Pit-cooking a hog requires a lot of dedication. At its most basic, it is a culinary craft that takes several days. The actual process of cooking the meat can take 7-15 hours, depending on the size of the fire and the size of the animal. To begin, an oven is built into the earth by digging a hole which is often lined with bricks or stones. The pit fire can be fueled by charcoal or wood. A sweet or smoky character can be imparted to the meat by a conscientious selection of nutwoods, fruitwoods and heavy wood; hickory, pecan, apple, and pear, for example. The meat is marinated or rubbed with seasoning and then wrapped. Once the fire has burned down to a smoldering heat, the pig is placed in the pit, covered, and left to cook.
Porter Barron, Jr. cooked his first hog in Cambodia. “I was homesick,” explains the South Carolina native. So, he emailed his friend, Chef Rhett Elliott, for instructions. Elliott grew up cooking barbecue in Camden, SC. He was in seventh grade when he served his first hog to Prince and The Revolution (yeah, that Prince and the Revolution) during the LoveSexy tour.
“If it’s not wood…if it’s not whole pig, it’s not BBQ to us,” says Elliott. He and Barron are poised to open a new neighborhood restaurant this month in a historic downtown area in Columbia, SC known as Cottontown. They are renovating the site of a former auto repair shop on Franklin Street. The same building also has the uncanny history of once being a business that built barbecue pits.
The War Mouth is not going to be a typical barbecue restaurant. Chef Elliott will adhere to a traditional schedule of whole-hog pit cooking. Barbecue will be served three nights of the week (Thurs.-Sat.) with other popular regional fare filling out the menu; hearty dishes like chicken bog and catfish stew. Like Elliott and Barron, these are the dishes many Southerners grew up eating, often called soul food. Elliott warns, however, that “it’s not going to taste like what your grandma is going to cook.” Trained to cook many types of cuisine, including French and Italian, Elliott has spent nearly two decades building his reputation in fine dining establishments. He is excited to be getting back to the food he grew up on.
It sounds like the best of both worlds when Elliott explains that he wants to provide a high-quality dining experience free from the stuffiness and pretension of the typical white-tablecloth restaurants. It is a similar ambition for Chef Elliott Moss, a James Beard award nominee for Best Chef in the Southeast, who recently opened Buxton Hall in an up-and-coming district in Asheville, NC known as South Slope. After rising through the ranks in several cities, Moss chose to make his home in the state next door to his hometown of Florence, SC.
Painted figures still glide across the restored walls of Buxton Hall in bladed boots, bigger than life, where wood smoke warmly infuses the vast building that was once an ice-skating rink. That signature scent will linger in your hair and clothes for hours after you have gone home.
Ribs, hash, head cheese, and even take-home dog treats; Moss is building his livelihood on a philosophy of sustainable whole-hog cooking. Nothing is wasted. His style is innovative, affably irreverent, and touched with whimsy. A side item of hominy grits and gravy is cleverly garnished with popcorn; a salad that blends apples and chèvre with the unexpected crackle of smoked pecan brittle gives a rascally middle finger to convention. Moss commissioned a sign for the facade of Buxton Hall to be freshly hand-painted in a classic style. In the coming years, he looks forward to the opportunity to “earn the fade” of the vintage signs he fancies.
South Carolina is a barbecue state. Loyalties in the state often lie with the regional mustard-based barbecue sauce, while people in North Carolina tend to favor a peppery sauce of vinegar or serous tomato. “People fight about barbecue.” Elliott says. When asked, he and Barron eagerly start throwing out names of some of their favorite local places: Scott’s in Hemingway, McCabe’s in Manning, Rabbit’s in Lake City. Sweatman’s BBQ in Holly Hill, SC, they agree, is the quintessential barbecue experience in South Carolina.
Barbecue is a tradition with very deep community ties. The War Mouth intends to be receptive to what the neighborhood needs. “We are celebrating the simple pleasures of eating and drinking in the 803,” Barron says.
As Southerners, by birth or by kismet, we at Auntie Bellum cherish the food traditions of the South. We are excited to see such an earnest application of this treasured tradition by folks who obviously love Southern food as much as we do.