Rodney Scott Spreads the Joy with BBQ
By Beverly Stephen
Be forewarned. If you read Rodney Scott’s World of BBQ (Clarkson Potter) or watch his episode on the Netflix series Chef’s Table BBQ, you’re gonna need a BBQ fix. Do not pass go, get to the nearest rib joint immediately. Better yet, if you live anywhere near Charleston, drive straight to Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ on upper King Street.
The aromatic smoke will have you salivating before you get to the parking lot. On a sunny June morning, Scott took time to sit down for a chat at one of the blue picnic tables behind his restaurant shortly before lunch time opening. Whole hogs had been roasting overnight in the six pits built at the side of the restaurant and the air was smelling good. Scott was wearing a T-shirt saying simply “cut, chop, cook” which happens to be the title of a documentary the Southern Foodways Alliance produced about pit masters instead of one of his favorites emblazoned with his personal motto “every day is a good day.”
Whole hog BBQ is a time-honored tradition in the South and Scott was inducted early—he cooked his first hog when he was 11– in his family’s business Scott’s Variety Store and Bar-B-Q in the small town of Hemingway two hours north of Charleston. Whole hog BBQ is a labor-intensive process requiring overnight attention to make sure the hog is burnished to a golden brown and not burned. It is not a process that normally leads to fame and cookbooks and television shows. When Scott graduated high school, a woman told him he was just going to end up down at the pits.
But a can-do entrepreneurial spirit propelled him to take his BBQ skills to Charleston and onto the national map with a New York Times story by John T. Edge, a James Beard award for Best Chef Southeast, international travel, a business partnership with restaurateur Nick Pihakis, a second location in Birmingham and a third in Atlanta opening this summer.
So much for a prophecy that he wouldn’t amount to much. There was no way he was going to fall through the cracks and get involved with drugs or any kind of trouble.
“I’ve never been to jail,” he writes. “I wanted to be a success. And even before I knew what that would mean in my life, I knew that it started by avoiding trouble. Once I got in my thirties and I hadn’t had any problems with the law, I figured all I had to do was maintain.”
Scott firmly believes that “every day is a good day” and that “good times outweigh the bad.”
This is not to say he hasn’t had his share of setbacks. There was a fire that burned the Hemingway store to the ground. There were financial hard times. There was a falling out with his father that he was never able to repair. His father passed away this past December. Although Scott tried calling him, “he would hang up on me,” he says with a hint of sadness even though he says he’s made peace with it. “You gotta keep moving,” he says. “I talk to my Mom every day. She still has the store. I make sure she lacks for nothing.”
Now he has staff to tend the hogs and he has figured out the timing so that there are people to tend the hogs until closing time and people to tend them starting at 5 a.m. “When I started out, it was all night,” he says.
Over the years, “the equipment has evolved,” he says. “We take what we learn and apply it, but it’s still whole hogs and wood.” And what’s with the mop? “It’s the best way to baste the hog with sauce,” Scott explains. “That mop never touches the floor.”
“This is just the beginning of Rodney Scott,” he says. “I’d like to spread out all over the world—Japan, Australia, France. I love barbecue. It’s my dream to open restaurants all over the word. I’ve learned how to teach people and work with them.”
He hopes that others will find inspiration in his life story as well as in his recipes. When the possibility of doing the book with food and screen writer Lolis Eric Elie (“Treme,” “The Man in the High Castle”) came up “I was all in,” he says.
Scott and Elie go way back. Elie explained their history in an email.
“When I wrote Smokestack Lightning” back in the 90s, I wrote about Ricky Scott and his family. They were in Hell’s Half Acre, a little ways away from Rodney Scott and his family in Hemingway. But they were doing the same style of barbecue. I don’t remember whether I first met Rodney at the Southern Foodways Alliance or the Big Apple Block party. But once we got to talking, he realized that I know about his style of cooking. We’d run into each other from time to time over the years and, when it came time to write his book, he thought of me.”
For the super ambitious afficionados there are detailed instructions for building a pit out of cinder blocks and for building a burn barrel.
The possibility that building a BBQ pit or making a gallon of sauce, might be daunting to some home cooks, doesn’t worry Scott or Elie.
“Most people won’t build a pit, but you can use the sauce in everything,” Scott says. It’s in his recipes for collard greens, chicken salad, even cocktails. “And you can invite some friends over and split the sauce with some people you like. And we included sides.”
Elie concurs. “In writing the book, we were careful to include some recipe that would not require you to build a cinder block pit in the backyard. Even Rodney doesn’t do that when he’s grilling some burgers or catfish for the family! I love his honey butter fish on the grill. His wings are the best ever. Both of those recipes are in the book.””I hope people cook from the book,” Elie says. “But as the writer, not the chef. I’m hoping people will also take time to read and digest Rodney’s family story. He’s paid his dues. His food comes from a deep place.”
Scott’s story of hard work and entrepreneurial vision is indeed inspiring so don’t skip the memoir part of the book and there are plenty of delicious and manageable recipes.
When it comes to making a gallon of sauce, I’m more likely to do the math and make a smaller amount or better yet buy Rodney’s Sauce online.
But here’s the recipe in its full glory.
1 gallon distilled white vinegar
1 lemon, thinly sliced
½ cup ground black pepper
1/3 cup cayenne pepper
1 ¼ Tablespoon red pepper flakes
2 cups sugar
In a small stockpot, warm the vinegar over medium high heat. After about 5 minutes, when the vinegar reaches 150F on an instant-read thermometer, just before it starts to simmer, add the lemon slices and continue to cook until the lemon peels begin to soften and wilt, about 10 minutes more.
Whisk in the black pepper, cayenne, pepper flakes and sugar. Continue to cook over medium-high heat until the sugar is completely dissolved, and the sauce reaches 190F, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to completely cool before using. Once the lemon is removed, the sauce can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 8 weeks.
Beverly Stephen, the former executive editor of Food Arts magazine, is a principal of the culinary travel company Flavor Forays. She is the co-author, with Barbara Mathias, of On the Road With Flavor Forays An Insider’s Guide to Four of America’s Hottest Food Cities—Austin, Charleston, Portland and New Orleans.