Cooking a whole hog over a pit takes a long time — about 12 hours, give or take – and it is strenuous work.
James Beard Award winner Rodney Scott, 49, should know. He’s been barbecuing whole hogs for decades. Over the years, he’s learned how to keep himself going through the marathon working hours.
“While I’m cooking I would be listening to tunes, and that kind of helped me get through the long, 12-hour cooks.”
Scott owns two barbecue restaurants in Charleston, S.C., and Birmingham, Ala., with a third slated to open in Atlanta this summer. In his new cookbook, Rodney Scott’s World of BBQ, he includes classic barbecue recipes as well as memories from his life in the rural Pee Dee region of South Carolina.
Scott grew up in a town called Hemingway, where his parents owned multiple businesses: a barbecue place, a gas station, a variety store and a farm.
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He says two words defined his upbringing. “Discipline and hard work. If you were out of school, you were at work,” he tells NPR. “If you were free for the summer, you were in the fields, farming. You were constantly working. You didn’t get a chance to sit around.”
As a kid, Scott watched his father cook on the pit, and he helped out and asked questions about the process. When he was about 11, his father put him to the test. Scott wanted to go to a basketball game, and his dad said he could, but first, he needed to cook the hog.
“I had to maintain the fire all day, and keep the temperature up on the hog. And when it was time to flip it over, I was so nervous,” he says.
But once the meat was done and the hog was flipped, Scott had cooked it right.
“You couldn’t tell me anything that day.”
Scott still uses the methods he learned growing up, cooking whole hogs on pits with charcoal made from burning hardwoods — like oak, pecan, and cherry – in a burn barrel. It’s a demanding and time-consuming process – chopping wood, feeding it into the barrel, tending the fire, shoveling hot coals from barrel to pit.
“You got 12 hours of walking back and forth, throwing wood in, maybe splitting some in between, shoveling coals. I think the average steps back and forth is somewhere between a mile and a half to three miles, and that’s if you just go to the burn barrel and back to the pit and then in that 12th hour, you still have to flip that hog over and lift it back off that pit.”
Scott’s barbecuing skill is the basis of his business. But his success came at a steep price. As Scott began to gain culinary and international recognition as a pitmaster, he and his father grew apart.
“His objection was, you didn’t start this. You’re not the barbecue guy … and he said, you know what, just go open your own place, get away from here,” he says.
He took his father’s advice. He moved to Charleston and opened Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ in 2017. A year later, he won the James Beard Award for Best Chef, Southeast. But his relationship with his father completely unraveled.
“Sometimes I would pass him in certain areas and he would kind of turn his head,” he says. “He wouldn’t even wave if he saw me wave at him.”
Despite the falling out, he says the move to Charleston was worth it – for his family, for his own mental health and well-being. And despite the divisions in his own family, Scott sees the harmonizing potential of barbecue.
“I want to take over the world with barbecue,” he says. “You could put a whole hog in front of some people and you’re going to get at least 50 to 100 people that’s going to come together and eat. So, in my mind, why not everybody around the world fire up a hog. And I bet you, it’ll be some joy, a whole lot of partying, a lot of smiles. And the world would be a better place.”