midlands region, whose style had defined the local barbecue palate since then. Midlands style means dressing a whole hog with a mustard-based sauce — sweet and piquant, with a rounded bit of savoriness (these days, from the addition of soy sauce, and possibly a dash of liquid smoke) at the end that leaves you wondering what else it’d be good on. The most iconic is the Bessinger mustard sauce, the brainchild of Joseph James Bessinger, created in 1933 and passed down to his five sons, who turned it into an institution in much of the state.

Big Joe Sandwich at Bessinger's BBQ
Danny Chau

But one son, Maurice, loomed over everything. First he ran a successful chain of nine restaurants, and then expanded into the frozen foods and bottled sauces business; by 2000 he had the largest barbecue-related business operation in the United States. He was also an unrepentant racist who had pamphlets available at his restaurants extolling the virtues of slavery. He had Confederate flags flown high at all of his restaurants in retaliation for South Carolina’s 2000 decision to remove the flag from its State House.

One flag still flies in Maurice’s name, but not outside any of his establishments. In 2005, he sold a 12-square-meter parcel of land housing the flag in front of what used to be one of his barbecue restaurants for $5 to Sons of Confederate Veterans Camp 842. That restaurant is an ice cream shop now; the owners can’t take the flag down. An appeals board in Orangeburg, South Carolina, voted unanimously earlier this month that the plot of land didn’t violate the city’s zoning ordinances.

Maurice’s family, both immediate and extended, who continue to serve barbecue using the Bessinger name, do so under the cloud of his legacy, even when most have distanced themselves from his worldview — as documented by both The Charlotte Observer’s Kathleen Purvis and The New Yorker’s Lauren Collins. The backstory can be so stifling that it distorts the semiotics of something as benign as an address. The Melvin’s BBQ outpost in Charleston — run by David Bessinger, who once said “I’m ashamed to use my last name” to the Post and Courier — sits on 538 Folly Road.

In 1966, Maurice Bessinger testified before a U.S. District Court in a case over the refusal of one of his restaurants in Columbia to serve a black minister just days after the Civil Rights Act was signed. He noted that “people from New York or North Carolina or Georgia have entirely different tastes for barbecue,” that his product was “made exclusively for the taste of central South Carolinians.”

It’s been 50 years since then, and we can at least say tastes for barbecue have changed. The Midlands style no longer has exclusive claim to Charleston. Many of the Bessinger barbecue joints these days now offer Texas-style brisket on their menus, as do the various Swig & Swine locations in and around Charleston. At Home Team BBQ, chicken wings are the must-order item: smoked, chilled, then deep-fried, served with an Alabama-style mayo-based sauce, a riff on the classic ranch-blue-cheese offerings so obvious that it’s a miracle restaurants across the country haven’t done the same. Charleston’s barbecue has caught up to the rest of the city’s culinary standards.

“I would say the barbecue really is now an extension of Charleston’s position as one of the great Southern dining cities,” Moss said. “And barbecue just rolls into that. It’s almost like one more genre of food you have to have to round out and check all the boxes of being a great food town.”

So then, what separates the Holy City from any other burgeoning urban barbecue destination, like New York City or even Los Angeles? The answer is simple: Charleston has Rodney Scott and John Lewis. The rest of America doesn’t.

The first time Scott served his whole-hog barbecue in New York, he spent a full 24 hours outside at the Brooklyn Bridge Park on a platform overlooking the East River — on one of the hottest days in New York City history. With the heat index registering 115 degrees on July 22, 2011, Scott and Brock prepped for their showing at Meatopia, a festival celebrating meat in all its forms, hosted and curated by the late food writer Josh Ozersky.

Together in the oppressive heat, Scott and Brock cooked an Ossabaw Island hog (native to the South) the only way Scott knows how: in a pit with the body butterflied down the middle, gently cooked skin side up under wood embers strategically placed underneath the shoulders and hams, which require more heat than the rest of the body for the muscle fibers to break down. It’s an eight-to-12-hour process of adjusting the coals (every 10 to 15 minutes depending on the size of the hog) and waiting, followed by a flip, a dusting of the entire cavity in dry seasonings, and then a mopping of a sauce made of vinegar, dried red pepper, lemon, and a secret ingredient (it’s MSG). There is only one flip during the entire cook, and additional wood embers are added immediately after to help blister the skin before serving. The skin gets crisp and sticky; the meat within the cavity, which develops a char from the 12 hours of indirect heat, essentially braises in a holy cocktail of the mopped sauce and its own juices. From there, all that separates the pork from finding home on a plate are the bones that are removed before service.

