Preserving the American South's slow-cooked, wood barbecue

Tue Jul 31, 2012 5:20am EDT
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By Harriet McLeod

CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - For much of the United States barbecue means grilling outdoors, but in the South the traditional method is slow-roasting a whole hog over wood embers all day or all night.

Only 10 to 15 restaurants in the South still cook hogs the slow way, over wood, according to John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, a food group that is on a mission to save the traditional barbecue.

"Barbecue is our great American folk food," he said. "Barbecue at its most intense is more than a food. It's an event at which people gather. It's a totem of identity."

Southerners call the celebratory gathering to eat pork pulled from the carcass a "pig pickin." Quicker cooking methods like gas, electric or coal cookers are ignored in favor of slow roasting.

The Oxford, Mississippi-based Alliance, which was founded in 1999, documents the South's culinary history and traditions. Over the last decade, it has made 35 documentary films and taken almost 700 oral histories about Southern food from barbecue and boudin to Gulf Coast oysters and Mississippi Chinese groceries.

"The American South is certainly the heartland of barbecue in America and yet there are so many expatriate Southerners who are now cooking with wood and cooking well across the country," Edge explained.

"There are other cultures, other peoples who cook something we might recognize as barbecue: jerk chicken from Jamaica or other culturally inspired forms."

ORAL RECIPES   Continued...

Hardwoods like oak, hickory and pecan are used by the pit workers while cooking at Scott's BBQ in Hemingway, South Carolina, June 20, 2012. REUTERS/Randall Hill