A day in the life of a legendary BBQ pitmaster

By
Jess Pryles
Added
24 February, 2015

Jess Pryles talks the whole hog with South Carolina BBQ legend, Rodney Scott.

Situated in the tiny rural town of Hemingway, South Carolina, Scott’s Barbecue has been slow cooking whole hogs in the traditional fashion since 1972. Rodney Scott is the second-generation owner, starting in the family business at the tender age of 11. He is now one of the most respected pitmasters in the United States, and Scott’s is a legendary “must eat” stop on any barbecue fan’s itinerary.

Q: Talk me through a day in the life of a pitmaster?

The way that I cook, we go out and source all of our own wood. Once we get all the wood, we bring it in and split it all up and then we get our burn barrel ready, which is an empty fuel tank that stands upright and has truck axels on it, and start our fire in there. It burns for about an hour down to coals for the pit. Then we put the pig on and slow roast for 12 hours.

I start cooking around four in the afternoon, and slow roast all night. The first hogs come off around 4am. Then our next ones come off around noon, then we have some more than come off around mid afternoon.

I start cooking around four in the afternoon, and slow roast all night. The first hogs come off around 4am. Then our next ones come off around noon.

Q: What kind of wood are you using to cook on? Do you think the wood species makes a huge difference to the finished product?

The species of wood has a big part in smoking. Most of the time in this area we’re using oak, pecan and a little bit of hickory. We sometimes use a little cherry wood as well. It gives it a nice smoky flavour without oversmoking it, helps give a nice smell while you’re cooking it, it just draws everybody in.

Q: You’ve previously said many folks in SC moved away from whole hog cooking while Scott’s chose to retain the tradition. Why do you think people gave up on it?

Too much labour, too labour intensive. All the chopping wood, getting enough to fill a trailer, then having to split it... it’s a lot of physical labour just to get prepared for it. A lot of folks think, “Why should we do all that when I can use an Ole Hickory smoker or gas oven”. A lot of other pitmasters choose different ways to do their own thing, but all that I’ve seen are a lot different to what we do.

Q: You were 11 when you started cooking – how valuable do you think it was learning to cook so young, how important is it for parents to pass on these skills to their children?

Oh man, I feel like it was very important. It went from just work to something that is pretty much necessary. I mean, everyone has to eat, of course. Growing up cooking it, I understand it a lot more. Younger generations coming up never heard of how we do it, and we can pass it on. There may be a lot of guys who don’t even know they can cut their own wood. There may be a lot of guys who don’t know how to go out back and build a smoker out of whichever tools and equipment you have laying around. They just don’t know, and to pass that information on from one person to the next, it could go on another three or four generations.

There may be a lot of guys who don’t know how to go out back and build a smoker out of whichever tools and equipment you have laying around.

Q: You had the misfortune of a fire which put you out of business for a while. Is that chalked up to a hazard of the industry you’re in?

Yes. It goes back to that bittersweet joke that says “when you play with fire, you’re gonna get burned” [chuckles]. It’s not something that happens every day, but if you’re not careful it can happen. Honestly, we never stopped when the pit burned, because I had another shed in the back and I cooked there until I got the burnt building cleaned up.

Q: How selective are you about the hogs you use?

Oh, very! I deal directly with a farmer who deals directly with the processing plant [abattoir]. Most of his pigs are grown specifically to be barbecued. My guy is about an hour from here in Loris, SC, and he still grows his hogs in the old fashioned way. His hogs tend to turn out a lot easier on average, and they have the most bang for buck, if you will. I knew a guy who used to work for him who told me he’d go out into the field and feed the hogs himself. Knowing how he feeds them makes me more comfortable with the product he provides. He’s the most consistent farmer we’ve dealt with.

Q: Do you have to ration orders on the crispy skin? That stuff looks like crack!

It’s addictive like crack, too! We try to, but it’s hard to do that. If we know you we may try to get you a little extra or at least hold it ‘til you get there, so it definitely pays to be a friend.

Q: Did you know that the word “barbecue” in Australia is what y’all refer to as “grilling”?  Should we invent our own brand new term?

I’ve been told it’s a lot different over there. To sum it all up: low’n’slow. Here, when you’re grilling you have a blazing fire and it’s pretty much fast. Here we say “low’n’slow” and that’s when we’re barbecuing. Everything is slowed down, and theres a slow process on everything. Because we cook directly over coals, if you get it too hot you may get a grease fire and lose the whole pig, or your whole building!

Here we say “low’n’slow” and that’s when we’re barbecuing. Everything is slowed down, and theres a slow process on everything.

Q: What's the most effort you’ve heard of from a customer to come eat at Scott’s?

We’ve had people from Melbourne, the Middle East, Czech Republic, Germany, London… those are the ones I know about. I was at an airport in Montevideo, Uruguay, and there were some folks there who recognized the Scott’s BBQ t-shirt and they knew exactly who we were!

Scott’s Barbecue, Hemingway, South Carolina | Photo by Peter Frank Williams

Q: Barbecue seems to have exploded in popularity on the worldwide stage in the last few years, from London to Brooklyn and everywhere in between. What do you think is responsible for this renewed barbecue love affair?

I personally think fire attracts a lot of people. The smoke flavour, even the vegetables as well as meat that you can do over a grill/pit. I think that’s been catching the attention of a lot of people who’ve just discovered that this open fire food is amazing. It’s amazingly good and there are so many different ways you can do it.

Q: Whats the more crucial ingredient in your sauce, vinegar or love?

Salt! [Laughs] Honestly, both. It takes vinegar AND love!

Q: I’m personally a huge fan of Texas barbecue. South Carolina also has claims as the barbecue capital of the world. So the question is, do we need a cookoff to determine the grand champion, or is there room on the plate for all of God's delicious creatures?

There’s room on the plate for all. I always say, if you ask me for the best barbecue, I’m gonna say mine. And if you ask me if I’m better than the next person I’ll say “no, I’m different”.

Q: Do you still eat your own barbecue?

Yes! I had some for lunch today. Three times this week already!

Jess Pryles is a self-described "meatspert" and honourary Texan who spends a decent portion of each year in the US indulging her passion for all things Southern, which she shares on her blog Burger Mary

Rodney Scott will be speaking at Chef Jam supported by HOSTPLUS on March 2 as part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. On March 1, Rodney will be teaming up with North Carolina’s Casey Wall at Rockwell and Sons in Collingwood, with a tour through the deep-fried, slow-cooked delights of the American South (no bookings necessary, menu available for purchase on the day).

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