SC BBQ Shag Festival 101: Prepping to cook whole hog
Barbecue in South Carolina, by traditional definition, is a whole hog, cooked low and slow over a wood fire.
It’s hard, hot, time-consuming work to bring a perfectly cooked and sauced whole hog to the table. And that is one reason why whole hog barbecue is a dying art form in the state.
Professional Pit masters...
There’s a difference between doing barbecue for a restaurant and doing it in the backyard for family and friends, or competing in barbecue cook-offs on the weekend.
Restaurants or bbq shacks — whatever you want to call those oases of roasted pork — are usually located on the outskirts of town or along a rural highway, where there’s an abundance of firewood and space for a wood-fired pit and its smoke. Traditionally, these spots are open only a few hours on the weekends (Thursday, Friday and Saturday).
Pit masters start their workday about 12 hours before the establishment is scheduled to open with a burn barrel, burning wood — usually oak, hickory or some other hardwood — until it’s reduced to glowing embers. The embers are then transported shovel by shovel to the pits, over which the hogs had been splayed.
It’s then the pit master’s job to watch the fire, stoke it when and where needed, so that the pig cooks slowly and evenly. The process takes 8 to 12 hours, depending on the size of the hog. An occasional mopping of the hog with the pit master’s signature sauce helps keep the pork from drying out. The more hogs a restaurant handles, the longer the day for the pit master and his (or her) crew.
Restaurants that still do whole hog on a regular basis in South Carolina seem to be clustered in Clarendon, Williamsburg, and Florence counties — especially around the towns of Manning, Kingstree and Hemingway. This is also the epicenter of spicy vinegar-pepper sauce — one of the four varieties of sauces found in South Carolina.
Probably the best known pit master in the area is Rodney Scott. His parents began Scott’s BBQ in Hemingway — actually Brunson’s Crossroads, just outside the city limits, on SC 261. Rodney has said that he cooked his first pig at age 11.
Scott’s gained notoriety after a 2009 article in The New York Times, and Rodney Scott has been featured on national and international cooking and travel shows. He opened Rodney Scott’s BBQ on upper King Street in Charleston in 2017 to rave reviews.
Back in Hemingway, the family cooks about 10 hogs a day in relatively new pits. The building containing the old ones burned down a couple of years ago, prompting Rodney to go on tour to raise funds for a rebuild. The new, larger pit area not only accommodates hogs, but space for barbecuing chickens as well.
About a half-hour away from Scott’s, Angela Brown works for her father-in-law, Thomas, at Brown’s Bar-B-Que.
The restaurant, founded 30 years ago, sits along U.S. 52 between Kingstree and Lake City, on the way to and from South Carolina's beaches. You can dine in at the all-you-can-eat at the buffet, or take away items by the pound.
Nowadays, Brown’s prepares 15 to 20 whole hogs a week. Before the economy sank, the number was closer to 35 a week. She says the restaurant still prepares 175 hogs during the week of Christmas.
She says that folks have moved away from whole hog cooking because hams and slabs of ribs are easier to manage.
One gentleman who wants to keep the whole hog tradition alive is Anthony DiBernardo of Swig & Swine, a barbecue lover's paradise with locations in Mt. Pleasant, West Ashley and Summerville. The Summerville location is where DiBernardo does whole hog over wood fire.
In a nod to changing tastes, DiBernardo also prepares smoked beef brisket, turkey, pork belly, chicken wings and homemade sausages, and he features local Lowcountry craft beers in his restaurants.
...and Weekend Smokers
The Hemingway BBQ Shag Festival is one of those rare whole hog competitions in the South.
Every spring, on a Friday afternoon, around 40 to 45 amateur teams haul in their smokers behind their pick-ups, put up their pop-up tents, and get ready to spend the better part of the weekend socializing, and sometimes agonizing, over cooking a whole hog.
This year, 40 teams entered the event.
