Making Barbecue and Homecooking

I was invited by the folklorist at the South Carolina Arts Commission to a meeting in Columbia in 2003 to discuss the possibility of working with them to respond to an invitation issued by the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. It was seeking ways to enable visitors to experience folklife in the Region III of the South Carolina National Heritage Corridor. At the meeting some suggested a film about the many meat-and-three restaurants that served authentic country cooking. Their cooks had learned and were carrying forward recipes from their mothers, aunts, or grandmothers. A film could highlight dining experiences that would give the visitors a “taste of South Carolina.” The State had received a huge federal grant in response to a proposal to create four “National Heritage Corridor Regions” that stretched through four distinct regions from the mountains in the Upcountry in the western part of the State down through the Midlands and into the Lowcountry to the Atlantic Ocean. Within that Corridor sites would be recognized and developed into resources that would attract heritage tourism with an emphasis on developing African American tourism alongside tourism by naturalists, people interested in the agrarian South, and groups ranging from those interested in Colonial or Civil War history to “foodies” and those interested in Southern folklife and traditional culture.

After the meeting I met with Jay Williams, Chief Curator of Exhibits at the McKissick Museum and Director of the Folklife Resource Center, and tapped into his passion for Southern culture and folklife. As we talked, I shared with him that my family came from the Region III portion of the South Carolina National Heritage Corridor and that I grew up visiting my relatives there. This was a region of the State where I had my roots, and I told Jay that what this four-county region was sitting right on top of was a rich folk heritage of barbecue eateries. They all had their roots in farm families whose men started cooking and selling barbecue on weekends to supplement their incomes during the hard economic times that periodically marked this agrarian society in the early part of the twentieth century. From shade-tree cooking to barbecue pits in backyards to restaurants that had become world famous, all originated with an individual who cooked with wood, created his own secret barbecue sauce, and had such pride in his product that he saw that his tradition was passed on precisely the way it was begun by his ancestors. Together we proposed drawing up a grant application that would apply a set of standards for locating and identifying the restaurants and eateries where head cooks were maintaining their ancestral recipes and secret ingredients passed down to them. We could designate the cooks as South Carolina Folk Heritage Artisans.

Our plan included an extended set of road trips into these counties in the Region III Heritage Corridor—Aiken, Barnwell, Bamberg, and Orangeburg—with the new folklorist at McKissick Museum joining me as producer. We would conducted field research to uncover and officially identify dining sites we could list and sanction as meeting the standards set for Folk Heritage restaurants.

We received an initial planning and field-research grant followed by a production grant that sent Saddler Taylor and me with camera in hand throughout the Region III Corridor. We searched for and uncovered both well-known and little-known sites. We would shoot scenes where Saddler would go up to a person were filling their car at a gas station and, after filling them in on what we were doing, would ask, “Are there any really good homecooking or barbecue restaurants around here where the owners have been in business a long time and the food is made with hand-me-down recipes?” We were diligent in checking out each site by interviewing restaurant owners and chief cooks. In the end we could list forty-three legitimate folk heritage dining sites in the Corridor. These were places where visitors could come away with a genuine experience of having been immersed in the most authentic South Carolina foodways, with opportunities to meet and talk with owners and cooks who are keeping alive traditions, secret ingredients, and methods of cooking learned from artisans who originated or were inheritors of these traditions.

In the course of making the documentary we titled Barbecue and Homecooking: Food That Makes You Smile, we took the viewer on the road with us as we came upon each of these sites one by one, meeting the owners and talking with the food artisans. Along the way we ran into musician James Brown, who gave his encouragement to travelers “to get off the interstates in South Carolina and take these back roads and get into these farm communities where you will find yourself rewarded by great home cooking like Mama made and barbecue by old folks who really know what they’re doing. And you will have a memorable experience, just like I’m enjoying right here!”

During our field research in Barnwell, South Carolina, I ran across an old friend who told me about a wonderful old man who raised hogs for sale to local barbecue men and was a patriarch in the African American community where most had served as share croppers. They came from ancestors who had worked the region’s farms under slavery. The patriarch’s name was Morris Peeples. Among other things he managed the old plantation house, which was turned into a hunt club by its owner, who had all but been raised by Morris. I found I could not contain Morris’s wonderful story in the Barbecue and Homecooking documentary, but later came back to shoot the story of Morris and his relationship with the members of the Hunt Club at the refurbished Hatiola plantation in a documentary titled The Morris Chronicle. For the music in Barbecue and Homecooking I followed the method I used in all my other folklife documentaries: I sought out and recorded music from local and regional traditional artists playing their music for the members of the community in which I did my shooting.

To promote the film we showed it on South Carolina Educational Television’s Southern Lens program and printed folders that were handed out at all tourist Welcome Stations located on Interstates as drivers crossed over into South Carolina from North Carolina or Georgia. The folders contained a map showing all the folk-heritage dining sites as well as the days and times they were open. Short versions of the film also were played at the Region III South Carolina National Heritage Corridor home site in Blacksville. It was while working in Blacksville that I learned of the Old Timey Horse Farmers Gathering

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