Pulled pork at Rodney Scott's BBQ
Andrew Cebulka

It’s a long, intensive procedure that takes a lot of maintenance, but also good humor. “[Barbecue requires] patience and enjoying the process,” Scott, 45, told me in the smoldering pit room of his Charleston location. It was a 90-degree day outside with 60 percent humidity; it felt like that on the inside — except imagine being in that heat while also standing directly behind a city bus’s exhaust pipe for 20 minutes. We were both sweating profusely. Scott was wearing a baseball cap, a slate-gray company button-down shirt with cobalt sleeves, and his signature cardinal apron. He looked like a superhero, one whose occupational hazards are left bare for all to see: a constellation of burn scars runs along his burly right forearm. The humidity put me out of my element. Scott was smiling; he was right at home. “If you agitate yourself, you get frustrated. You gotta remember, you got 12 more hours of cooking this stuff. So you just have to have fun with it.” So you crack open a beer and you tell a few tales. Scott has a lifetime of stories to share, and there might not be a single one among them that is true. Spend enough time with Scott, and you’ll hear about the legends of Uncle T.

“T tells the greatest lies around the fire,” Scott said. “He had them all rolling.” Maybe you’ll hear about Uncle T’s car, which was apparently so powerful that if you hit the throttle hard enough, it could jump over a Coke can. Or about the dog he had, which chased a car to the other side of the road and dodged oncoming traffic by lying down with its paws covering its head. Or maybe you’d hear about Uncle T’s English-speaking cat, which sneaked into the neighbor’s car at night and gave a firm “No” when asked the next morning if it had. “I heard some of the weirdest lies I could ever hear,” Scott said.

These lies help tell Scott’s truth. Storytelling is a pastime that goes hand in hand with barbecue. Little lies get passed down from person to person, from generation to generation. Soon, they vine into new traditions, then myths, which become inextricable from the imagination. It’s how Brock can remember a face-meltingly hot Brooklyn day so fondly.

“It was just the two of us, the whole place to ourselves,” Brock said. “Cooking this pig, making up lies, telling stories, listening to music, and cooking steaks and eggs right on the pit from the heat. Just an incredible experience. You really get to know someone when you stay awake with them for 24 hours.”

At a festival among acclaimed celebrity chefs like April Bloomfield, Eddie Huang, Ludo Lefebvre, and Aarón Sánchez, it was Scott, a pitmaster at a general country store in the middle of nowhere, who won Meatopia’s best of show. “For me to just sit back and watch [everyone’s] reaction when they ate his pork was just … it made me so happy and so proud of what we do in the South,” Brock said. “It’s all there. It all exists in the South, just not all of it is accessible to everyone.”

Rodney Scott mopping
Andrew Cebulka

For nearly three decades Rodney Scott perfected his craft under the cover of Hemingway, a rural town of fewer than 500, roughly two hours north of Charleston. He is, understandably, a creature of habit — as much as possible, the pit room on King Street was built to implement the comforts of home, where the pit room is a party. The R&B classics played at Muzak volumes in the dining area in Charleston are piped into the smokehouse and cranked up, a convenient little 21st-century bit of technology that recalls all the good times he’s had with a transistor radio by his side. Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” as we discussed the differences between Hemingway and Charleston; Rufus and Chaka Khan’s “Tell Me Something Good” while he playfully dodged my questions about his secret recipes. Scott understands how to dance with the media. Every question, no matter how trite or mundane, is met with widened eyes and an “Oh, wow.” It’s his preferred buffer for when he has to bide time for his percolating thoughts. Talking to Scott about barbecue is like talking to a fish about water — when you’re talking about your entire world, it can be tough to know where to start.