Kelly Edwards and Randy Harrelson, from Johnsonville, are at home in bay 13 — on Friday, April 13. They hope that the double 13 will bring them luck.
The men have been competing for 5 years. The first year the men placed dead last, the next year 22nd, then 13th and last year they were 4th.
“We only have one way to go,” says Harrelson, laughing.
“We enjoy it, it’s relaxing, it’s so nice.”
Harrelson grew up on whole hog, “my parents did them in the ground with wood,” he says.
Edwards and Harrelson plan to cook their hog skin side down to maintain the moisture and some fat during the cooking process.
In bays 11 and 12 are the Williamses – sisters Amber and Kacie are a team in 11, and their father, Macajiah, and his buddy Emmett Reeder are in 12.
Macajiah has been competing since 1998.
“We cook it like we like to eat it,” he says. That means trimming off most of the fat and removing the gristle and bone. They’ll cook their hog low and slow, about 12 hours.
But “the sauce is what makes the money,” he says, referring to the practice of saucing the hog over the course of the cooking process.
Most of the homemade sauces at the Hemingway festival will be vinegar and pepper based.
Macajiah’s has a “little bit of heat.”
The sisters sport a pink smoker they won in a bet with their father.
Macajiah thought he’d get out of the barbecue competition and bet his girls that if they placed in their first competition, about seven years ago, they could have his smoker — and he’d paint it pink. The sisters took fifth place in that first competition.
The Hemingway cook-off has cash prizes for the top five spots.
The elder Williams says that his girls are one of the teams to watch in this year’s competition. Since their first effort, the sisters have steadily progressed — placing fourth, third, and second in the past three years.
Across the way, Wayne Owens and Ryan Owens — “we’re not related,” says Wayne — have set up their tents along the edge of the park. The two stand out because they’re very friendly and one of the few teams not sporting some sort of Clemson gear (they have Gamecock insignias on their lawn chairs).
The two Owens men like to compete — they won the Hemingway chili cook-off a few months earlier.
Asked if they think they have a chance of winning this year, Ryan says, “We have a good shot.
“Of course, we say that every year. We come in pretty confident — and leave with our feelings hurt.”
All of the teams at the festival are cooking with gas fueled grills rather than smoke. Ryan Owens says it’s mainly because of the time limit. When he’s at home, he can manage the wood — taking the time to move the coals around, and staying awake and stoking the fire until the pig is done.
With these smokers, Kelly Edwards says that once you set them up, you just need to keep an eye on the temperature and they’ll pretty much take care of themselves.
The Festival begins
On Friday afternoon, everyone is settling in and getting to know their neighbors or saying hello to old friends.
The festival’s DJ is getting the crowd warmed up for the shag contest and a performance by The Tams later that night.
The music is loud and the dance floor is full with kids playing with Hula Hoops and adults dancing. Every once in a while a line dance forms.
Fireworks, choreographed to patriotic music, are shot off at 9 p.m.
The teams will begin selecting the hogs from the back of a refrigerated truck parked at the entrance to the park at midnight. Teams can ask for a certain weight range — on the entry forms, it states that the hogs should weigh in around 120 pounds dressed.
More that a few are in the 85 to 100 pound range.
That will make a difference as to when teams put the hogs on the smoker. Even low and slow, a smaller hog will take less time to cook and could dry out if not held at the proper temperature.
Edwards and Harrelson have a hog weighing 87 pounds. The Williams sisters’ hog is just more than 100. The Owenses have an 86 pound hog.
The Edwards/Harrelson team and the Williams sisters start their hogs just after midnight. Because of the size of their hog, the Owenses decide to wait until around 6 a.m. Saturday to start. That will leave 10 hours for the guys to cook and prep their hog before the judges send someone to collect samples at 4 p.m.
The music is finally winding down around 2 a.m.
