High on the hog: A ’cue festival comes to The Bend
By Tim Askins
Holy Smokes BBQ Festival chefs left to right: Aaron (Home Team BBQ), Anthony (Swig & Swine), Rodney (Rodney Scott BBQ and Taylor (Home Team BBQ). Image provided.
Charleston has seen a flurry of award-winning barbecue joints open in the past decade. Leading the way are Aaron Siegel of Home Team and Anthony DiBernardo of Swig and Swine. The two have drawn on their previous experiences in fine dining to bring white tablecloth style service to the bourgeoning Charleston barbecue scene. Recently the award-winning duo have joined forces to produce the upcoming Holy Smokes BBQ Festival slated for November 13. They have enlisted other local pitmasters to the cause, as well as an impressive list of visiting pitmasters who should be considered the Who’s Who of barbecue in the United States.
Barbecue is unquestionably the quintessential food of the South. It is, then, little surprise that Charleston’s newest foodie buzz is all “high on the hog.” Move out the fryers and stoke up the coals: Everyone is falling over themselves to get at that smoked pork, ribs, chicken and more.
Pigs traditionally were a low-maintenance and convenient food source for Southerners. Almost every small farm raised a pig or two. Every part of the pig was utilized — the meat was either eaten immediately or cured for later consumption, and the ears, organs and other parts were transformed into edible delicacies. Pig slaughtering was a time of plenty, a time for celebration and the neighborhood would be invited to share in the largesse. My great aunt Annie recounted these times: “Everyone pitched in with making liver pudding, press meat and drying up lard. It was a time of joy and fellowship to work together during butcherin’ time.” The traditional Southern barbecue grew out of these gatherings.
By the time of the War Between the States, Southerners had been cooking barbecue for more than a century. George Washington recorded going to a neighboring plantation for a barbecue and “staying all the night.” The plantation cooks, typically enslaved African Americans, tended the pits. After emancipation they would ply their skills at social events for their own families and friends. They eventually carried the barbecue tradition into business opportunities, like the Jones family of Arkansas, proprietors of what is believed to be the oldest black-owned restaurant in America, Jones Bar-B-Q Diner in Marianna.
The phrase “high on the hog” refers to the tradition of the plantation owner taking the best cuts — the loin located high along the back of the hog — and leaving the lesser cuts to the help. However, journalist Jonathan Daniels, writing in the mid20th century, maintained that “Barbecue is the dish which binds together the taste of both the people of the big house and the poorest occupants of the back end of the broken-down barn.”
The evolution of barbecue has centered in the South and for good reason — after hunting and fishing, a good party is high on our list. As pitmaster Rodney Scott put it, “If you are going to be within ten feet of me, be ready to party. BBQ is meant to be chill and this event is tailored for the pitmasters to have time together cooking but also to forge relationships beyond the pit.” Rodney’s traditional slow, all wood-fired, pit-cooked pig, is the closest thing to how the colonists might have cooked — and to those of us from the Pee Dee, it represents the holy grail of barbecue. Besides overseeing his growing empire of restaurants with new locations in Atlanta and Montgomery, he has recently compiled many traditional family receipts and techniques in his best-seller Rodney Scott’s World of BBQ.
Barbecue goes biblical
Barbecue traces its beginnings to the earliest days of mankind. Moses revealed detailed plans for a barbecue in Exodus chapter 27. It stood about 4 1/2 feet high and about 7 1/2 feet long and contained fleshjooks, firepans, ash pans, shovels, basins, a grate and tie downs to attach the animal. Like today’s big rigs, it was portable. It did not have wheels but rather poles on each side so it could be carried by hand.
21st century ushers in ‘new cue’
In this century, barbecue has begun to evolve beyond the traditional Southern boundary. A new generation of chefs using different techniques and equipment is spreading barbecue coast to coast, especially in the past 15 years. Many of these techniques will be on display November 13 at the Holy Smokes festival.
“Since 2006 the lines defining traditional barbecue have blurred,” Aaron Seigling said. “We want to cook what we think tastes good and not be constrained with how my daddy did it. Everyone is getting more and more creative. Now even the guys who cook traditional whole hog might offer briskets or wings or ribs. No one is limited by what they can cook. It’s not just about the sauces; it’s more forward thinking. Adapting alternative cuts, incorporating inventive sides, different protein and even how it’s served. Charleston barbecue is in a good place right now.”
Anthony added, “We also concentrate on hospitality and service. Not a lot of barbecue joints offer full service. A lot of places are counter service. Our focus on serving good food consistently helps set us apart. Everyone brings something different to the table. If somebody really gets it, they will understand that you can hit Lewis for briskets, Home Team for wings and ribs, Swig and Swine for pork belly and hash and of course Rodney’s for the whole hog experience. Many people have never seen it done that way. There’s something for every taste.”
Aaron and Anthony also talked enthusiastically about their vision to “bring all these folks we’ve been cooking with across the country to our town — to a festival we can call our own.” The Holy Smokes festival will feature three villages: one traditional with wood-fired slow-cooked whole hog, one Western featuring Texas style and one with the more progressive style featuring some of the newer recipes and techniques. Additionally, the daylong event will feature live music with three different bands performing.
Outside of the driving force of raising money for Hogs for a Cause to benefit MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital, Holy Smokes intends to change the landscape for the visiting pitmasters. Instead of a typical stress-induced competition, this event will focus on collaboration and comradery. Each village will be cooking as a team with six pitmasters sharing responsibility for cooking three meats.
“We’re building a landscape, a laid-back experience for the pitmasters where we can unwind,” quipped Anthony. “It’s an opportunity to come together and cook and revisit the fun of cooking together, to sit around the fire and shoot the shit and share our love for the art and craft of barbecue.”
“It’s not a competition,” Aaron clarified. “We just want to introduce the folks to different regional styles and showcase some of the products coming out of Charleston.”
Leave your Gucci gear in the closet, slip into something comfortable and join me at The Bend for some barbecue comfort on November 13. For more information visit holysmokeschs.com.
Tim Askins is a USCG Master Mariner and has been a licensed captain since 1980. He continues to operate his real estate development and construction business while devoting time to his farm, children, and wife, Karen. He is an advocate for wildlife habitat with Quail Forever and returning ex-convicts to the workplace with the Turning Leaf Project.