Since 1972, just after Scott was born, his family has operated a convenience store and gas station two miles west of the city proper. Soon after its opening, Scott’s father, Rosie, began spending his weekends selling whole-hog sandwiches based on a recipe passed down to him by his Uncle Thomas. Young Rodney seldom left his father’s side, internalizing the barbecue process before he was a teenager. In fact, it’d all come to a head when he was 11. There was a basketball game at the high school two miles into the city. He desperately wanted to go. “It was all the entertainment we had in Hemingway at 11 years old,” Scott said.

His father agreed to take him on one condition: He had to cook a whole hog himself first — if it came out right, he’d get dropped off at the game. So young Rodney went through the process: shovel the embers under the shoulders and hams, monitor the heat by feel and adjust accordingly, flip, season, mop. “I did that,” Scott said. “The hog came out good. I had fun — I made it.” It would be a while longer before Scott was given license to cook hogs himself, but by the time he was fresh out of high school, he had confidence in the instincts he’d developed his entire life. By 17, he knew what he was: a pitmaster.

And as for the basketball game he was dying to see?

“Honestly, we lost that night.”

But that’s the thing about storytelling: The inconvenient details become lost to time if you want them to be. What remains? One hell of an origin story.

John Lewis’s days used to start at 2:30 in the morning with a 15-minute drive to a smoky lot in the south end of Austin. First item of business was to check the briskets, which had been sitting all night in offset smokers — setups that funnel smoke from a wood-burning firebox into the cavity of a thousand-gallon tank. From there, he would get the pork ribs that had already been trimmed the day prior — on would go the slather, on would go the rub. Turkey breasts went into the smokers later, and sausages would be cooked about two hours before service. That would be around when an apprentice would show up to finish the process in the pits, and Lewis would enter the trailer to slice meats as the restaurant was opening. Once everything would sell out, it was back to the pits to trim and prep for the next morning. Nights ended at around 9 p.m. Then, a 15-minute drive back home, where he would knock out until the alarm hit. 2:30 a.m.

These were the hours he kept in the early days of La Barbecue, the Austin trailer that, since 2012, had been Franklin Barbecue’s chief competitor in the city’s downtown barbecue scene. Lewis was fresh off departing Franklin Barbecue after two and a half years as his friend Aaron Franklin’s right-hand man. In less than a year, Lewis had vaulted La Barbecue into the stratosphere, earning acclaim as one of the best barbecue restaurants in Texas.

John Lewis with pit
Jonathan Boncek

At the same age that Rodney Scott cooked his first pig, John Lewis, too, heeded the call of the fire. “When [John] was 10 or 11 we started going on these backpack trips with the Boy Scouts, and he learned how to cook over an open fire,” Lewis’s dad, John Sr., told Texas Monthly’s barbecue editor, Daniel Vaughn. “He got so good, the adults would bring food and let him cook it for us.”

As a kid, Lewis was a part of the Boy Scouts’ High Adventure program, which took him hundreds of miles into wilderness for two weeks at a time. Meals were built around ingredients they could forage, like wild onions or berries. Lewis, tired of eating poorly, worked his way around the limitations of his surroundings. Soon enough, in preparation for his High Adventure runs, he began to dehydrate things like roasted Hatch green chiles to help season the food he was preparing. The ingenuity that Lewis has become known for in the barbecue world started there.

While Lewis’s predilection for smoke was technically hereditary — his great-great-great-grandfather Henry E. Brubaker sold smoked meats upon settling in New Mexico in the early 20th century — his path to the best barbecue on the planet was largely self-paved. It started with a move to Austin from El Paso when he was 18 and a smoker he was gifted that year from his parents. Austin and the 50-mile radius around it — in places like Lockhart, Taylor, and Luling — is the Mecca of Central Texas barbecue, and a young Lewis couldn’t get enough. But it wasn’t until his three-year stint as a pastry chef in Denver, a veritable barbecue desert, that his passion for it exploded. Once again, he was forced to maneuver around the limitations of his surroundings. So he took those flavor memories of Austin with him and attempted to re-create them in his backyard. But his smoker wasn’t up to the task. He felt he could do better. He went to Home Depot one day and came home with two metal trash cans.

