Rodney Scott on the rhythms of the barbecue pit, and how he finds his moments of zen amid the chaos.
Rodney Scott started cooking whole hog barbecue at the age of 11 at his family’s South Carolina pit Scott’s Bar-B-Que—learning the art of butterflying, salting, and smoking whole hog (among many other idiosyncratic steps) from his parents and a crew of longtime employees who had been operating in the tiny town of Hemingway since the 1970s. As Scott writes in his new cookbook, a memoir with recipes, Rodney Scott’s World of BBQ, the journey from those early days helping out in the pits to running one of the most celebrated barbecue outfits in America is filled with hard work, a little luck, and plenty of Duke’s Mayonnaise.
Scott worked with Los Angeles–based journalist and filmmaker Lolis Eric Elie (credits include Treme and Hell on Wheels) to craft a narrative that unfolds like a movie itself (spoiler: with family comes drama)—and that crystallizes a style of not just exacting barbecue craftsmanship but South Carolina home cooking that can be replicated in kitchens around the world. I recently spoke with Scott from his home in Charleston, where he operates Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ, about the 2009 New York Times article that changed everything, and how “low and slow” hardly means cooking without anxiety.
You collaborated with the great journalist and screenwriter Lolis Eric Elie on this. How did those sessions work? Did you do phone interviews, or in-person interviews?
Oh, man, it was a lot of phone interviews; there were also some in-person interviews. There were also mobile interviews, where we were out in San Francisco cooking together, at one point. We were back in Birmingham at another gathering. It was just little things like that; tons of phone calls from the porch, man.
You write about a weekly barbecue schedule, which you followed for over 20 years at Scott’s Bar-B-Que. It’s an extremely rigid, almost militaristic, regimen. The physical labor was profound, but it also felt like it was probably pretty monotonous mentally. Was there almost like a zen moment of meditation of doing this very physical, monotonous work? Or was there always a little chaos happening?
I kind of always took zen moments and stuffed them into my day. I did the best I could. If it meant standing in the pits for a few minutes, with nobody around, or if it meant taking a walk across the street to grab something from the grocery store, those were the things that I would do to kind of keep myself together. Because there were a lot of challenges, where you felt like you were about to lose it. So I had to just find those moments, and Wednesday was the day that I looked for—not having to wake up super early on Wednesday morning, relaxing, taking a quick break—all of that made a big difference in maintaining my sanity. And finding those zen moments in the pits, sometimes that was between 6 and 7 a.m., when the world was still kind of getting itself going. And you’re in the pits, and you look out the window, and you see the day start. That was one of those times.
It’s clear that barbecue requires near-constant decision-making, which is counter to how some perceive it—this “low-and-slow,” bourbon-sipping lifestyle for the pitmaster. It couldn’t be that stressful, people think. But obviously there’s some chaos happening.
Man. What do I think? [Laughs.] So, everybody thinks that—it’s low and slow, you’re chilling. But you don’t really relax like that. Because our style of cooking—we make our own coals by breaking the wood down. And in order to do that, you must stay at least 35 to 45 minutes ahead, having wood burning, because it takes about that amount of time for coals to fall. We like to say 45 to an hour, just to be positive. But if you’re sitting down and you’re just relaxing because the hog’s cooking, you are not in a good place. You really need to get up and make sure that you have your wood split, your fire’s blazing; you gotta stoke it, keep it going. If not, and that fire goes out, and you don’t get enough coals to keep your hog temperature up, it can throw your whole operation back.
Good point. Because it’s not like cooking on a range and having a fixed heat source.
No. Oh no, definitely not. [Laughs.]
How long does it take from firing that wood to having a hog ready? What’s the time frame?
From firing the wood to having a hog ready, you’re looking at about 13 hours with the fire, at least. Because the hog takes about 12 hours, and you want to start the fire at least an hour prior, to make sure you got enough coals to get it going. And then you have that 12-hour cook time, so you’re constantly feeding that fire as it goes throughout the day or night, and to keep the hot coals dropping so you keep the animal cooking.
So someone’s monitoring it at all times.
Someone should monitor it at all times. If not, you’re faced with the fact that you may lose temperature and you may lose the hog. It all depends on the timing.
Is that a thing—losing the hog?
Yes. Losing the hog is a thing. If you let that temperature not go up high enough, it can just spoil right there, and you have to throw it away.
You write about the 2009 New York Times article by John T. Edge that literally changed your life. The article, which has the journalist dropping in to meet you and eat some barbecue, came out at the beginning of the summer. What were the next couple of months like?
Oh, man. So, this article comes out in the New York Times. And everybody that reads the Times or had their hands on one, they started calling. Mind you, now, I’ve still got this prepaid cell phone thing. And they’re calling me, and they’re burning up these minutes: “Hey, you know you’re in a newspaper in New York!” “Okay, great, thank you.” And then we pull back up to the store, and everybody’s calling there. The phone is constantly busy. Then one call came from the town hall. Because people started calling the town hall and said, “Is this place legit? Is this the area where this New York Times barbecue place is?”
