The Evolution of South Carolina BBQ

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by Chef Eric Spigner

At the base of Calhoun County, right where the Low Country of South Carolina begins is the town of Cameron. Here in this small town lived a tribe of Native Americans called Kusso-Natchez Tribe also known as Edisto Indians. This tribe lived along the Santee River around the late 1600’s the land along this river was purchased by an Englishman named Alexander Cameron who owned a 2,600 acre plantation in Abbeville which was given to him for his services in the French-Indian War.

Alexander Cameron purchased this land currently known now as Cameron, South Carolina for its abundance of pecan trees and the soil was perfect for the growth of cotton. Alexander would have some of his slaves come from the Abbeville Plantation to work on his newly purchased land to man cotton and pick pecans. During their stay on the land the slaves started to hunt and fish along the Santee River. This is when they encountered the Kusso-Natchez Tribe who they befriended and began to have an interesting relationship with.  

Native Americans interacted with enslaved Africans and African Americans in every way possible. In the early colonial days, Native Americans were enslaved along with Africans, and both often worked with European indentured laborers.

They worked together, lived together in communal quarters, produced collective recipes for food, shared herbal remedies, myths and legends, and in the end they intermarried. Cooking was one of the great practices for the Natives and the Africans which they both shared. It was recorded that the Natives would use a pit or an earth oven for cooking which is how the African slaves cooked in their former home country the Natives would use just leaves and rocks for fire and heat. The African slaves introduced the Natives to using the wood of the pecan trees for smoking and flavor. There was such a large amount of pecan trees on this property along with wild pigs.

A_Southern_BarbecueA Southern Barbecue, 1887, by Horace Bradley

Hernando de Soto was the true “father of the American pork industry.”He brought America’s first 13 pigs to Florida in the early 1500’s. As the herds grew, explorers used the pigs not only for eating as fresh meat but for salt pork and preserved pork. American Indians were reportedly were in love with the taste of pork. By the time de Soto died years later, his original herd of 13 pigs had grown to 700. This number doesn’t include the pigs eaten by his troops, those that escaped and became wild pigs (the ancestors of today’s feral pigs), that were also spreading all through the South and those given to the American Indians to keep the peace.

The pork industry in America had begun also the birth of barbeque. Barbeque is the heart and soul of Southern cuisine. Pork has been the supreme delicacy of the South for a very long time. Before refrigeration most of the meat in Southerners diet was preserved not fresh. As had been the practices for centuries all over the world, meat was dried out with salt or, in some cases, pickled in order to safely store it for long periods of time.

Enslaved people were the driving force behind the art of the barbeque and the core of today’s barbeque obsession smoke and sauce. On plantations slaves prepared and cooked the majority of the meat for planters’ tables. Slave’s job with readying meat for the smokehouse faced a long and grueling time of slaughtering and butchering the animals, salting the meat cuts hanging the dried meat in the smokehouse, carefully keeping a low-burning fire under the meat for weeks, and then storing the smoked meat. Many of the innovations in curing techniques, including using different woods for different flavors, would likely have been prepared by black slave hands.

This is an excerpt from the pages of a book written by Eric Spigner, the executive chef of Nova in Oak Cliff, Texas, covering the evolution of South Carolina BBQ during the times of slavery in a small town just less than 15 miles from his Grandmother’s home where he was raised. We will look for more from Spigner in February as we celebrate Black History Month.

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