“It was something that was metal that I could put a fire in,” he told me, his long, lanky body hunched over in a booth at Lewis Barbecue in Charleston. It was hard to tell if he was bringing himself down closer to my vantage, or if that was just his default posture. He’s soft-spoken and reserved. He’s funny, but the humor in his jokes is powered by the negative space around his one-word retorts. Lewis, 39, looks like the kind of person who is the target of the old saying “never trust a skinny chef.” His wry sense of humor is underlined by his style: quirky specs, cutoff shorts, and colorful high socks that seem to extend his already long legs. He looks like someone who would try to build a smoker out of a refrigerator. (He actually did. “That didn’t go well,” he said.)

Lewis created smoke vessels by drilling and bolting anything metallic that could hold heat, from restaurant ovens to 55-gallon steel drums. Eventually drilling and bolting wasn’t enough — that’s how he got into welding.

John Lewis creates custom-built offset smokers through Austin Smoke Works, a company started with his father, Lewis Sr.
Austin Smoke Works

Lewis and Franklin serve as laureates of the aspiring backyard pitmaster. They are the champions of anyone who subscribes to a home barbecue message board trying to find out things like whether a deflector plate will make a difference in how smoke travels inside their pit. The world of barbecue is vast and largely open-source thanks to pitmasters like Franklin, who put all of their knowledge in writing and video, available to anyone willing to put in the time and effort. Lewis, on the other hand, keeps some of his discoveries closer to the vest. His findings are a culmination of years of failure — and not something he’s keen on divulging so readily.

“I feel like I’m pretty much self-taught on everything,” Lewis said. “The product that we’re making now is just a ton of trial and error and lots of dollars for more than a decade.”

What he produces now is essentially his ideal smoker — an offset design using a thousand-gallon propane tank that, due to its trade-secret dimensions, creates uniform circulation of air, smoke, and temperature. Four line the pit room in Charleston, each capable of smoking about 35 briskets at once. It’s what he credits for his success.

“A lot of people say good barbecue is all about the cook, not the equipment,” Lewis wrote in the barbecue book Pitmaster. “I think it’s totally the other way around. You’ve got to have a little know-how, but having the right tools makes all the difference.” In his quest to build the perfect smoker, Lewis has inverted the definition of a pitmaster. Instead of guiding meat around the inherent inefficiencies of a pit through sleight of hand, he’s used his sleight of hand to neutralize the inefficiencies of the pit. In either case, whether it’s Rodney Scott spending a lifetime observing and adjusting to the ways in which pork interacts with heat, or John Lewis spending more than a decade observing the mannerisms of smoke, it’s applied science.

Barbecue demands a balance of time and temperature. It is the most inefficient method of cooking meat — and at times, it can seem intentionally so. “True” barbecue relies on seasoned wood, and seasoned wood alone, for fuel. Depending on the weight, a whole hog can take up to 24 hours to cook, yet will yield less than half of its original weight in edible meat; a brisket will yield roughly half of its original weight before trimming. But there is no Moneyballing the process. There is no perfect internal temperature reading, no exact time of doneness that can be calculated. There are so many variables, and a cook has to simultaneously navigate all of them by feel. Time of year matters. Wind direction matters. The animal’s diet matters, as does the way it was slaughtered. Placement in the smoker matters. Two briskets with the exact same internal temperature of 205 degrees Fahrenheit could be at two completely different stages of cooking.

Time and temperature may serve as unreliable narrators, but stitch together the two accounts and they betray just enough information for a cook to connect the dots.

For the purposes of whole hog, the pig has six edible regions: the shoulders, the hams, the loins, the tenderloin, the belly, and the ribs. Each region has its own optimal state of doneness, ranging in internal temperature from 145 degrees to over 200, which means there are invariably regions that will be overcooked. Barbecue may be counterintuitive, but it has a way of rewarding not only patience, but faith. The beauty of whole hog reveals itself in a layered, multidimensional flavor profile that doesn’t always come through in pulled pork made exclusively from the shoulder muscle.

“There’s something that I’ve noticed about cooking a whole hog,” Scott told Bill West of Barbecue Tricks. “Somewhere in that backbone area, that flavor comes out of those backbones when it’s all joined together. … It’s a big difference when you keep the whole hog together.”

