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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Rodney Scott in Exile Tour

Kevin Gillespie (left) and Rodney Scott season the pork
  • Brad Kaplan
  • Kevin Gillespie (left) and Rodney Scott season the pork

If you were on the Twitters at all during MLK Day here in Atlanta (and follow anyone associated with food), you probably saw mention of one Rodney Scott and whole hog barbecue. There was the AJC's John Kessler saying, "Rodney Scott BBQ @gunshowATL... it's holy-s**t good!" Or Kim Severson of the New York Times sharing, "Helping Rodney Scott by eating his whole-pig barbecue." Or, as Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q put it, "Rodney is the man!"

Check out the full gallery of photos from the event here.

So who is Rodney Scott, and why was everyone in Atlanta in such barbecue pandemonium? Rodney Scott is many things - most evidently a pitmaster, a keeper of flames, sparks, and burning coals. He's also a professional woodchopper, a master shoveler, a MacGyver of smoke and heat. He's a hand-me-down history of whole hog cooking, barbecue sauce mixing and mopping. He's small town South Carolina, but also a sometimes weary road traveler, circumnavigating the South to share the gospel of barbecue.

Yes, irony strikes hot. The very flames necessary to produce smoked pork are the ones that, this past November, burned down the cookhouse of Scott's Bar-B-Que in the tiny town of Hemingway, S.C. This story might have stayed in South Carolina, but the Southern Foodways Alliance, itself a keeper of the flames of Southern cooking traditions, came upon Scott's Bar-B-Que a few years back and rightfully brought attention to this outpost of pork.

Scott's Bar-B-Que has been doing things the old-fashioned way since 1972, when Rodney was 1 year old and his parents opened a convenience store, smoking a hog or two each weekend because it seemed like a good thing to do. The whole hog barbecue caught on, though, and soon became the store's primary draw. All grown up, Scott runs the show now, with the help of family and friends, of course. Which brings us back to the Southern Foodways Alliance and its web of influence.

When news of the fire at Scott's Bar-B-Que spread late last year, the Southern food community rallied around Scott. A loose confederation of mostly Southern chefs and farmers and food lovers called the Fatback Collective brought many of its members together to put on the "Rodney in Exile BBQ Tour." The tour features Scott and his barbecue traveling to pit stops all around the South to cook with supporters and friends. The point of all this is mainly to raise funds to help rebuild the barbecue pits at Scott's, but the tour is also a chance to spread the gospel of whole hog, to share the love of smoked pork done in a way that is all too rare these days.

Tending the burn barrel

Here in Atlanta, on MLK Day, chef Kevin Gillespie hosted Rodney for a barbecue lunch and a collaborative dinner in support of the cause, both held at Gillespie's Gunshow. Diners lucky enough to swing by for lunch got a pile of pork that had spent more than 12 hours in Rodney's trailer-rigged barbecue pits, slowly smoking over a mix of hickory, oak, and pecan wood.

The night before, I met up with Scott in a parking lot off Memorial Drive. It was dark and cold out, but Scott's burn barrel - basically two metal drums welded together to form an efficient little smokestack - was already pumping out sparks of heat and intense smoke, turning cords of wood into the burning embers that would fuel the slow cooking. His rig with room for two hogs was on one side, another single hog mobile pit from Jim 'n Nick's BBQ on the other. Soon, Scott and his friend Steven Green were shoveling the heat from the burn barrel to the pits, getting everything warmed up.

Then the hogs arrived ... by Subaru. I doubt that sentence has ever been said before, but, yes, on tour, things don't always happen the typical way. The three recently butchered, plastic-wrapped hogs from Riverview Farms arrived in the back of Fatback Collective member Angie Mosier's bright white Subaru SUV. Scott looked them over, then sent a terse text to Gillespie who was still over at Gunshow: "Bring a hatchet and a fire extinguisher."

Apparently, the hogs weren't quite ready for the pits and needed a bit of hacking to get them into shape (the fire extinguisher was purely for safety purposes). Gillespie was over in no time with the implements to get the job done. Later, a few other cooks and restaurant folk arrived to soak in the experience, some bearing bourbon, pizza, 5-hour Energy drinks - whatever it might take to make it through the January night.

Once the hogs were loaded into the pits shortly after 10 p.m., skin side up over wire grates, the work was a steady but slow procession of shoveling from the burn barrel to the pits, checking the distribution of heat. Scott, Gillespie, and crew kept up a lively banter, joking around, talking technique, taking note of gunshots heard off in the distance. I checked out around midnight to get some sleep, but the folks manning the pits stayed up through the night, continually fueling the burn barrel to keep the smoking going.

Pork, beautiful smoked pork

By 10 a.m. the next morning when I got back, the hogs were ready for the final hour of preparation - Scott and Green turning them in a delicate maneuver to put the skin-side down, seasoning the now-exposed meat with salt, pepper, and an unmarked bag of secret stuff, then mopping it all with a vinegar-based sauce (cooked up and packed by Scott's father, of course) as a finishing touch. As the skin started to drip over the heat, smoke bellowed up into the sky and the aromas of the pig and the wood and the spice were fully unleashed. I believe I heard a chorus of angels coming down from above, though that might have just been due to my happily hallucinatory state. Or maybe it was the choir from a nearby church celebrating the life of Martin Luther King Jr.

In no time, the piles of pork were carefully carried off the pits into a waiting van, then shuttled over to Gunshow. The Rodney in Exile show was about to begin for those eager eaters who came seeking the whole hog barbecue truth. And the truth was delivered.

Note: While you may have missed your chance to try Rodney Scott's barbecue in Atlanta, visit the Fatback Collective for upcoming dates throughout the South.

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Slideshow
Whole-hog barbecue with Rodney Scott

Whole-hog barbecue with Rodney Scott

By Brad Kaplan

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