These days, people call anything cooked on a grill barbecue. But if you want the real deal, plan a trip to South Carolina. From the cities of Charleston and Columbia to the hamlets of Orangeburg and Cheraw, South Carolina's barbecue joints serve up their own takes on the traditional, smoky meal.
According to the South Carolina Barbeque Association's Web site, there are four basic barbecue sauces used across the country in basting and serving the meat - vinegar and pepper, mustard, light tomato and heavy tomato. South Carolina is the only state that's home to all four sauces, writes association president Lake High Jr. on the site.
Vinegar and pepper, the oldest and simplest sauce, is popular on the coastal plains of the state. Germans who settled in South Carolina brought mustard sauce to the Santee, Congaree, Broad and Saluda rivers in the 1700s. The Pee Dee region, which includes towns like Darlington, has taken a liking to light tomato sauce, which is vinegar and pepper with tomato added. Heavy tomato sauce is used throughout the state and the nation.
Slow cooking in Charleston
Most discussions about food in South Carolina start with Charleston, and barbecue is no exception. A Charleston tradition, Bessinger's BBQ has been providing regulars with its slow-cooked lean pork hams since 1946. How slow do they cook their meat? It generally takes 18 hours to cook it in a wood-burning pit over hickory and oak logs. Top that cooking method off with a choice of any of their own sauces, and you are in barbecue heaven.
Charleston suburb Mount Pleasant has a few gems of its own. Momma Brown's BBQ restaurant serves up a great example of vinegar-based barbecue.
"Barbecue means pork here - never beef," said Amanda Dew Manning, a Charleston-based culinary historian. "And often it's the whole hog that goes on the barbie."
That's what goes on at Momma Brown's BBQ. All of the food here is served cafeteria-style. The restaurant's pit-cooked barbecue comes with side dishes including coleslaw, rutabagas, macaroni pie and fried fat back - a skin-on piece of thick-sliced pork that is fried crisp.
In contrast to Momma Brown's, Sticky Fingers in Mount Pleasant has a more contemporary take on barbecue. Indeed, Sticky Fingers is a chain, and purists might scoff at this suggestion. But Sticky Fingers, offering a menu of delectable, family friendly barbecue, has seen its success spread like barbecue smoke. In addition to its original location, Sticky Fingers can be found on Charleston's Meeting Street and in Columbia.
Barbecue in the Old 96 District
If Sticky Fingers sounds too sanitized, try hitting the roads in South Carolina's Old 96 District. Comprised of five counties that border Georgia, the Old 96 District is home to the state's best-kept barbecue secrets.
Traveling for a while down Interstate 26 can make anyone hungry. That's why Hickory Hills Bar-B-Que in Clinton is a favorite for travelers, truckers and locals. Pulled pork, hash and rice, in addition to baked and fried chicken, are on the menu here. Owned and operated by Mark Long, Hickory Hills is also known for serving up pork rinds and white bread with its dishes.
One of the best examples of vinegar-based barbecue can be found at Bill's BBQ in Cheraw. Owner Bill Hunt is renowned for serving up some of the state's best pork and chicken barbecue. Sweet potato souffle and baked beans accompany this Cheraw institution's first-rate barbecue. No meal here is complete without an order of the banana pudding.
If you're looking to sample several types of barbecue sauces, stop by Buffalo's Midway BBQ. The restaurant serves three of the big four barbecue sauce varieties. Housed in a rustic building with sawdust on the floor, Midway cooks its meats with hickory wood in an old-fashioned pit at 225 F for 16 to 20 hours. When it's cold outside, Midway offers its legendary chicken stew.
•South Carolina Barbeque
•Carolina Q Cup
Did you know?
•Barbecue requires cooking to a temperature of between 210 and 250 F over a period of 10 to 20 hours (or more-depending on the meat).
•Over the years, famous folks from Sen. Elizabeth Dole to actor/rapper LL Cool J have been spotted at Bessinger's Barbeque in Charleston.
•If you pine away for Sticky Fingers, you can get its sauce through its mail order business.
•Mount Pleasant barbecue joint Momma Brown's recipes come from owner Mary Alice Knight's own momma, Azalee Brown.
•Midway BBQ was voted fourth-best barbecue joint in the nation by Delta Airlines.
Sources: South Carolina Barbeque Association, Sticky Fingers, Midway BBQ, Carolina Food Pros