To create the barbecue that has made him a hero to chefs living as far away as Australia, Rodney Scott needs just a few ingredients: a hog, vinegar, peppers, fire and plenty of time. If you travel to Hemingway to order a plate of it, the pulled pork comes in a three-section Styrofoam box, embellished only by soupy baked beans and a mound of coleslaw that’s mostly dressing.
Fire is nonnegotiable at Scott’s Bar-B-Que, which has been fueled by wood since it opened in 1972. But two years ago, on the day before Thanksgiving, one of the 19 pigs on a pit burned too hot. Flames licked the surrounding wooden walls and enveloped the roof. “My phone was just vibrating and buzzing, and I couldn’t find it,” remembers Scott, who was home sleeping that early morning. Twenty minutes have never lasted as long as they did during his drive to Scott’s, where firefighters were chasing the blaze away from a gas line.
Scott salvaged four hogs to sell. But his pithouse was reduced to sticks and blocks. That’s when friends he’d made though the Southern Foodways Alliance stepped in, vowing to rebuild Scott’s under the auspices of The Fatback Collective, a culturally invested group of writers, chefs and restaurateurs. They hired Charleston’s Reggie Gibson to oversee the effort.
As architect, Gibson had a short list of materials from which to craft a building that could save Scott’s business, and conceivably shore up traditional barbecue methods in the Southeast. Fancy decorative elements were out of the question. Not only did he have to satisfy finicky building inspectors and the people who paid for the project, including hundreds of Charlestonians who lined up on King Street a month after the fire to purchase $5 sandwiches from Scott, he had to make sure the pithouse was fireproof. So his aesthetic touches consisted purely of shape, smoke and natural light.
“The first time I ever saw this place, it was like some Holy Grail,” Gibson says, reminiscing about the glow that Scott’s has long cast on a crossroads. “You don’t want to take that away. This is real basic, real simple. And it still feels real.”
Around the same time that Scott was meeting with Gibson, Scott’s friend Sam Jones of the legendary Skylight Inn in Ayden, N.C., was contemplating plans for a barbecue restaurant bearing his name. Sam Jones BBQ, which seats 114 guests, opened this month in Winterville, N.C. Like the reimagined Scott’s pithouse, its working end doesn’t stray too far from barbecue’s rustic roots. Jones admits he had to fight back the urge to make it prettier.
“I have a terrible habit of overdoing any project,” says Jones, a third-generation pitmaster. “For instance, I have a workbench in my shop that’s solid oak. It’s trimmed out with four coats of polyurethane, and anyone who looks at it like, ‘Is this a workbench or a dining room table?’ So I had to keep myself in check while working with an architect that I didn’t make it too nice.”
But Jones also wanted a restaurant where a doctor and lawyer could eat at the end of the day without feeling awkward about their suits and high-heeled shoes. “There’s nothing ramshackle or slapdash about Sam’s new place,” Southern Foodways Alliance director John T. Edge blogged on the occasion of its opening. “It’s not a hovel, a joint, a shack, or a shebang. It’s a beautifully designed restaurant.”
To Edge, Sam Jones BBQ is an indicator that old-timey ways of cooking have found a way to coexist with modernity. But the county employees who Jones consulted at the outset weren’t interested in philosophizing: They just wanted to talk about “grease-laden vapors,” a phrase that Jones says they spit out as though it was the equivalent of anthrax. Nothing in their codebooks addressed indoor cooking over whole coals, so they asked the state for a ruling.
“I felt like I was having a double colonoscopy,” Jones says of his meeting with Department of Insurance officials. “Bless their heart, they don’t have any personality. I guess it comes with the territory. I’m a pretty chipper person; I like to cut up and make jokes, and they were not having any of that. What I explained is we’re not trying to break rules. We’re trying to mitigate our own risk.”
After 10 minutes of conversation, the electrical engineer said he liked the idea and left the room.
“How do you carry on a dying art and convince people compelled to enforce regulations that it’s OK?” Gibson asks, looking at the 20 stainless-steel lined pits that Scott first fired in August. “It’s striking that balance of not turning it into antiseptic cookery.”
Gibson and his assistant, Will Wingfield, were able to mount an argument about the cultural significance of barbecue when trying to win official approval. They also cited the economic importance of creating jobs in Williamsburg County, where 30 percent of people live below the poverty level. (Scott has repeatedly rebuffed overtures to open a restaurant in Charleston.) Still, inspectors had trouble seeing past the smoke. “We had an inspector come by and say ‘The building looks like it’s on fire,’ ” Gibson says, shaking his head.
The new pithouse at Scott’s and Sam Jones BBQ were ultimately designed according to the same principle: Both function as giant hoods, sucking out the smoke that made the pitmasters’ eyes water and throats dry out. Their contours also help with temperature regulation, so the pithouses stay cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.
“It takes the form of a Quonset hut, which is a quintessential Southern shape and icon,” Gibson says. “It’s cleanable and noncombustible.”
And, Scott adds, the floor is flat. “I’m still amazed because it’s a solid floor,” he says. “The concrete had its curves. Rain doesn’t affect us as much now. It’s like a big spaceship.”
One of Gibson’s initial concerns was upsetting the “juju” at Scott’s, but Scott swears the barbecue coming off the new pits is as good as it ever was. Plus, the pits get hotter, so if Scott pulls off a hog and drives it to an event, it won’t cool down until he crosses the Virginia state line.
By fighting the code battles and pioneering a structural solution to the fire threat that’s long loomed over barbecue joints, Scott and Jones have helped ensure a future for one of the region’s most cherished foods. Gibson is confident that Scott would give him the go-ahead to share his pithouse plans with anyone who asked for them. (And lest that scenario suggest a Levittown of pithouses stretching across the South, it’s worth noting that Scott has already personalized his pithouse by insisting on blue exterior paint and installing a sound system. “Can’t cook without it,” he says. His mother has planted mums out front.)
Yet Jones is skeptical that architectural innovations can reinvigorate barbecue.
“I’m not sure people want to do this,” he says. “People think it’s cool, but it’s hard work to do it this way. You’re not putting your meat in a gas cooker and setting the temperature on it and going home.”