2017-08-31 / Opinions

ACROSS THE SAVANNAH

Real barbecue is cooked over hickory coals
By TOM POLAND
a southern writer

One day when you’re starving for traditional pit-cooked barbecue make the 58-mile drive to Jackie Hite’s BBQ just off Highway 23 in Leesville, South Carolina. Now that’s 58 miles as the crow flies but the crow flies pretty fast when he’s hungry for good barbecue. You’ll know you’re in the right place when you park by the tracks and smell the delicious aroma emanating from hogs sizzling over hickory coals. Look for plumes of smoke back of Hite’s wide white restaurant. Inside look for the patriarch of pork, Jackie Hite, who barbecues hogs the old-fashioned, traditional way. Park out front or park to the side.

If you park to the side of Hite’s you’ll hear the chop, chop, chop of cleavers, and now and then out front the wailing horn of a Northern Suffolk train barreling by. Inside this all-you-can-eat buffet the clamor of conversation nearly drowns out the wailing train.

Hite’s restaurant is open Wednesdays through Sundays and the crew works through the night cooking hogs. (The process takes about 25 hours.) He gets his hogs, special mustard, and hickory logs from local providers. He burns four-foot logs of hickory in a firebox just outside the pit area. Pitmaster Tim Hyman keeps the path to the pits clean. Back and forth he goes carrying shovels of red coals, which he spreads beneath sizzling half hogs. A picky type – you know some I’m sure – once asked Hite just how could he knew the coals were hot enough. “If them hogs ain’t smoking, if them hogs ain’t dripping, they ain’t cooking,” replied Hite who’s been cooking hogs 42 years. Yep, he knows a thing or two about pork, called by one the Donald Trump of barbecue. He’s got a veteran crew that works like a well-greased machine. “I’ve had the same crew all my life,” he says, adding, “Some people just like to work.” And some folks, make that a lot of folks, just like to eat his barbecue. Inside the buffet you’ll spot locals and visitors from afar. “Folks come here from Alabama to fish and they take my barbecue back to Bama. Georgia too,” said Hite.

Hite takes great pride in the way he cooks pigs. “Sloshing mustard sauce on hogs makes it real barbecue,” he says, pulling on the bill of his Gamecock cap. (You won’t catch him without that cap.) Now and then he’ll pull out a fourfoot hickory stick. “Used for two things,” he says. “In school for manners and stirring coals in barbecue pits.” Hite’s a friendly fellow who talks just like he looks and along with good food he dispenses some of life lessons and country wisdom. “I could be a cop without a gun. Folks respect me cause I do the right thing.” In a way he is a cop without a gun. He’s an honorary deputy sheriff and will gladly show you his badge. He’ll gladly swap tales with you too.

“Here’s how cooking pigs started,” he says. “A long time ago a house burned down in China and killed a pig. It smelled so good they started tasting it and then they started cooking hogs. Of course that’s an old wife’s tale,” he says, a big peal of laughter rolls out.

Before he got in the barbecue business Jackie Hite, this man who always does the right thing, and his dad ran a hardware store. Jackie tossed his hat in the circle for magistrate once and won. He served just three weeks. His daddy said, “Don’t you know you can’t be no judge! We got a business to run.”

The pull of politics eventually snared him for two terms as mayor. He has plenty of political connections. Politicians, judges, policemen, SLED agents, game wardens, lawyers, and others call this garrulous man a friend. He’s learned much about life from his barbecue associations. “I got an education and I never went to college,” he says and lets out another mighty roll of laughter.

Today Jackie’s business is barbecue and you can boil his business model down to seven basic words: hogs, hickory, fire, smoke, sauce, and hungry people. As the hogs simmer and Tim rains mustard sauce on them, the smoke rises to the top of the outbuilding and drifts over the community. Says Hite, “Folks drive through and say ‘Man yo place smells good!’ ” Tim covers the simmering hogs with giant sheets of cardboard to keep the smoke in. The cardboard refuses to burn. “We don’t throw that kind of heat to it,” says Hite. Big 17-quart steel pans filled with barbecued chickens sit on racks. “Three pans will hold two boxes of chickens (26).”

Besides barbecue Hite’s passion is fishing for crappie. As you’d expect he’s most familiar with Lincoln County and Clark Hill Lake. “Best fishing is on the Georgia side,” he says. “Less development there.” He should know. He’s a world-class angler with tournament wins, trophies, and photos of fish galore to back him up.

Hite’s BBQ is a legend in the Palmetto state. The proof is easy to see. It’s a Friday morning. Outside, folks queue up at 10:45, eager to get Hite’s BBQ. The line builds as others enter and exit the take-out door, a big smile on their faces. Inside big vats of cabbage, gravy, rice, skins, green beans, slaw, and more and of course barbecue hog and chicken wait for the doors to open. Folks file in and commence to eating. Country girls keep tea glasses full and a special treat, “Hot Fruit,” makes a great dessert, especially if you top it with whipped cream.

Folks, some serious eating goes down here.

A food reviewer wrote that it’s worth driving 100 miles to eat at Hite’s. And I might add he’ll take care of your longing for traditional, pit-cooked barbecue.

(Visit Tom Poland’s website at www.tompoland.net or email him about most anything at tompol@earthlink.net.)

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