For the most part, we Southerners tend to band together. But on one point we inevitably turn against each other, verbal battles emerging at the literal strike of a match. We all start the fire and warm the coals, but none of us can agree on who does barbecue best.
From Memphis ribs to the beef brisket of Texas, we’re divided and combative, relationships estranged on the basis of which sauce, meat, or cooking style makes the best, truest barbecue. One of the heavyweights of this eternal competition, South Carolina, not only claims to be the most well-versed in barbecue (with statewide use of the four sauce styles) but also the progenitor of modern barbecue. Every state below the Mason-Dixon would like to assert that title as its own, but in this case it’s facts—not just opinions—that help validate this particular declaration.
It was a fortuitous meeting that resulted in our modern interpretation of barbecue. Europeans had been eating pork for centuries; similarly, Native Americans had been slow-roasting and smoking meat for eons. In the sixteenth century, Spanish conquistadors established a vibrant colony, Santa Elena, on modern Parris Island in South Carolina. It was here, amongst trade negotiations and fumbled interpretations, that the two cultures came together to create barbecue. The Spanish settlers introduced Native Americans to the pig, who in turn taught the Spanish how to smoke those delicious porcines. The sumptuous, smokey dish came to be known as “barbecue,” derived from the Taino word barbacoa, which was the rack the meat was placed on, outside the reach of the flames but well within the confines of the smoke and heat.
According to South Carolinians, they didn’t just invent barbecue, they helped invent every popular style of barbecue sauce popular throughout the Southeast. The earliest style, vinegar and pepper sauce, is also the simplest. Scottish settlers brought the spicy sauce with them across the Atlantic, popularizing its use with barbecue as they spread through the low country of South Carolina. Just as modern inhabitants of those European islands still ask for malt vinegar to don their meals with, so have their distant cousins in South Carolina preferred vinegar and pepper sauces with their barbecue.
The next condiment to meet the smokey meat was South Carolina’s signature sauce, mustard. The 1730’s through ’50’s was a time of great migration to South Carolina, especially from Germany, and as German immigrants began populating the fertile, rivered heart of South Carolina, their preference for mustard spread with them. Today their descendants still love the tangy compliment of mustard sauce on their tender barbecue. Even the modern producers of the sauce share distinctly German surnames, like Kiser and Zeigler, and their products are still the favorites of most South Carolinians.
The third barbecue sauce, light tomato sauce, came about much later. At the turn of the twentieth century, as ketchup became mass-produced and conveniently purchasable, classicists began mixing the sweet condiment into their vinegar and pepper sauces. Light tomato sauce is most popular in the northern, central region of the Southern Carolina. The final sauce, heavy tomato sauce, is a popularly-produced hybrid of light tomato sauce and, although traditionalists frown upon the thick gravy, there are still South Carolinians who favor the modern sauce.
And so South Carolina is home to and mother of every barbecue sauce we Southerners know and love. Long a South Carolina tradition, barbecue has become an integral and definitive part of the state since the 1920’s. For centuries, South Carolinians used barbecues as an opportunity to bring family and friends together, to celebrate a small, local group with a single meal. But in the 1920’s, barbecue moved from the farm to the public eye. Entrepreneurs and passionate pit masters took to marketing and producing their signature style of barbecue for profit. Beyond the need for proceeds, these vendors of South Carolina’s favored dish wanted to share their love for barbecue.
Today you’ll find a “shack” in every town, each proprietor claiming the superiority of their particular brand of barbecue. Regardless of the sauce or style, the length of time or the vicinity of the coals, each of these South Carolinian icons shares a common history. Thanks to their ancestors and a trade deal on an island on the outskirts of the state, all of us today are able to enjoy our favorite meal: barbecue.
See More South Carolina Barbecue Photos Here