Good Eats

Cooking with Rodney Scott

By Jed PortmanDecember 12, 2013

It’s nine p.m. at Charles Towne Landing, a six-hundred-acre park just outside of Charleston, South Carolina, and Steven Green is holding a blowtorch to an opening in a repurposed oil drum that is filled to the top with damp pieces of oak. Flecks of rain fall across two cleaned, beheaded, and butterflied pigs sitting on a sheet-metal barbecue pit nearby. Tomorrow, the pigs will feed hundreds of Garden & Gun readers who are in town for the first Jubilee festival. Right now, Green and his boss, pit master Rodney Scott, are just trying to get the fire going.

Photographs by Brennan Wesley (far left and right); Jed Portman (center)

The logs ignite. After several more torchings, they burn vigorously. "The hardest part is getting it started," says Scott, of Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, South Carolina. "After that, you just cruise." Coals begin to pile up at the bottom of the burn barrel after about half an hour. Scott scoops them up with his long-handled shovel and distributes them under the pork in two thick, radiating lines. He and Green will continue to do this every twenty minutes or so for the next twelve hours, measuring the temperature of the pits—and of the meat—by look and by feel. "It’s just about checking it, keeping your hands on it," Scott says. 

Once the pigs begin cooking, and a PBS camera crew gives Scott the go-ahead, the pit master walks to his truck for an iPod and a set of speakers. This is his third iPod this year. "If I come back to Best Buy again, they’re going to think I’m doing something to their stuff on purpose," he says. His music murmurs over a scene that, but for a few details, could have taken place anytime in the past century: smoke clouds on the air, drizzling rain, the palmettos and pines of Charles Towne Landing backlit only slightly by the dull orange glow of the highway in the distance. "It’s like a funeral home out here when we don’t have tunes."

Then around midnight, and halfway through "It Takes Two," by Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock, the rain intensifies from a drizzle to a downpour. The music stops briefly while Scott and Green scramble for an awning and a longer extension cord for the speakers. Trees tremble in the rain and cold wind, while the red-hot burn barrel radiates heat, drawing clouds of steam from Green’s damp coat. An all-night security guard patrolling the area tosses pecans to the raccoons exploring the boundaries of the cooking area. Green settles into a folding chair and pulls his hat low over his eyes while Scott sits beside him and watches the coals drop.

Around ten the next morning, an hour before lunch is scheduled to begin, hungry Jubilee guests begin to circle around the barbecue pit. Scott lifts the lid, flips the fat-slicked pigs, and seasons them with shakes from a few spice containers and a mop soaked in his signature vinegar-pepper sauce. Onlookers crane their necks, squinting at the labels. “The secret ingredient is already in there,” Scott tells them. One man confides to his wife that he saw an unlabeled powder in the spice kit, alongside the salt, pepper, and chile flakes. Another says that the secret is in the centuries-old process, plain and simple. Scott is inscrutable. "It’s all smoke and mirrors," jokes a bystander. The pit master smiles. "Mostly smoke," he says.