As sure as the pitmaster’s day is long, opinions on BBQ’s birthplace are endless. But make no mistake, this isn’t about choosing sides. It’s about being right, and the roots to this sacred Southern dish are buried deep — five centuries deep — right here in South Carolina.
Good meals work wonders. Around simmering pots and heat from a soft flame, new ideas are exchanged and traditions established – this was never more evident than in Santa Elena (modern day Parris Island) as the Spanish and American Indians got together to break the ice. Certainly, many things were discussed next to that open flame – things like peace treaties and which three-leafed plants will give you quite the rash – but as the friendship blossomed, the blueprint for preparing authentic American barbecue was created.
“That’s where it happened,” says Lake High, president of the South Carolina Barbeque Association, when passionately describing the first time a pig was barbecued. “They [the Spanish] were raising pigs in the thousands, dealing with Indians who knew how to cook in a pit.”
High sounds like a man who would’ve given anything to be there himself – to sample the world’s first taste of barbecue. And he’s not alone in his passion. Jack Waiboer, owner of Charleston-based Carolina Pit Masters Barbecue Cooking School, shares his opinion.
“It all goes back to Barbacoa [a pit cooking method] and the islands off the coast of SC,” says Waiboer. In his 50s, he’s considered young in an industry five centuries old. This doesn’t stop him from dropping knowledge whenever he sees fit. “The Spanish were the first to come in, through the islands of South Carolina, and saw what was going on with open pit cooking.”
It’s in these pits where the magic occurred – where swine turned to succulence. “Everything’s up on a grate,” Waiboer adds. “The Indians were cooking that way when the hog came to America, and that’s how pit-cooked barbecue came about.”
This was more than the Spanish meeting the American Indians. It was the pig meeting the sacred fire pit. And thankfully – for each and every one of us – it occurred on South Carolina shores, for the Palmetto State has never missed a cue for glorious sunshine and picturesque ocean backdrops.
The barbecue debate rages on, and, well, that’s just fine. It’s an easy way to distinguish friends from acquaintances. But, you’re ignoring the facts – probably even drinking unsweet tea – if you don’t believe South Carolina to be the birthplace of barbecue.
-by Matt Berger for South Carolina Tourism, 2014