My friend Bill Rogers knows his barbecue.
As a certified barbecue judge down in South Carolina, he was my go-to guy for great Q when I visited him at the South Carolina Press Association in Columbia, where he works as executive director.
Face it, when you are friends with a real-life, card-carrying South Carolina barbecue judge, you gotta go with him to get some Q.
I grew up in North Carolina eating the red-sauced barbecue in the western Piedmont region. After migrating east, I learned to love vinegar-and-pepper Q from places like Simp’s in Roper, Wilber’s in Goldsboro, and King’s in Kinston.
But never in my life have I eaten as much barbecue in one sitting as I ate last week when Bill took me to Jackie Hite’s Barbecue in Batesburg, SC.
Getting full was no excuse to stop eating.
You see, Friday is pig-pickin’ day at Jackie Hite’s.
On pig pickin’ day, Jackie Hite goes whole hog. Literally.
He lays out the meat of an entire pig under glowing heat lamps with the same care and pride a jeweler lays out the glittering gems of his trade.
The cooking staff recites a litany of what you get on the bottomless buffet, and are happy to repeat it as often as needed.
“You got your string meat here,” a well-seasoned server points a gloved finger in the middle of the pile. “Here’s the rib meat. Here’s the shoulder. Skins are on the ends.”
No need to be picky. Bill piles heaping portions of each steaming section on my plate.
Beyond the hog are the sides and desserts: string beans with flavorful chunks of fresh brown bacon fully visible among the vegetables; creamy mashed potatoes; gravy, rice; baked beans; curried fruit; mayo-based slaw; chopped barbecue and fried chicken. And barbecue hash. And banana pudding.
The salad bar seems oddly out of place.
Jackie Hite’s Barbecue is one of a handful of South Carolina’s 100-mile barbecue joints. “I’d drive 100 miles to eat this barbecue.”
I actually drove 233 miles, to Columbia, and Bill drove the rest of the way to Jackie Hite’s.
We found ourselves in the heart of South Carolina’s mustard belt, named for the tangy yellow sauce used to flavor the barbecue in that region.
Jackie Hite reckons he’s been cooking barbecue for over 50 years, if you count the early days he spent helping out around the family business when he was just a kid.
“I believe I started helping my daddy when I was about 10 years old,” Hite says, holding court during lunch hour in his top rated joint.
He’s learned his lessons well, and still cooks his hog the old fashioned way, as slow as possible over a wood fire burning in a sand pit at temperatures so low that cardboard laid over the grill doesn’t catch fire. Meat simmering for hours is treated with gobs of mustard/vinegar sauce for tenderizing and flavoring.
Jack Hitt, writing for the New York Times Magazine, called the area of South Carolina, north from Charleston to Columbia, the “Devil’s Triangle” of barbecue.
That’s where Jackie Hite’s sits, and it is where you might sell your soul to the very devil himself in exchange for barbecue.
Or you could call it the Bermuda Triangle, where you can disappear into its delicious vortex, never to resurface.
“There, the sauce is based on mustard, not tomatoes, and vinegar, not brown sugar, is the dominant back-taste,” Hitt wrote.
I know for a fact that in North Carolina, barbecue fanatics have gotten into fist fights over red sauce vs. vinegar sauce. I can only imagine the wars that break out in a state where there are four different sauces.
In addition to mustard-based Q sauce, you can get thick red sauce, vinegar sauce, and light red sauce in South Carolina.
Jackie Hite, in a show of diplomacy that would qualify him to be Secretary of State and has probably prevented all out wars among the barbecue regions, displays all four kinds of sauce on his buffet. He helpfully points out the vinegar as a way to make me feel more at home, and even brings a bottle of it over to our table.
The Q was so delicious and tender, it needed no sauce at all.
I gluttonized myself and ate two plates full.
And drank four large cups of sweet iced tea.
I was not hungry again for two entire days.
Jackie Hite’s staff has been with him for years. They are part of the ambiance of the place, a nondescript little white building decorated on the inside with trophies from Jackie’s life.
The joint is plain and spotlessly clean. Diners are as comfortable there as they are in their own kitchens. Even visitors who have never been to Batesburg before will feel right at home, as if they have been eating there forever.
Everyone is family at Jackie Hite’s.
Jackie Hite himself is tall, broad and brawny from years playing football, years spent outside and years eating barbecue. He wears a ball cap emblazoned with the BL logo of his beloved Batesburg-Leesville high School where he earned trophies playing under the lights on Fridays. Those trophies, photos and plaques too, adorn the walls and perch on his buffet counter.
He’s still an avid football fan and fisherman.
Mounted bass with mouths gaping wide, join dozens of photos of Jackie and little kids proudly displaying their catches. Some of the photos are curled from light and sun after years of hanging on those walls. Kids smiling out from those photos are likely now grown and fishing with their own sons and daughters.
Jackie reckons he goes fishing four times a week at least, in between running his restaurant and going to football games.
Midway through the lunch hour, the entire joint shakes and rattles as a train rumbles along tracks that go straight through the middle of town, just feet from the front door.
Conversation pauses while the train passes through.
Finally, Bill and I have eaten enough barbecue and have drunk enough tea, and we clamber out of the place.
I glance back inside the restaurant as we walk out the door. Our table is already clean, and a new diner is settling in with a heaping plate.
Back in Columbia, Bill and I struggle to hug each other before parting ways, but our swollen bellies get in the way. We are almost too full to even laugh about that.
I’m not sure when I will be hungry enough to feed from Jackie Hite’s trough again, but it doesn’t matter.
I’m going back.
There’s always room for barbecue.