Pulling meat from the hog’s various regions by hand creates an interplay aimed to level out whole hog’s inherent inequalities in design: Leaner portions of the pig get acquainted with fattier regions as they are chopped up together; muted flavors get amplified by the hams, which are aggressively porcine; bits of crispy skin get entangled in wisps of succulent meat. At Osteria Francescana, voted the second-best restaurant in the world by an academy of over 1,000 restaurant industry experts, Massimo Bottura’s signature dish is “Five ages of Parmigiano-Reggiano in different textures and temperatures”: a souffle, a mousse, a sauce, a crisp, and a foam — each using a different version of the same ingredient, aged between 24 and 50 months. It was voted Italy’s dish of the decade. “So, in a small plate like that,” Bottura said, “with one ingredient, and all the mental processes, we expressed what is our terroir.”

Whole hog captures a similar essence in the South, whether you’re getting it from the Scott family in Charleston and Hemingway, the Jones family in Ayden and Winterville, North Carolina, or Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint in the Nashville area — except without the foam. It becomes a little clearer why a chef like Sean Brock, who champions fine dining in an increasingly deconstructed food landscape, unflinchingly compares Scott and Lewis in the Holy City to “having Massimo and [René] Redzepi in the same town.”

Genius refracts differently depending on the angle — and claiming that mantle in the realm of barbecue requires a physical commitment to the craft. Barbecue begets burns; long, odd hours; smoke inhalation. “[Barbecue is] hard-ass work,” Lewis said in an essay for Lucky Peach. “I’ve worked in all kinds of kitchens, and it’s way harder than any fine-dining restaurant.”

Brisket, Lewis’s moneymaker, shares whole hog’s design inefficiency in miniature: Like in whole hog, the challenge is cooking a network of muscles as though it were uniform, despite clear differences in composition. The brisket — the cow’s pectoral muscle, which supports more than half the animal’s body weight — is actually two different muscles, one much larger than the other. Those muscles have grains that run in different directions, with a thick layer of fat that serves as a partition between the top side (the fatty “point” muscle) and the bottom (the lean “flat” muscle).

At an internal temperature of somewhere between 115 and 120 degrees, the first signs of breakdown in certain muscle fibers begin to show. At around 130, collagen starts to shrink, initiating its transformation into gelatin. Fibers will continue to break down up to around 180 degrees. Past that point, internal temperature is moot. It’s on the pitmaster to make the right call. If we could see through the walls of a closed smoker and through the thicket of smoke that encapsulates the meat, we’d perhaps see something mystical peeking just over the top of the point end of the brisket — a vortex of smoke curling and spiraling up and around. “Inside of a closed container, smoke is mysterious,” said Greg Blonder, an MIT- and Harvard-educated professor at Boston University who moonlights as a barbecue scientist. “It has to force itself around meat, around grates, maybe a water pan. It discovers the path of least resistance and then flows out, kind of like a river cutting through a field.”

“There’s a lot of magic — some of which is real, some of which is imaginary — in making these things work,” said Blonder. “I find that the good pitmasters usually nail the science by experience.”

In Scott’s Charleston pit room, a metallic version of the restaurant’s logo is bolted onto a wall. The object of Scott’s singular focus and passion is right there in lettering: Whole Hog BBQ. “There’s not a whole lot of places where you can get it,” Moss said. “That’s really the item I’d say — if you’re going there, you’d better be getting the whole hog or you’re really missing out on what’s really special about Rodney’s cooking.”

The 12 pits in the room are connected by a chimney network that channels the smoke outside through a central smokestack. What emanates to the outside becomes a beacon. Tourists and locals alike come together in the communal table down the middle of the restaurant’s dining floor, suit-and-tie or shirt-and-shorts, to experience his barbecue. But whole hog — and Scott will laugh when he tells you this — is not the main reason the restaurant is packed day in and day out. Not by a mile.

“The ribs are the best seller here,” Scott said. “Weird, right?”

In the weeks leading up to the restaurant’s February opening, the staff had a feeling the public was going to ask for pork ribs; only problem was, Rodney had never cooked them before. Still, they insisted he try, and so, in late January, he took a lifetime of whole-hog training and infused it into what might as well have been a completely different animal.

