The Secret of South Carolina BBQ

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It's been five and a half years since the first Roadhouse training meetings at the Hilton out by the Bakehouse. Which reminds me about how much we encountered the response of "where's-the-sauce?" strangeness of Eastern North Carolina barbecue to Ann Arbor.

Thinking back to how when we first got going there in the fall of '03 almost NO ONE here really knew what Eastern North Carolina barbecue was. But now that we've spent five and a half years working at it, a whole lot of folks are on board, whether they actually come from the Carolinas or not. It's not much different, really, from all the work to familiarize folks with better bread, real bagels, artisan cheese, and all the other good stuff we produce and sell. It's rarely a short-term project but when the food tastes good and we help guests to understand it...

One day Heather said, "I think I was 15 before I realized barbecue could come in any color other than yellow."

Anyways, the point of the moment is the South Carolina mustard barbecue that's now on the menu every day. While most everyone in the Carolinas will have heard of, and probably tasted, the mustard sauce, it's definitely not one of the better-known southern foods outside its home region. In fact, it isn't even really served all over South Carolina; it's just mostly in the center of the state that they seem to swear by mustard sauce. For people there, of course, it's the norm.

Heather Showman, who started serving at the RH last summer and who grew up in Columbia, S.C., was very happy to see it on the specials list when we first started doing it. I can't remember how it came up exactly but one day she said, "I think I was 15 before I realized barbecue could come in any color other than yellow." I still smile every time I think about her saying this--it really does get across the regionality of barbecue in the South and is a good reminder of how much each of us takes our own "normal" for granted (usually incorrectly) as the "way things are everywhere."

With all that in mind, South Carolina is seemingly the most diverse of barbecue states (though I'm sure someone out there's going to argue this one so...). If you go to the Carolina Q Cup Website, at the bottom of the page you'll find a nice little colored map showing where the various styles are still found in the state. Mustard, like I said, is mainly in the middle. In the northeastern part of the state they seem to eat mostly vinegar sauce akin to the Eastern North Carolina style we already do. In the northwest it's tomato vinegar akin to the way it's done in western North Carolina. In the south down by the Georgia border they opt for a thicker tomato-ketchup type sauce.

No one seems very sure of the mustard sauce's actual origins--one theory I saw said that it could have been tied to the settlement of a fair few Germans in the area and their love of good mustard. Germans were actually actively recruited to the South Carolina colony in the first part of the 18th century, and there's a relatively strong community still there. Some of the biggest names in South Carolina mustard barbecue are of German origin--Bessinger, Sweatman, etc. John T. Edge pointed out that there are also pockets of mustard sauce served in Georgia and Alabama as well.

The main thing here is that the mustard sauce is really good. Nothin' fancy--a lot of yellow mustard, a good dose of the Quebec, oak-barrel aged cider vinegar, a touch of sugar, and a bunch of spices (ground coriander, celery seed, fresh garlic, chili pequin, and fresh ground Telicherry black pepper). As you can tell, I like it, and I like being able to teach people about the little ins and outs of food and food history (in case you didn't notice that about me).

While it's good on a dinner plate, I'm particularly partial to it on the sandwich. Those New Jersey buns from the Bakehouse are just so good--actually one of our more unknown items, I think. Be sure to put the slaw on the sandwich as they would in the South--I think it adds a lot to the textural enjoyment! If you're up for a little BBQ adventure, check it out.

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Ari Weinzweig is co-founder of Zingerman's Community of Businesses, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is also the author of Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating. More

After graduating from University of Michigan with a degree in Russian history, Ari Weinzweig went to work washing dishes in a local restaurant and soon discovered that he loved the food business. Along with his partner Paul Saginaw, Ari started Zingerman's Delicatessen in 1982 with a $20,000 bank loan, a staff of two, a small selection of great-tasting specialty foods, and a relatively short sandwich menu. Today, Zingerman's is a community of businesses that employs over 500 people and includes a bakery, creamery, sit-down restaurant, training company, coffee roaster, and mail order service. Ari is the author of the best-selling Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating and the forthcoming Zingerman's Guide to Better Bacon.
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