Chopping wood and staying up all night may contribute to the mystique of barbecue, but they also complicate the logistics of smoking meat for hundreds of hungry people.
Henry Rast, a Johns Island vegetable farmer, joined the community barbecue circuit in the 1940s when a friend asked him to help raise money for the high school football team’s uniform fund. (Or maybe it was the high school marching band: Newspaper accounts conflict on the details.)
He often lamented how long it took to prepare pork in a pit, a process that started around midnight. An exceedingly windy night on the eve of a barbecue for 500 inspired Rast to come up with an alternative cooking method.
“I had to do something drastic,” Rast told The Evening Post in 1976. “I bought 20 sacks of charcoal and banked it along the sides of the pits so there’d be enough heat. It worked like a charm and that night I began thinking about a cooker that would seal the heat inside and not waste it.”
That radiant heat cooker, patented in 1972, became the centerpiece of a restaurant Rast opened in 1976 and a must-have for Johns Island families. Its defining attribute was speed.
“(My lawyer) asked me some features of the cooker and I told him it cooks pretty damn quick, and we knew we had the PDQ Cooker,” Rast said.
Using the PDQ, Rast could turn out a whole hog in six hours. He could cook a party’s worth of chickens in 45 minutes.
“You might say the meat doesn’t know where the heat is coming from,” Rast said.
In 1976, Rast demonstrated the PDQ at a Government Services Administration show in Washington, D.C., resulting in a slew of contracts with government installations around the world. He sold cookers to barbecue enthusiasts in 18 states, and dragged a PDQ to Miami to cater a wedding.
Rast’s longtime friend, Skeeter Wiggins, ultimately took over the PDQ brand. Rast died in 1990.
According to Lowcountry Cookers, which in 2006 purchased the rights to make and market PDQs, Rast and Wiggins couldn’t produce enough handmade cookers to keep up with demand. “The Original PDQ Cooker fell into obscurity, inaccessible to loyal fans and unknown amongst the younger grilling community,” its sales kit explains, before outlining why the PDQ could overtake devices such as the Big Green Egg.
Lowcountry Cookers owner Johnny Hanckel compares himself to Victor Kiam, who popularized the Remington slogan, “I liked the shaver so much, I bought the company.”
“Everybody in my family has one,” he says of the cookers, which handle the Hanckels’ holiday turkeys. “My brother has two. I have three. My uncle was the first one who bought them, and then we all bought them.”
It took a few years for Hanckel to persuade Wiggins to sell him the PDQ rights. Finally, he says, “I called at the perfect time.”
The timing wasn’t fortuitous in every way: Two years after the sale, the Great Recession shrank the market for $2,250 cookers. Hanckel stopped advertising the PDQ, still made exactly as Rast designed it (save for the addition of a new steel handle and heavy-duty wheels.)
“Now we’re trying to bring it back,” he says. “We’ve sold 10 cookers in the last two months, which is unbelievable.”
Hanckel sometimes hears about PDQs popping up in Lowcountry pawn shops. Although the cookers are renowned for their longevity — Hanckel’s father uses an early model to cook his weekly steak — the vintage versions are usually priced in the hundreds of dollars.
“You got a good deal,” Hanckel tells barbecue fans who report their finds. “You’re buying an heirloom.”