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Get your S.C. barbecue on

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Next generation of barbecuers work to balance tradition with ‘foodie-ism’

Katie West

USC School of Journalism

Barbecue.

Perhaps nowhere in the country more than in South Carolina does the word evoke a sense of history as rich as the smell of meat in the smoker.

But a new wave of barbecue connoisseurs has emerged over the past decade as part of the larger foodie revolution. Travel shows are putting the spotlight on quirky restaurants with creative menus, and food trucks and fusion cuisine have expanded customers’ horizons regarding what a meal looks like. Traditional barbecue may not be going anywhere, but some South Carolinians are creating new takes on the staple food.

Its storied history in the state begins in the 1500s, explains Lake High, president of the S.C. Barbeque Association. Spanish settlers at Santa Elena (now Port Royal) were introduced to a new method of cooking meat by the Native Americans – a method still used today.

“Barbecue has changed almost none, with the exception of the four sauces,” he says. “All barbecue is cooked very slowly over a fire that’s a fair distance from it, in direct heat.”

But South Carolina’s claim to the birthplace of barbecue can be disputed. Virginia, for example, can trace its smoked meat history just as far back, if not further, as High explains in his 2013 book, “A History of South Carolina Barbeque.” What makes South Carolina special is a unique series of events, beginning with a wave of German immigrants in the mid-1700s.

Barbecue – a cheap option for feeding large groups because all cuts of meat can be used – became their food of choice for church gatherings, and they soon introduced a mustard sauce as an alternative to a vinegar-base sauce.

“It’s basically an unchanged food, except for these modern-day flavor profiles,” High says. “People are putting pineapple and crap like that in it, but none of it’s been very successful. Nobody will eat it after awhile.”

Jimmy Phillips would tend to disagree. In fact, two of the eight barbecue sandwiches on his restaurant’s menu are topped with pineapple. Four include bacon. Six are served with cheese. Some of his sauces are based on the classic four – vinegar, mustard, light tomato and heavy tomato – but others have names like “yum yum” and “asada vinaigrette.”

He opened The Southern Belly in Columbia less than a year ago, and although the small restaurant/bar can’t be considered a traditional barbecue joint by any stretch of the definition, customers can’t seem to get enough of it.

“A lot of people are like, ‘Wow, man, you’ve got a brilliant concept here. I’ve just never thought of putting anything on top of a barbecue sandwich,’” Phillips says. “And I’m like, you know what? You’re right. I never thought of it either, until I thought about it. And then I did it. And people love it.”

Phillips doesn’t have a culinary background. He learned about barbecue from a group of vendors who leased property from him during University of South Carolina football tailgates, and he says he never would have tried it himself if he hadn’t had to fill in for one of them one day.

“After doing it a few more times, I felt like this place could actually be a successful barbecue business,” he says, and it became his first foray into food service. He’s never participated in a barbecue competition and never plans to.

“We have barbecue judges come in and say, ‘This is phenomenal. This is excellent. This is the best barbecue we’ve had,’ which is very flattering,” Phillips says. “I don’t go out there and enter competitions or try and prove that what we have is as good or better. I don’t care. As long as our customers are happy and they want to eat it, that’s all that matters. So I kind of stay out of the inner barbecue circle.”

With that goal – making customers happy – in mind, Phillips acknowledges that perhaps there is more than one type of barbecue lover in South Carolina. For the most part, the people eating his sandwiches aren’t the same people who grew up smoking meat in a backyard pit and who remain fiercely territorial about their preferred sauce. It might be a generational thing, he muses.

“Progressive young foodies, hipsters, college students, they want a little restaurant they can go to, get a kick-a** barbecue sandwich with whatever sauce they want, whatever toppings they want, some chips and some coleslaw and a beer,” he says. “They don’t want to go to a mom-and-pop buffet out in Lugoff or Shop Road. They want something hip. They still like the traditional essence of it, but they want it packaged the way we’re packaging it.”

If Phillips is the accidental restaurateur, a mad scientist of the barbecue realm, Aeron Siegel takes a slightly more traditional route with his Charleston restaurant, Home Team BBQ. Unlike Phillips, the Atlanta native has experience in South Carolina barbecue competitions – one experience, several years ago at Boone Hall Plantation.

“I think we almost came in dead last,” he recalls. “I can remember being out there with my buddy, and as we were driving away, he asked what we were going to change about it before we opened the restaurant, and I said, ‘nothing.’”

Siegel and his friend had committed what barbecue judges like High deem a big competition no-no: experimentation.

(“There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not very good,” High says).

But Siegel believed he was onto something, and he kept playing with different kinds of smoked meats and spices as his restaurant opened in late 2006 and customers began coming. And coming. And coming back for more.

“We just realized there are so many things we can do with the meat. Why stop?” he asks. “You can pique people’s interest.”

Siegel describes his offerings as “a traditional menu with a few twists, based around smoked meats and vegetables,” pulled pork tacos, barbecue shrimp quesadillas and smoked corn salsa verde, alongside more traditional brisket platters, ribs, mac and cheese and banana pudding. He has a background in French classical cooking from his days at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, but the Southwestern influence comes from his time at a fresh burrito restaurant in Colorado.

The twists have paid off. A Sullivan’s Island location opened in 2009, and Siegel’s dishes – the ribs, in particular – have caught the attention not only of locals who have become regulars, but also of Esquire, Southern Living and USA Today. His flavor seems to have filled a niche, but he believes traditional South Carolina barbecue isn’t the least bit dead.

“There are places that have been around forever and people are always going to be there,” he says. “They ride the horses that got them there – pork, slaw, beans, chicken and rib eye on Saturdays. People will come. I don’t think we necessarily have to do different things to be successful – we just wanted to.”

Phillips and Siegel aren’t the only Carolinians with a new spin on one of the state’s oldest food traditions. Bone-In, a barbecue food truck based in Columbia, serves its pulled pork sandwiches on focaccia buns with a side of gingered apple carrot coleslaw. In Greenville, Bacon Bros. Public House offers barbecue chicken with dinosaur kale, a grilled fig and lardo vinaigrette and blue cheese. Non-traditional barbecue options are here, and they’re growing.

Back in Columbia, The Southern Belly has yet to turn a year old, but Phillips is already pondering the future. He believes barbecue will be the next big food trend, and he wants to be at the forefront of that revolution.

“I think if we can’t be the first to get out in the larger market, with little hip barbecue joints everywhere, where it’s like, ‘Let me get a Sierra Nevada and a Django barbecue sandwich,’…then someone else will do it,” he says.

As for High, he’s simply confident that barbecue will always be here. It’s a staple of not just South Carolina food, but of South Carolina living.

“I’m an old man, and I’ve been eating it my whole life,” High says. “It’s just wonderful stuff, and it has its own history and its own culture. It’s part of Southern culture, and it’s definitely ingrained in the soul of South Carolina history.”