Ribs at Rodney Scott's BBQ
Andrew Cebulka

The method remains largely intact, with a few adjustments: The ribs are rubbed with the same mix of dry seasonings that go on the whole hog, plus two extra secret ingredients suggested by his good friend Nick Pihakis, the owner of Jim ’N Nicks, a widely popular barbecue chain based in Birmingham, Alabama (in case you needed further confirmation that regional exceptionalism in barbecue is largely dead). From there, the ribs are given the whole-hog treatment: They’re cooked over wood embers, mopped with Scott’s vinegar sauce, cut, then served. Ribs in general are susceptible to developing a muddy, overwhelming smokiness, but the variety offered at Scott’s have a gentle, almost floral quality in the bark, reminiscent of the wood flavor from Peruvian roast chicken. They have Sean Brock’s approval.

“I like the ribs better than anything else on the menu,” Brock said. “I won’t eat other ribs — might as well smoke two packs of American Spirits. Might as well crush up American Spirits and pour milk on it.”

But how much of this surprising phenomenon can we chalk up to Charleston being a tourist hub, and a city without a historically strong barbecue culture? How much of this is an unconscious denial of Scott’s life’s work? “Here is the in-defense-of-Charleston answer: The ribs are better,” Raskin said. “Charleston knows its stuff. They’re going to order what’s good. The whole hog out in Hemingway is always great. The whole hog in Charleston has been a little bit inconsistent. So it’s not so much a matter of what did you do somewhere else. What are you doing here?”

Scott subscribes to that notion. “The city didn’t necessarily force us out [of our comfort zone],” he said. “We were just kind of waiting for the city to approach us with, ‘What else do you have?’” So outside of more typical barbecue offerings, the restaurant serves an exemplary fried catfish sandwich and a riff on a Philly cheesesteak (a homage to his city of birth) using thinly sliced ribeye smoked for up to eight hours — a staff favorite. “The whole menu is wrapped around things that I grew up doing and things that I liked to eat,” Scott said.

That personality-driven approach to menu building — within or beyond the scope of barbecue — has defined Lewis’s time in Charleston, too. On Fridays, they serve beef and cheddar melts, à la Arby’s; Sunday supper means chicken fried steak doused in a country gravy. Tex-Mex Tuesdays at Lewis Barbecue quickly grew into its own restaurant — cheekily named Juan Luis — that serves as both a passion project and a conduit for the flagship restaurant’s leftover beef and pork.

It should be noted that Lewis’s barbecue is about as good as it gets, anywhere in the world. “Hell yeah,” Brock said. “The first time I ate John’s barbecue, I ate so much I threw up for like two hours.” The brisket is elegantly touched by smoke, allowing the prime grade to take center stage; the lean slice is every bit as good as the fatty. The Texas smoked sausage known as hot guts, made from brisket and rib trimmings and a healthy helping of beef heart, almost squeals with the release of a vermilion-stained grease as your plastic fork tries to puncture the casing — just the way Lewis intended.

Lewis Barbecue platter
Danny Chau

What I wasn’t prepared for was a side dish to steal the show, much less clarify Lewis’s place in Charleston’s culinary continuum. Lewis’s signature side is a green chile corn pudding, and it’s a stunner. Brock chuckled in disbelief when I asked him about it; Jennifer, my bartender at Mike Lata’s seafood restaurant The Ordinary, enthusiastically recalled the time she tried to re-create it at home. It is simple enough: a cool, airy custard suspending kernels of corn and specks of roasted Hatch green chiles, encrusted in a layer of browned, caramelized cheddar cheese.

Corn pudding was one of the iconic dishes in 1976’s The Taste of Country Cooking, Edna Lewis’s (no relation) seminal memoir, cookbook, and original ode to the black customs that lay the foundation for American cuisine. It was the text that would solidify her as arguably the most influential figure of Southern foodways. Much of her life was spent preserving the memories of her childhood in Freetown, Virginia, filled with meals that lined picnic tables and church revival dinners.

