In honor of Barbecue Week, Eater sent Robert Donovan to explore some of the establishments tucked around South Carolina and states closely surrounding the region. These are the spots worth loading up the car and driving for a few hours. Today, it's an inside look at Scott's Bar-B-Que at 2734 Hemingway Hwy., Hemingway, South Carolina. For more hidden gems, check out True BBQ, B's Cracklin' BBQ, and Big T's.
Several years ago, you could have been excused if you drove past Scott's Bar-B-Que. Its jumbly lettered sign sat on an old, repurposed gas station and country store at a crossroads in the hamlet of Hemingway, SC. Go there today, and you would be hard-pressed to miss it.
These days, cars sporting license plates from all over the U.S. fill the "parking lot" (essentially a big grassy field across Hemingway Highway) and both sides of Scott's cross street at Cow Head Road. Barbecue tourists will undoubtedly be taking selfies in front of the white and aqua-trimmed, tin roof building or waiting in line with locals to place an order for some of the best whole hog in the country. If you get close and need better directions, just roll down your windows and follow the thick, funky music or seductive smoke — both of which constantly pump out of Scott's pit house with abandon.
If you pay attention to food media (and even if you don't), you've seen or heard of Rodney Scott. Between his TV appearances on Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown, his mother Ella teaching Andrew Zimmern how to pull a pig on Bizarre Foods, his spot on Southern Foodways Alliance's Joe York film Cut/Chop/Cook, multiple trips down under, and any number of articles written about him — Rodney and his down-to-earth personality are known worldwide.
Whole hog barbecue makes for long, hot, sweaty work, and most joints you pass today aren't doing it. Hell, many of the barbecue places you pass aren't even using wood. Not the case at Scott's. Just walk around the side of the newly rebuilt pit house, and you'll see it — you can't miss it. There are huge piles of downed trees waiting to be cut to size and stacks of split logs loosely organized by type. Rodney and the crew harvest and chop all the wood they use from the surrounding area. They'll lend their forestry skills to others too, removing trees from neighbors' property, and taking the wood back to the pits. It's the best kind of barbecue: forest-to-your-face.
All that oak, hickory, and other hardwood are burned down to glowing coals in a warped burn barrel that's seen innumerable fires. When it's reaching top-level burn, you can't get within five feet. It's enough heat to singe arm hair, eyebrows, or worse. Moving the coals from the barrel to the pits involves a massive shovel fashioned from ten-plus feet of pipe and a shovel's blade. One end knocks the coals down to the bottom of the barrel and the other end scoops the coals, and they are walked into the smoky pit house. Reaching through a small door in the pit, the pitmaster scatters the coals under the whole hogs in one of the 20 pits. Every now and again, you hear a faint sizzle from fat hitting the coals, but not too often — Rodney keeps the heat at the right level.
The hogs are seasoned with generous scatterings of salt, black pepper, cayenne, pepper, and chile flakes. Buckets of spicy red vinegar sauce are mopped on once the hog is flipped. And when the hogs get close, Rodney will break up the meat with a long metal spoon, which he marked with duct tape to remind him not to get too aggressive and cut his palm on the sharp edges. Breaking up the meat allows the mop of sauce, fat, and spice to penetrate deep into the muscles. Once the hogs are done, they're sent up front for service.
All the relatives, workers, and old friends making things happen at Scott's are no less important, but this is Rodney's place. When he's not on the phone, he alternates between posing with his admirers for awkwardly angled photos, directing the crew on when it's time to flip or sauce a hog, cooking a snack of hot dogs for the staff, talking to his mother about people coming by to pick up large orders, and changing up the playlist to something less, or more, funky. People pulling up in the mud and gravel parking lot immediately begin looking for him, and they usually find him if he doesn't find them first.
The pits were previously off limits for everyone but staff — now people just wander in, start asking to see inside, and want to know how long it takes, how hot it gets in the summer, what's that big melted barrel for, and if they can have some ribs, please. The patience Scott's earned from years of dealing with hogs seemingly crosses over to entertaining their more upright cousins.
The Scott's building improved in the last couple of years — the sign has new letters (though still slightly askew and mismatched), and the pit house was rebuilt after a Thanksgiving fire almost destroyed the business a few years back. The barbecue is still borne of old school hard work, real wood, and years of experience. It's better than ever, and Rodney is still as salt of the earth as you are going to find. His barbecue and reputation brings fans from all over.
Many take a day out of their beach vacations to drive up from Charleston or down from Myrtle Beach, looking to get the "que" they saw on television or read about on any number of food websites, blogs, or magazines. But you'll see locals there just as often as barbecue tourists. Again, pointing to the quality of the product and the people who make it.
Waiting in line to order takes you into the original country store with a few small tables and shelves packed with white bread, jars of Duke's, bags of sugar, cans of pork and beans, and framed articles about the restaurant. Bring cash, wear shoes, and pull up your pants because "Credit is ‘dead' and you'll be asked to leave with your ‘dropdown pants,'" as signs hanging next to the menu warn.
When you get to the counter you'll place your order with one of Rodney's aunts, cousins, or if you're lucky, his mother. Scott's is a family business. From the front of the house to the pits, you'll find Rodney's relatives doing everything from stoking the barrel to serving the food. Ella and her front-of-the-house team fill orders straight from pigs brought in from the pits, pulling the smoky vinegar and pepper tinged meat, filling up Styrofoam containers asking "with or without sauce?" (Make sure you get the sauce.)
If they're available, add skins to your order. Thick, crunchy, and sticky with sauce, they're a great contrast to the tender pulled pork that Scott's is built on. For the drive, grab a couple bags of the light crispy cracklins, curled up, and still hanging onto some fat rendered airy from frying. You'll finish at least one on the way to wherever you are going. If you show up early enough on Saturday you can get the smoked ribeye special, but you'll still get some pulled pork and cracklins, of course.
There is now enough seating to accommodate a few groups on tables inside the store and outside by the pit house, but most people you'll run into are getting pounds of pulled pig with extra spicy vinegar sauce to go. Don't forget to pick up a piece of red velvet cake or two. There are tales of people finishing a piece in the car on the way back to Charleston, turning around, and heading back to get more. Not a bad detour, and you'll get to hear what's next on the playlist.