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When His Pit Burned Down, Southern BBQ Master Took Hogs On Tour

Pitmaster Rodney Scott seasons a roasting hog behind a barbecue restaurant in Birmingham, Ala. Scott has been touring the South with a makeshift barbecue pit to raise money to rebuild his family's cookhouse after it burned down in November.

In the tiny town of Hemingway, S.C., the Scott family has been selling barbecue out of its roadside general store for nearly a half-century. The smoky, vinegary pork has reached legendary status around the South.

So when the Scotts' wooden cookhouse went up in flames late last year, barbecue brethren cooked up a plan to get them back in business. What resulted is a part road trip, part old-fashioned barn-raising tour called Rodney Scott's Bar-B-Que in Exile Tour.

The goal is to raise at least $100,000, part of which will be used to help the Scotts rebuild, this time with metal materials so they can insure the barbecue pits. What's left will establish a fund to help preserve regional food traditions.

Pit master Rodney Scott is now on his fifth leg of the tour and has set up shop behind Jim 'N Nick's Bar-B-Q on the south side of Birmingham, Ala.

Scott greets old friends as he tends to a makeshift pit crafted from aluminum sheeting. Inside the big metal box is a 180-pound whole hog.

"We butterfly it down the middle and put it belly side down for eight to 12 hours," Scott says. "Then we'll take burnt wood down to the embers and scatter it under the hog for a low slow roast."

The embers come from his rustic burn barrel — two 55-gallon drums welded together. Scott feeds hunks of hickory, oak and pecan through the top, then pulls hot coals from below to stoke the pit.

Scott's whole hogs are butterflied down the middle and roasted for eight to 12 hours, then bathed in his family's secret sauce.
/ Debbie Elliott/NPR
Scott's whole hogs are butterflied down the middle and roasted for eight to 12 hours, then bathed in his family's secret sauce.

He likes to keep it around 250 degrees, but there's no thermometer — just his ear. As he bends close to the fire, listening for the drippings, a hissing sound escapes.

"That's the fat rendering through the meat," Scott says. "When it drips into the fire, the steam shoots right back up into the meat."

It's a technique passed down from his mom and dad, who were his business partners at Scott's Bar-B-Que back in their hometown.

"I grew up cooking the barbecue there," he says. "We're very close-knit — all three of us work together every day."

At just 11 years old, Scott cooked his first hog. "It was a challenge from my dad and I took the challenge and did the best that I could," Scott says. "It turned out all right."

Now 42, Scott has graduated to pit master and is considered one of the finest barbecuers in the South.

"I'm pretty much considered the new generation pit master, but my soul feels old," Scott says.

He used to spend four days a week up all night tending to two or three roasting hogs. But that came to a halt last November when the family's pit room caught fire.

When a greasy pig catches, Scott says, it's uncontrollable.

"The fire department says when they came it was shooting like a torch," Scott says of the fire. "The building being old and wooden, up top, it just kept on going."

The good news was that nobody got hurt. But his family had no insurance. And that's where his friends are stepping in.

Scott is part of a group of Southern celebrity chefs, restaurateurs and pork aficionados dubbed " The Fatback Collective." To help get Scott's business back and running, the group has staged a series of fundraising dinners like the one at Jim 'N Nick's.

"He's part of our family and we said let's get him rebuilt so we don't lose," says host Nick Pihakis. "Rodney Scott is too important."

Pihakis, a founding member of the Fatback Collective, says Scott is taking the art of cooking to the next generation.

"I think that's so critical to keep that alive and keep it going," he says. "If he's willing to do that, why would we not help him?"

Back outside Jim 'N Nick's, Scott has flipped his roasted pig, and is using a full-size mop to bathe it in his family's mostly secret sauce.

"Vinegar, pepper, some more pepper, some love," he says.

He offers up a taste to the lucky few who have gathered round the pit.

"Yes, no, should I run for the hills?" he asks. "Everybody happy?"

They are. Scott smiles. He says whole hog barbecue is more than food, or tradition. It's about bringing people together.

The Rodney in Exile tour makes its final pit stop tonight in Charleston, S.C.

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