In the ’80s, Edna Lewis had a three-year stay in Charleston, a chef’s residency at Middleton Place, a 65-acre landscaped garden that makes up one of the city’s historic landmarks. The restaurant continues to honor her legacy with a section of the lunch menu titled “A Tribute to Edna Lewis.” Depending on the season, you might be able to order her famous corn pudding. Though you won’t find it listed in any of her recipe books, Edna added a dash of vanilla extract to her corn pudding — an unplaceable ingredient that highlighted the dish’s blurring of sweet and savory. John Lewis’s twist on the classic is much more apparent. It’s a triangulation of place that captures a snapshot of histories both personal and regional. Through the bright yet earthy sweetness of the green chile, John pays tribute to the Southwest flavors that have sustained him his entire life; in choosing corn pudding as the restaurant’s featured side dish, he pays homage to the roots of Southern cuisine.

Yet my first bite took me back closer to home — to Los Angeles’s Koreatown, maybe my favorite place to eat in the country at the moment. The corn pudding at Lewis Barbecue tasted like a fusion of two classic Korean side dishes: gyeranjjim, a steamed egg custard served with Korean barbecue; and corn cheese, a puzzling dive-bar favorite consisting almost exclusively of canned corn, mozzarella cheese, and mayo — ingredients made popular in Korea through U.S. military occupation. Putting a Southwest spin on a Southern staple, John Lewis unintentionally created what I’d consider a perfect Korean bar snack.

Funny how culture works: Like smoke, it finds new paths to disperse and new landing spots to latch onto.

Esaul Ramos is the pitmaster and co-owner of San Antonio’s 2M Smokehouse, one of the 50 best barbecue restaurants in Texas according to Texas Monthly despite having existed since only December 2016. Ramos didn’t materialize out of thin air; he spent a year as the lead pitmaster at La Barbecue in 2015 after his mentor — John Lewis — had decamped for Charleston. Only a year earlier, he was a backyard smoker looking for an apprentice role with the business.

“I kind of prefer people who have never done barbecue before,” Lewis said with a wry smile. “So I can brainwash them the way I want to.” When he got the apprenticeship, Ramos committed to a 160-mile commute between Austin and San Antonio every day to learn from Lewis. But a barbecue cook’s hours are bad enough without losing another two and a half hours on the road. “I let him move in with me so he could stay in Austin,” Lewis said. “He was my roommate for a few years.”

Some folks sleep w/ briskets. Let's all be more tolerant. @2msmokehouse

A post shared by Robert Jacob Lerma (@robertjacoblerma) on

Now, there is no hour-plus commute, but there is a mattress set up right next to his offset smoker in his hometown of San Antonio. With the techniques he learned during his time under Lewis and the year of reps he had as the pit boss at La Barbecue, he’s making barbecue on his terms: emphatically Mexican American. There is cumin in the dry rub, there are tortillas served alongside sliced bread, there are nopales in addition to the standard pickles, and there’s a dusting of crushed chicharróns over the mac and cheese. While remaining as proprietary as ever, Lewis has done his part in mentoring a promising next generation. This is what the future of barbecue looks like — new faces celebrating their identity using old American traditions as a springboard.

The future is female, too. LeAnn Mueller and her wife and business partner, Ali Clem, will open a La Barbecue location, the restaurant’s second, in Los Angeles this fall; Laura Loomis is the lead pitmaster at San Antonio’s Two Bros. BBQ Market, and that statement alone is proof of an uprooting in barbecue’s patriarchy. The future is a propagation of black-owned business: restaurants like Houston’s Gatlin’s BBQ are tirelessly innovative — their traditional brisket coexists with their new smoked bologna breakfast sandwich; B’s Cracklin’ BBQ in Savannah and Atlanta serves a taste of South Carolina’s Midlands region with a Georgia peach infusion in the classic mustard base. And the future is still mastering its recipe: Currently, some of the best barbecue you’ll find in L.A. comes from the backyards of Mexican American, Asian American, and Israeli families across the city’s sprawl.

The future of barbecue can read like an oxymoron. A perfect slice of lean brisket or a perfect tendril of whole hog will always take you back, not forward. For decades now, barbecue has sold a dream of the past, a little taste of the great American pastoral that lives on with every wood ember descending from a burn barrel. When we talk about the future of barbecue, we’re talking about the thrill of bringing old conventions to new and unfamiliar places, the anxiety of displacing traditions from an ancestral home, and what’s gained and lost in translation. We’re talking about the natural progression of American culture.