So it was crazy for the first couple of months. And after that article, of course, we had to learn to regroup on business, because things changed, the volume picked up a little bit. People started coming in from Myrtle Beach mostly, and Charleston, because those were the two tourist areas that were fairly close by. So from all over, man, the word got out, that people were just calling back and forth, saying, “I saw this little place, in Hemingway, South Carolina, and we’re wondering about it; if the New York Times wrote about it, it must be legit.” And people started coming in, dropping off the newspaper for us to see it, asking us to sign it. So it was a quick adjustment to people being fans.
If I’m to drive to Hemingway right now, in 2021, to eat at Scott’s Bar-B-Que, am I going to find a restaurant that’s similar to that pre-2009 location? Has it changed much?
The biggest change is that I’m not there—I’m in Charleston now. [Rodney now runs a namesake restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, and Birmingham, Alabama, with plans for expansion.] That’s one. Since that article, we had a fire, and we had to rebuild the pit. The pit is different now. My mom is the only one there now; my dad passed back in December. The building is pretty much the same. The operation, I haven’t been there in a while, but who knows. You’ll find the structure, hopefully you’ll find the same services.
I’m sorry to hear about your father. You write candidly about an up-and-down relationship with your family [and that you and he weren’t speaking]. Were you able to talk to him before he passed, and are you going out to Hemingway now?
We still weren’t speaking before he passed, and I spoke to some mutual friends that he was having conversations with. He was starting to accept the change that I had made to come to Charleston. And I have been going down, checking on my mom a lot; we’ve been talking every day. We spend a lot more time on the phone, and I see her a lot more now, because there’s no tension with me seeing her. So there’s a big relief, as far as me and her communicating and seeing each other on a regular basis. The only satisfaction I had was him saying to someone else that he was starting to accept what we were doing here in Charleston and Birmingham and opening up other locations.
Does your mom visit you in Charleston?
Yes, yes. She’s been to Charleston, I think, three times. She’s been to the restaurant; we put food in front of her and let her taste it and got her approval. I also take food to her whenever I go see her; I call her up and see what she wants. I take her some wings, some banana pudding, something like that.
Has she seen the book?
I told her about the book, but I haven’t shown it to her yet. Last time I was there, I didn’t have it with me. So I’m going to take it to her and show her, probably this week.
Wings, banana pudding . . . what else are you taking her? What’s her order?
She likes collard greens, and then she’ll probably tell me to bring her some baked beans as well. And chicken!
You’ve cooked around the world, and your profile is bigger than ever and expanding greatly, and that’s awesome to see. I have to know: Can you say, without hesitation, that South Carolina has the best barbecue in the world?
Oh, I will always tell you that South Carolina is the best. I will tell you that, wherever, the style of South Carolina is the best. You know, everybody has ideas, and regions, and cultural backgrounds that are a little different; sauces are definitely regional in some areas. But nowadays you have a lot more people crossing these lines and moving to different areas and bringing a flavor from a different state to another. So I would probably say that South Carolina has a unique style and a unique taste, and I will always say that they are the best.
You write about Duke’s Mayonnaise. I just want to know, how much Duke’s do you go through a year at your restaurant in Charleston?
Give me a ballpark figure.
A lot. Oh, man. One, two . . . I bet we go through almost one to two Duke’s jars a day, that I know of.
Like big industrial ones, or small ones?
Big ones. We go through some Duke’s. I mean, I’m down to a half of thing of Duke’s in the refrigerator here! At home! Yeah, we use quite a bit of Duke’s.
Tell me, why is it so great? I have it here in my fridge as well; it’s my brand. I want to just shout it out—it’s a good brand.
I mean, say the name. Duke’s. It’s easy to say, easy to remember, unforgettable. The flavor is unique; before we opened, I compared Duke’s to another competing brand, and you were always able to pick out that Duke’s flavor—that extra taste, that little kick. That twang, as my old uncle used to say back in the day. That little twang made the difference in that Duke’s, man, made it better!
I agree. There’s, like, a little lemon, a little salt . . .
Yeah, you get that little twang in there that just made that extra difference with the Duke’s.
THREE EXCITING RECIPES FROM RODNEY SCOTT’S WORLD OF BBQ
This recipe, which Scott credits his mother, is seasoned with a good amount of his previously secret (but not anymore) rib rub.
Yes, there is Duke’s Mayonnaise in this recipe. Yes, everybody should have a jar of Duke’s in their fridge. But there’s much more going on in this great salad.
Cornmeal, flour, sugar: It’s the start of very good things to come.
MORE BOOKS TO BUY, READ, AND COOK FROM:
Cook This Book, the colorful debut from former Bon Appétit test kitchen staffer Molly Baz, is out next month. We’ll be catching up with her in a couple weeks.
In her latest cookbook, Simply Julia, Julia Turshen focuses on convenience, nutrition, and comfort.
Don’t miss our interview with Savannah restaurateurs John O. Morisano and Mashama Bailey, talking about their new book, Black, White, and The Grey.
And, writing in the New York Times, Kim Severson checks in on the big cookbook winners from 2020, a year that saw cookbook sales spike across many categories—not just the bready ones.