Howard Conyers: Rocket Scientist, Pitmaster
You don't have to be a rocket scientist to cook barbecue, but it sure doesn't hurt. Just ask Howard Conyers. By day, he works for NASA testing rocket engines at the Stennis Space Center on the Mississippi-Louisiana border. In his spare time he's been making quite a name for himself cooking old fashioned whole hog barbecue.
Conyers hails from Manning, South Carolina, a town of about 4,000 in the Pee Dee region. "Actually," he says "I grew up in a little rural area called Paxville. . . seven miles from Manning."
Conyers learned to cook barbecue from his father, who in turn learned it from other cooks in the community. He barbecued his first hog at age 11, and when he was in high school he regularly tended the pits all night for family reunions and gatherings of the local Future Farmers of America (FFA).
Conyers' father is a trained welder and made all his pits himself. "The first pit I remember as a child was an old International refrigerator with a round top," Conyers says. "He laid it down on its back so the door was on the top. He cut two doors on the end and he put a rack in there, but you still used your barrel outside to make coals." Later, his father started making pits out of barrels and eventually sheet steel.
A career in engineering took Howard Conyers a long way from Paxville: to an undergraduate degree at North Carolina A&T followed by a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and materials science from Duke, and then to Louisiana. "I finished my Ph.D. and took my first job at Stennis," Conyers says. "I lived in Slidell for a year and then moved to New Orleans." Somewhere along the way, he started to miss his family's style of whole hog barbecue. "I realized I had left something back home that is unique and special," he says.
So Conyers set out to continue his family's tradition and share it with his new neighbors in New Orleans. He trained his sights on Hogs for the Cause, an annual charity event in New Orleans that draws some 90 competitive cooking teams and over 20,000 hungry attendees.
"I cooked my first hog in New Orleans in 2013," Conyers said. "I did a practice run [for friends] for the Super Bowl in February and then did Hogs in March."
Conyers didn't finish in the top 10 his first time out, but his old-school style got plenty of notice. He returned to Hogs for the Cause again in 2014 and then was invited to come home to South Carolina and cook alongside some of the Palmetto State's most noted pitmasters at the organization's inaugural Charleston event.
That's where I first sampled his tender, juicy pulled pork, which I would place right up there alongside any whole hog barbecue in the Carolinas. I was intrigued by his family's signature sauce, too. It's a tangy blend of what I would guess is vinegar, mustard, and a little ketchup, though no one would confirm that for me. The recipe is a tightly held family secret.
Since then, Conyers has cooked for a pop up dinner at the restaurant Purloo inside the Southern Food & Beverage Museum in New Orleans, and at Dillard University he not just barbecued a whole hog but lectured about it, too.
Conyers may be pushing technological boundaries in his work for NASA, but when it comes to barbecue his approach is more art than science. Like his father, he reduces oak and hickory logs down to coals in a "burn barrel" and uses them to fire hand-welded metal pits.
"I never use a thermometer," Conyers says. "I know by how it feels, how the joints move, how the skin looks.
"It's real important to cook it that way," he says. "I haven't seen anything broken about the process. It's proven in my mind, and the guys who developed this technique did a lot of refining through the years."
Ultimately, Conyers says, he had to travel far from home and the rural South Carolina barbecue tradition before he could understand its real value. "I took it for granted," he said. "When I went back home, I realized my father wasn't cooking hogs any more. There's something being lost, and if I didn't do my part to keep it going then somebody for the next 30 or 40 years may not have that opportunity.
"I want to recreate the experience of the backyard. I want people to remember this was what it was like years ago when you heard your parents talk about great barbecue."