“When you take something that is so connected to nostalgia and so connected to the experience of taking a road trip to the middle of nowhere to eat a plate of food — to take [that] and turn it into something more contemporary, something for this day and age, for this generation — it’s very difficult,” Brock said.

Growing up, Scott associated barbecues with the harvest season, and with birthday parties and family reunions — if you had a reason to celebrate, you had a hog in the pit. Those memories and associations color Scott’s worldview: If barbecue is meant to bring people together, it shouldn’t be remote or exclusive — it should be shared with as many people as possible.

Porting that state of mind, more so than the food, to Charleston might be the restaurant’s biggest success. The establishment is held together by Scott’s magnetic pull — he’s hands-on in the pits for at least five days a week; he’ll make the rounds and chat up every diner in the room; he’ll take pictures with whoever asks. As we chatted at a booth after I’d polished my plate, an acquaintance walked through the door, and Scott’s hand embraced hers as she passed through the aisle, yet not once did he break eye contact with me. He’s a charmer, and his charm is what holds everything in place. It may not be Hemingway, but it’s still Rodney.

Rodney Scott
Andrew Cebulka

As Scott and I were wrapping up our conversation in the sweltering pit room, the door behind me opened and slammed shut. In the room with us was a babyfaced 18-year-old, tall and lean — cutting a figure not unlike John Lewis — clad in his farm-boy best, a pair of denim overalls. Scott smiled and made the introduction. “That’s Clark Kent! A.k.a. Ed Mitchell,” he said with a laugh. The joke was that, besides their sartorial flair, the kid and Mitchell — a pot-bellied black man who serves as one of whole-hog barbecue’s most visible ambassadors — look absolutely nothing alike. The teen would soon be heading off to Nashville for college and had made plans to work at a barbecue restaurant in a town with some notable barbecue of its own: Martin’s, Peg Leg Porker, and Jim ’N Nicks, to name a few. He hoped to open a barbecue-and-beer joint of his own in the future.

Scott likes giving out nicknames — back home in Hemingway, he calls two of his employees Sonny Boy and Bo Diddley, after two influential blues artists. The nicknames Scott affectionately proffers to those in his orbit gives a sense of his optimism: Clark Kent was heading to Tennessee as Superman in utero, with the spirit of a whole-hog legend in tow.

Windows run along the sides of the pit room at Rodney Scott’s, obscured only by large crosshatched wires — anyone is free to admire the smoking process. During construction of the Charleston location earlier this year, Scott noticed a neighborhood kid peering through every day on his way to school. Eventually, he stopped by to say hello. Soon enough, Baby D, as Scott calls him, entered the orbit. “Oh, Baby D is something else,” Scott said. “We’ve basically embraced Baby D whenever he comes by, we make sure he gets something to eat. Sometimes he’ll hang out for a little bit, sweep the floor or whatever, and he’s gone.”

Earlier this year, Scott hosted a number of his fellow pitmasters at the Charleston location, and they talked shop in the sweltering pit room. Baby D was a fly on the wall, absorbing generations of knowledge from all over the country. His father works as a pitmaster in town; the draw of the fire hadn’t skipped this generation. “He’s like a 12-year-old kid that’s interested in barbecue as well,” Scott said. “And this could be the up-and-coming next pitmaster in Charleston, you never know.”

But not yet. Smoke moves in mysterious ways, and only now has its ring penetrated the surface of Charleston’s rich culture. Not every origin story has to start at a prodigious age. Baby D will grow up, and so will his city, adapting to the ways in which barbecue embeds within daily life. “He’s always ready to go after whatever,” Scott said. “I told him, ‘When you get 18, we’ll give you a chance. We’ll do this again. Just take your time, buddy.’”

Luckily, in this line of work, time isn’t the enemy. It’s the closest ally you have.

The Dave Chang Show

Kebabcast 2021

The Dave Chang Show

Chicken-Fried Steak, Garlic Knots, and Green Tea

The Dave Chang Show

Pupusas, Meat Loaf, and a Milkshake Update: #AskDave After Dark, Outdoors, in the Dark

View all stories in Food