The baseball fields cool off during the night and condensation begins to drip from the edge of the metal roof over the bays and onto the sand below. Cookers have either pulled on jackets before dragging a chair close to the smokers, or headed over to their trucks to stay warm.
A few have set their rigs on autopilot and run home to sleep in their own beds before returning to the field just after sunrise on Saturday.
Around 7 a.m. Saturday, the teams that started around midnight begin sneaking peeks at their hogs.
They don’t want to keep the top of the smoker open for too long because they’ll lose the heat build-up. Some teams have put drip pans under the smokers to catch the grease dripping off the hog.
Just after noon, Macajiah Williams and Emmett Reeder lift the lid on their smoker.
“Now I got to work for it,” says Williams. The hog is done, but seems tougher than Williams would like.
“I’ve never seen one like this,” he says, pulling at the meat.
He’s having a little trouble removing the bones from the hog. He’s cooked his hog skin down, without flipping it. The ribs come out easy but the backbone is not yielding easily as it should.
He and Reeder will take all of the of meat out of the hog and pull it apart (that’s why it’s called pulled pork) before saucing the meat and replacing it in the pig’s skin. The process is called “hashing it up.”
Since the judges won’t get a sample of the meat until later that afternoon, the men will have to maintain an even temperature of 130 degrees on the hog for the remainder of the day, as per state health regulations.
In the next bay, the Williams sisters are testing their hog. “When the meat breaks away from the bones, it’s done,” says Amber.
“It’s a little tough,” she says, “but we’ll work with it.”
“You can tell it’s tough because the meat doesn't break away from the bone as easily,” she says. “It depends on the hog. They’re all different. It’s definitely done though.”
They, too, will clean the carcass, pull the pork apart and sauce it before repacking the skin and holding a constant temperature until the judges pick up a sample.
Across the way, there’s a team that attempted to flip their hog from skin side down to skin side up in order to finish it off. Unfortunately, the pig slipped off the grate and hit the ground.
Ten hours of cooking.
One minute slip.
Team Owens did things a little bit different. They started cooking later in the morning— around 6 a.m. — and they started their hog skin side up.
Like Edwards and Harrelson, they also had one of the smaller hogs.
Around 2 p.m., Ryan takes a peek and decides they need to flip the hog to finish skin side down.
To avoid the fate of their neighbor, the guys take zip ties and connect the wire frame under the hog to a wire frame on top of the hog to create a basket for flipping the hog.
The men still need to coordinate the timing and direction of the flip.
“One, two, three!,” says Ryan.
“Well, that worked well,” he says after the pig lands perfectly in the center of the grill.
“Thank God,” says Wayne.
The men start to separate the meat from the bone and have the same problem with their hog’s backbone. The ribs, however, lift out clean, in one big piece.
“That’s called Sunday dinner,” says Ryan.
The guys make fast work of their hog. The shoulders and the hams pull easily out of the skin and the pork belly (where bacon comes from) pulls apart in strands resembling spaghetti.
They’ll add their sauce and toss the meat before replacing it in the pig’s skin. Then they’ll let it sit for a bit and sauce again while maintaining constant 130 degree temperature.
At 4 p.m., a festival committee member comes around and collects about one pound of barbecue from each team.
Before the samples are collected, each empty sample container is assigned a random four-digit number.
As the barbecue samples are collected, the bay number is recorded next to the random number.
Another list in the festival office matches bay numbers to team names. The lists are kept separate and only two festival coordinators have access to the lists. When the judging is over, and the top scores are tallied, the lists will be cross-referenced and the team names will be known.
In the festival committee’s trailer, twelve men have been sequestered and will act as judges in the blind tasting.
They will judge each sample on Aroma (10 possible points), Appearance (20), and Taste (70) for a possible perfect score of 100.
There are 39 samples. Six of the men will taste 20 samples, the other six will taste the remaining 19.
After the totals are added up, the top 15 samples will be re-tasted and judged by all twelve men. The top five scores will be the cook-off winners.
