As barbecue booms, Black Southern pitmasters claim their rightful place

Todd A. Price
The American South
Kingsford's Preserve the Pit program works with African American barbecue businesses around the country.

Rodney Scott was six when he realized barbecue was more than a meal. Growing up in small town Hemingway, South Carolina, he watched the grown-ups slow cook hogs — it was always a hog, and always whole. Near the end, the men would hoist the pig, which weighed as much as a teenage boy, and turn it over to expose the meat that had been slowly cooking 10 to 12 hours, absorbing the smoke that rose as fat dripped onto the coals.

"Every time that this hog was flipped over and sauced, people were all over it," Scott said. "I'm like, this thing is like a magnet. It just draws people in."

Scott was 11 when he cooked his first hog by himself. By the time he was 17, smoking pigs at his family’s restaurant, Scott’s Bar-B-Que, was his full-time job.

Rodney Scott learned to cook whole hogs at his family's restaurant Scott's Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, South Carolina. (Courtesy Clarkson Potter)

Today, Scott ranks among America's most celebrated pitmasters. He has two locations of his own, Rodney Scott's Whole Hog BBQ in Charleston, South Carolina and Birmingham, Alabama. Another is opening soon in Atlanta, with two more locations set to open in Birmingham. In 2018 he received a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast, making him only the second pitmaster to win the prestigious honor. And he was featured in the recent Netflix series "Chef's Table BBQ."

Now Scott has a cookbook, "Rodney Scott's World of BBQ" (Clarkson Potter), emblazoned with his personal motto: Every Day Is a Good Day.

The cookbook, co-written by New Orleans food writer Lolis Eric Elie, has step-by-step instructions on smoking a whole hog, from picking the wood to building a pit from cinder blocks, along with recipes for smoked prime rib, pork T-bones and even a smoked Thanksgiving turkey.

Rising above the competition:What does it take to win big on the barbecue circuit?

The book is also a heartfelt account of Scott's struggles on his rise to success. In high school, he had to work overnight, tending to the hogs, when friends were out having fun. The family had to rebuild their pits in 2013 after a major fire. And when Scott, an only child, decided to open his own place in Charleston, his father stopped talking to him and cut him out of the family.

"I wanted to tell my story and how food affects everything I've done," Scott said. "All of the experiences that I've been through."

Renowned barbecue master Rodney Scott leans against a cinderblock pit for cooking a whole hog. (Courtesy Clarkson Potter)

"Rodney Scott's World of BBQ" stands out for its focus on whole hog barbecue, a traditional style that has become harder to find in recent years. Scott's book is also the only one you can buy today published by a Black pitmaster.

"There's just so much interest in barbecue," said food scholar Adrian Miller. "And at the very time people are looking for someone to curate their experience, all media is offering them is white dudes."

"Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue" (UNC Press), Miller's new book, aims to give Black pitmasters from the past and present their due. 

"'Black Smoke' is part celebration and part restoration," he writes.

Adrian Miller's new book "Black Smoke" explores the history of African American barbecue.

Until the 1990s, Miller argues, Black pitmasters were the face of American barbecue, even if they didn’t always own the restaurants.

Before the Civil War, barbecues were social events. Enslaved Black people were the ones tending to the pits.

"Slavery was the African American barbecuers' training ground, and these specialized cooks gained elevated status on plantations," Miller writes.

Black pitmasters, known before the 1930s as "barbecue kings," maintained their reputations after emancipation.

"Well into the twentieth century, African Americans enjoyed a competitive advantage in barbecue because of a widespread belief among southern whites that Black people made the best barbecue," he writes.

When the 20th century’s Great Migration sent millions of African Americans from the rural South to cities in Midwest, Northeast and West, barbecue spread throughout the country.

More:Black chefs stirred the pots for New Orleans' cuisine. But today, they are hard to find.

In the era of segregation, barbecue restaurants could even entice white customers to Black neighborhoods.

"Because of the ways that Blackness and barbecue were wedded in the eighteenth century, many whites sought out barbecue made by Blacks, regardless of how they felt about the cooks," Miller writes. "Black barbecuers were often lauded in the Black press for their ability to attract white customers."

Miller sees Black pitmasters slip from the national spotlight in the 1990s, as food television and glossy magazines amped up America's appetite for barbecue.

"These national media outlets are just not diverse," Miller said in an interview with The American South. "So you've got basically white people tapping their network, which is pretty white."

The increasing popularity of the barbecue competition circuit also reframed how many people saw American barbecue. Most competitors are white. Black pitmasters, Miller found, often cannot afford the expense of competitions and "can feel unwelcome by the overall vibe."

Black pitmasters not only miss out on the credit, Miller says, they also did not get the cash. Barbecue became a big business, with sauces to sell, television shows to host, cookbooks to publish and increasingly high profile restaurants to own.

New Orleans based barbecue expert Howard Conyers is a mentor for Kingsford charcoal's Preserve the Pit program.

Howard Conyers also knows that history well. He was born into barbecue. Conyers grew up in Manning, South Carolina, where smoking whole hogs is part of the culture. An aerospace engineer for NASA by day, he has become a leading practitioner and promoter of the Black barbecue tradition.

Conyers is one of the mentors for Kingsford charcoal’s new Preserve the Pit fellowship, which will help three Black entrepreneurs grow their barbecue businesses.

"Preserve the Pit is a historic program from a major corporation, and Kingsford was intentional from day one," Conyers said.

The three fellows, announced in April, are Shalamar Lane of My Father's Barbecue in Carson, California, Cory and Tarra Davis of Daddy Pete's BBQ in Grand Rapids, Michigan and Ronald Simmons of Master Blend Family Farms in Kenansville, North Carolina.

More:Ron Simmons isn't your average hog farmer

Each fellow will receive $16,000. More importantly, they will work closely for a year with a group of mentors that includes Conyers, chefs such as Bryan Furman, named a best new chef in 2019 by Food & Wine magazine, and Kevin Bludso, a judge of Netflix’s “The American Barbecue Showdown,” and business experts like Devita Davison of Detroit's FoodLab. Ten runners up each received a $7,500 grant.

Kingsford, which is owned by The Clorox Company, plans to offer the fellowship annually.

"I'm an African American executive at Clorox," said Shaunte Mears-Watkins, Kingsford's vice president of strategy and marketing who helped develop the Preserve the Pit inside the company. "This is a really important initiative that's close to my heart, because I also have my own wonderful memories of family barbecues growing up and my uncle Arthur making ribs."

Conyers believes the Kingsford program will help the fellows build a legacy.

"I hope through the fellowship that barbecue businesses we work with will go past the first generation," he said.

He believes other corporations will follow Kingsford’s lead and support Black pitmasters so there will be more cookbooks published, more articles written, more television shows created, more restaurants opened and more stars like Rodney Scott.

Pitmaster Rodney Scott, author of "Rodney Scott's World of BBQ," lifts a shovel of coals.  (Courtesy Clarkson Potter)

News tips? Story ideas? Questions? Call reporter Todd Price at 504-421-1542 or email him at Sign up for The American South newsletter. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.