Think South Carolina Has Four Barbecue Sauce Regions? Think Again
It has long been said that South Carolina has four distinct barbecue regions, defined primarily by sauce.
Sweet, tangy mustard-based sauce dominates the center part of the state, from the counties around the capital city of Columbia down through the Lowcountry. In the northeast, from Florence and Kingstree over to Myrtle Beach, a spicy blend of vinegar and pepper is standard.
The so-called Upstate along the North Carolina border is home to a thin red sauce made from vinegar and tomato, while folks in the counties along the Savannah River prefer a thick ketchup-based version.
That’s the conventional wisdom, at least. These regions were first identified by a pair of University of South Carolina geography professors, Charles F. Kovacik and John J. Winberry, in their 1987 book South Carolina: A Geography. Alongside detailed plotting of annual precipitation and population density, the professors included a map that demarcated the state’s barbecue regions.
Kovacik and Winberry based their analysis upon “extensive fieldwork”, which is to say they drove around the state for years, sampling barbecue and recording the sauce found at each joint. Their efforts gained them quite a bit of notice in the press—perhaps too much. The sauce map, Kovacik told the Wall Street Journal, got "more attention than anything [else] in the damn book."
I’ve spent a fair amount of time recently driving around South Carolina and sampling barbecue, too. Just last week I took a swing through Spartanburg and Greenville—where I grew up—and it confirmed my suspicion that the professors’ old sauce map needs some revision.
In the past decade or so, mustard-based sauce has conquered the Upstate. That yellow condiment was unheard of in Greenville when I was young. I first encountered it when I moved down to Columbia—all of a hundred miles away—to attend graduate school. When I visited Hite’s in West Columbia and Little Pigs BBQ on Alpine Road, the bright yellow sauce was a shock to my Upstate palate, but I grew to love it with time.
These days you can’t swing a rack of ribs in Greenville without knocking over a bottle of mustard sauce. At Henry’s Smokehouse, you can find a tangy yellow version alongside bottles of orangish-brown “mild sauce” and “spicy sauce.” At Mike and Jeff’s, you can top their unique BBQ hot dog with a similar selection of mild, spicy, or mustard sauce. Bucky’s Bar-B-Q offers two options, an orange version that appears to have a tomato base plus a yellow sauce that’s so sweet it tastes almost like honey mustard dressing.
Just down the road at Smoky Dreams, the sauces have three of the four map regions covered—mild tomato, spicy mustard, and hot vinegar—and there’s a fourth variety that’s neither red nor yellow but white.
Smoky Dreams Barbecue in Greenville offers a slate of sauce options, including its signature Smoky Dreams white sauce.
That fourth sauce, pitmaster Christopher Brink told me, was “a happy accident of sorts” created by his father for a birthday party. “My dad wanted to make a more child friendly sauce,” Brink says, “thinking somewhere between an Alabama white sauce and ranch.” It turned out to be a hit not just with the kids but also with the parents, who kept asking where they could buy a bottle.
The elder Brink, a chemist by profession, gave the recipe the practical if unpoetic name “421.” When son Christopher added it to the menu at his restaurant, he christened it “Smoky Dreams,” making it their signature sauce. Cool and tangy with a thin, almost runny texture, it’s quite nice drizzled over a few slices of Brink’s smoky, thick-cut brisket—another barbecue novelty unheard of in the Greenville of my youth.
This new diversity of sauces seems due in part to the relative newness of barbecue restaurants in the Greenville-Spartanburg area, most of which were established in the 21st century and aren’t particularly bound by old ways of doing things. Of all the joints where I cut my barbecue teeth before decamping to Columbia in the early 1990s, only two are in operation today.
Little Pigs on Mills Avenue was founded in the early 1960s as part of the Memphis-based Little Pigs of America chain, which went pork belly up in 1967. Like many former franchisees, the Mills Avenue owners carried on independently under the Little Pigs name, and they kept using the two original Little Pigs sauce recipes, one a mild tomato-based version, the other heavily spiced with hot pepper.
The other surviving joint is the Beacon Drive-In in Spartanburg. I’m not knocking the barbecue at this South Carolina institution, but if you go to the Beacon to order a sliced pork sandwich instead of a chili-cheese a-plenty . . . well, you just need to move on down the line. (For non-locals, a “chili-cheese a-plenty” is a chili-cheeseburger buried under a mound of fries and sweet onion rings.)
The Beacon’s barbecue sauce is worth noting, though. In their pioneering 1979 barbecue guidebook Hog Heaven, Allie Patricia Wall and Ron K. Layne describe it as “a native of northwest South Carolina” with a tomato base and “vinegar, cloves, nutmeg and other spices.” That seems to be the same recipe the Beacon serves today—thick, red and very tomatoey.
But a shortage of long-lived restaurants isn’t enough to explain the blurring of the Upstate’s sauce preferences. Even Little Pigs—the oldest joint in town—has expanded its sauce lineup over the years, adding a sweet brown variety and, yes, a mustard sauce, too.
Changing diner preferences seem an important factor. The Upstate has experienced an influx of new residents in recent decades, many of them bringing barbecue tastes cultivated far away. Thanks to food television and social media, even local-born diners know there’s far more variety in the barbecue universe than just chopped pork dressed in a tomato-based sauce.
This phenomenon is happening throughout South Carolina. At old classics like Scott’s in Hemingway, the sauce is still made from vinegar laced with so much red pepper it will leave your tongue sizzling. But keep moving east to the coast and you’ll find styles imported from all over. Little Pigs Bar-B-Q in Myrtle Beach, for instance, offers three varieties of sauce—mustard, vinegar, and tomato-based.
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That old South Carolina barbecue map needs a make-over. This time around, it won’t be possible to draw bold lines and slice the state into tidy regions demarcated by sauce. Instead, we’ll need to take a pointillistic approach, adding red, orange, yellow, and even white dots where each different variety is found.
Perhaps in time a clear picture will emerge, or maybe it will stay fuzzy and blurred. But one thing is certain: the fieldwork will be tasty.