If there’s a tie, the judges will taste the top rated samples again.
The men have been asked not to talk to each other or indicate to one another a preference of one sample over another during the tasting. Other than asking for more water or soda, the only voice in the room is that of the committee member in charge of the samples. She's announcing the sample numbers so the judges can record their scores on the score sheets.
About three-quarters through the tasting, the eyes of the younger judges begin to glaze over. Call it barbecue overload.
The guys who have done this before know to take just one forkful of the sample to their plate.
Before they taste, the judges raise the plate to the nose to check the aroma. They want a hint of smoke under the vinegar pepper sauce.
They know that they can taste the barbecue without actually having to eat the barbecue. “Spit cups” appear so that the judges can taste the meat and get a feel of the texture without having to consume a whole lot of ‘cue.
Still, it takes about two hours to judge the samples — and there’s a wide range in the scores. But there is a clear winner.
There’s a lot of money on the table.
Fifth place gets $750, fourth gets $1,000, third gets $1,250, second place gets $1,500, and the first place team gets a check for $3,000.
The hogs cooked by the top five teams will be sold to festival goers at $5/pound container.
Competitors that don’t place can take their hogs home.
Just before 7 p.m., the announcer calls everyone to the stage where the winners will be revealed.
It’s been almost 20 hours since the cook-off began and there are some tired teams hanging around the edges of the ball field.
This year, the competition is dedicated to a longtime competitor — Marion “Woody” Curtis — who passed away in October after a battle with cancer.
His widow, Marie, announces this year’s winners…
Fifth place — Bubba and Diane Coker
Fourth place — Justin Owens, Garth Williams and Tyler Rogers
Third place — Thomas Hanna
Second place — Davey Connors
First place — Wayne Owens and Ryan Owens
WHERE YOU CAN FIND WHOLE HOG BBQ IN SC
B’Back BBQ: Big buffet with BBQ, chicken, fish stew and seasonal vegetables. 3609 U.S. 52, Coward, (843) 389-7447, follow on Facebook
Big D’s BBQ Barn: 793 Davis Road, Hemingway, (843) 558-2661, follow on Facebook
Brown’s Bar-B-Que: Family operated for 30 years. 809 N. Williamsburg County Highway, Kingstree, follow them on Facebook
Kenny’s Bar B Que: 308 N Main St., Hemingway, (843) 558-3629, follow on Facebook
McCabe’s Bar-B-Que: 480 N Brooks St, Manning, (803) 435-2833, follow on Facebook
Moree’s Bar-B-Que: 677 Morrisville Rd, Andrews, (843) 221-5643, follow on Facebook
Music Man’s Bar-B-Que: Known for whole hog barbecue, they also have catfish stew and 3rd Wednesday steak night, 112 E Railroad Ave., Moncks Corner, (843) 899-7675, musicmansbbq.com
Scott’s BarBQue: Worth the 2-hour drive from Columbia. 2734 Hemingway Highway. (843) 558-0134, follow on Facebook
Sweatman’s BBQ: Bub and Margie Sweatman have been in business since 1959. They moved to the current location, a large farmhouse on the road between Holly Hill and Eutawvile, in 1977. They use oak, hickory and pecan wood to smoke the hogs and a mustard-based sauce to finish. Sweatman's has been featured on national television, including Cooking Channel's "Man, Fire, Food," and Travel Channel's "No Reservations" with Anthony Bourdain. 1427 Eautaw Road, Holly Hill, 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Fri and Sat., www.sweatmansbbq.com
Swig & Swine: Anthony DiBernardo, pit master, opened in 2013. A more refined dining atmosphere than the standard cement block building with or without a buffet line, does whole hog, beef brisket, smoked turkey, pork belly, homemade sausage, chicken wings and ribs, plus 60 craft beers and full bar. Locations in Charleston, Summerville, and Mt Pleasant, swigandswinebbq.com