I call Zach Parker at 9:30 in the morning. My hair is still shower-damp as I lift soggy spoonfuls of granola and wait for him to pick up. I know that he has been cooking a small squadron of whole hogs since dusk arrived in Lexington, Tennessee, shoveling fresh hardwood coals under their greasy bellies, keeping watch throughout the night, while sleeping an hour or two, at most. The connection finally clicks awake and before I catch the sound of his voice, I hear the sound of customers hollering out orders in the background. It sounds like a small, but very hungry mob.
One barbecue, please.
White, mayo, and mild!
Large barbecue, chopped, hot!
Hollering for ‘cue is what people do at Scott’s-Parker’s Barbecue, where Zach’s father, the legendary and dearly-departed pitmaster Ricky Parker, let his patrons pick out any part of the pig to fill their sandwich buns and paper trays. I try to shout above the din, 450 miles away, to ask how many orders he’s served since they opened for business a half hour ago. He’s too busy to count. Most take their orders to go, ready to be unwrapped and eaten on their way to work. Some don’t make it to their cars. “I got two customers sitting over there right now,” he tells me. “One of them’s got a pulled tenderloin sandwich with hot sauce, and one of them’s got a side of ribs.”
Zach tells me about a childhood memory, a low point in the history of Scott’s-Parker’s, when Ricky was in jail and his wife took it upon herself to change the opening hours to 10 a.m. Early risers accustomed to their morning pork pounded on the locked front door. Business suffered. “That hour made all the difference,” Zach says.
Whole-hog barbecue is just what it says it is: an entire pig, slowly smoke-roasted. The best practitioners of the pit still cook their hogs over hickory, oak, or pecan wood coals for twelve to twenty-four hours—a wide window of time induced by the stubbornness of sticking to tradition. Each and every Boston butt and rack of ribs has been to engineered to conform to an easily shippable container, but every whole hog is different—in size, weight, and fat-to-flesh ratio—and will cook at its own particular time and temperature. There, too, an hour can make all the difference, and this typically lunchtime food might be ready at dawn. Barbecue becomes breakfast.
That’s the case at Sid’s Catering—despite the name it is a restaurant with tables—in Beulaville, North Carolina. Barbecue restaurants often operate as family affairs, but Sid’s takes this dynamic to another level. From the highway, the place is hidden behind the Blizzard family home, a single-chimneyed, red-bricked, perfect symbol of suburbia wreathed in a garden blooming with red and pink azaleas. There is no sign for the business, just a carved wooden placard embroidered with white magnolia blossoms that reads:
Ann & Sidney
455 S. Railroad Ave.
In 1977 Sidney Blizzard built a pithouse and take-out window to feed the sizable workforce of textile factory workers on the twilight shift throughout local Duplin County. A plate of chopped whole hog, coleslaw, and hushpuppies “is like supper to them,” says Sid Jr., who runs the cooks and serves barbecue alongside his father every Saturday, the only day Sid’s opens for business. When I visited, a note posted on the restaurant’s front door advertised the opening hour as 9:30 a.m. But it was a full forty-five minutes earlier than that, and the vast dining room was packed with devotees who know that Sid’s often sells out of barbecue well before noon. “They come in whenever they want to,” he explains.
Despite the popularity of barbecue for breakfast in Beulaville, I remained skeptical that this meal was an appropriate start to the day. I’m a granola in the summer and hot cereal in the winter kind of breakfaster, after all. Sid Jr. aimed to convince me otherwise, while giving credence to the whole-hog gospel. “It’s just your bacon and your sausage and your ham chopped up all in one, if you really think about it,” he says. “If it ain’t all whole hog, I don’t want it.”
Rarely will a whole-hog smokehouse go through the trouble of turning barbecue into an identifiably “breakfast” food; Scott’s-Parker’s and Sid’s are not rushing to serve scrambled eggs and fresh-brewed coffee alongside plates of smoked pork. But in Hemingway, South Carolina the patrons of Scott’s Bar-B-Que have invented one of the greatest of food hacks. In a town as small as this, the people who live there know, with a quick sniff of the air, when the hogs are done. Well before owner and pitmaster Rodney Scott opens his door for business, they line up outside the pithouse door, with bowls of grits in hand, to recreate a speciality of the local Pee Dee River region: hominy and hog.
Some bring over the homemade stuff, others go instant, but most tote an order from the Hardee’s franchise down the highway. Buttered grits are common, of course, but many content themselves with the drippings of hog fat and barbecue sauce to grease the grains. For the record, Rodney likes to stir his barbecue into his grits, a treat that he reserves for Sundays only. Because “shortly after grits,” he tells me, “there always comes a nap.”
Rien Fertel spent four years on the road documenting barbecue for the Southern Foodways Alliance, which became the basis for his second book, The One True Barbecue: Fire, Smoke, and the Pitmasters Who Cook the Whole Hog.