Food & Drink

A barbecue breed that’s difficult to define

Hear “South Carolina barbecue” and what comes to mind? Anything? “It’s not like North Carolina?” “Don’t they have mustard sauce?”

South Carolinians understand.

“It doesn’t have as much of a national barbecue profile as other places, because it has four different regions,” says Hanna Raskin, food critic for the Charleston Post&Courier.

Each of the four regions is partial to a sauce: a thin vinegar-pepper sauce along the northern coast, or Pee Dee region (named for a river, which is named for a Native American tribe); tomato-based sauce - in two versions, one thick, one thin - found commonly in the western, or Upstate, part of the state; and, yes, the famous mustard sauce, all over the middle of the state, or the Midlands, and the lower coastal region.

Those are the sauces that define barbecue on the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism barbecue trail map of 230 restaurants. But somewhat confusingly, that map identifies only three regions: Mountains (Upstate), Midlands and Coastal.

Robert Moss, an authority on South Carolina barbecue, challenges the sauce orthodoxy. The Southern Living barbecue editor and author of “Barbecue Lover’s the Carolinas” asserts that in terms of regional identity, the thin and thick red sauce is a fiction. “I’ve never really been able to map anything like that out,” he said in an email.

Adding one more layer of complexity, he said that a third (or fifth, depending on who’s counting) sauce should be included: “rust gravy,” a ketchup-and-mustard blend found statewide, especially at the Dukes Bar-B-Que restaurants.

Moss says the state has two styles of barbecue. One is the Midlands, characterized by mustard sauce, hash and the barbecue buffet. The other is the Pee Dee, in the northeast part of the state, identified by whole hog and pepper-vinegar sauce.

One thing everyone agrees on is the hash. “The thing that is the most unique is the hash,” says Raskin. “Hash is so important.”

This ubiquitous side dish is a brown, sometimes red-brown, gravy made from long-simmered pork (on rare occasions beef). It is typically served over rice. Hash tends to be mild, occasionally tangy with the addition of mustard, sometimes a little spicy. Long ago, cooks would simmer all the parts of a pig – including the head, the feet, the organs, you name it – in an iron cauldron over a wood fire. Nowadays it is most often pork shoulder, slow-cooked in a large pot on the stove.

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