They've cooked a whole cow before.
Last year, chefs BJ Dennis and Marcus Middleton participated in Gumbo Jubilee in New Orleans with host Howard Conyers, an S.C. native and pit master extraordinaire. "It was definitely an eye-opener," says Middleton. "Conyers gave us a lot of notes, lots of advice."
But they haven't cooked a whole animal here, together, using a cow from a local friend and farmer. Using every bit of the cow. Staying onsite for "the whole shebang," as Middleton puts it.
- Ruta Smith file
- Chef BJ Dennis
This Sunday's barbecue will take place somewhere on Wadmalaw (you receive the address when you purchase your ticket online) from 3 to 5 p.m. In addition to the meat, Dennis says there will be freshly baked brioche, sweet tea, leafy greens, turnip salad, and purloo. Dennis and Middleton will be cooking one of George and Celeste Albers' young bulls — it will only be a half, Dennis notes, because a whole cow would simply be too much food. Dennis says that on a visit to their farm, Celeste told him, "I've always wanted to do that with one of my cows."
Barbecue consumption in the Carolinas is nothing new; both frequent and fraught with controversy (family infighting, style disputes, a history permanently marred by both racial and political scars), Carolina 'cue is smoked, mopped, pulled, and eaten all over the state, iterations varying from region to region.
In fact, the history of barbecue in the Carolinas dates all the way back to colonial times. CP food critic and 'cue historian Robert Moss writes in Barbecue Lover's the Carolinas, "... the earliest historical references to barbecue explicitly discuss whole animals (most commonly, whole hogs) cooked over a bed of coals — that is, low and slow over direct heat ... By the early 18th century the English were cooking barbecue from the Carolinas all the way up to New England."
No hog for Dennis and Middleton, though. "It dates back to the 1700s," Dennis says of this whole animal barbecue tradition. "In the records, there is everything, goat, deer, cow, pig." While we now (at least around this neck of the woods) almost immediately associate barbecue with pork, in the 18th century, burgeoning pitmasters used whatever they could get. "The livestock for a barbecue was usually donated by members of the community," writes Moss. "And they gave whatever they had on hand and could spare. In addition to pigs and chickens, it was common to see beef cattle, oxen, sheep, lambs, and goats served."
As Moss details, the low and slow cooking of whole animals was an "essential thread in the social fabric of the Carolinas."
A thread woven into contrasting narratives: there were white hosts, free to throw barbecues whenever they were able, and enslaved hosts of African descent, who got loved ones together when they could. By the early 19th century, after a series of slave revolts around the country, the gatherings, Moss writes, "began to be seen as threats by slaveholders in the Carolinas" with govern—ments passing "one measure after another to clamp down on the few remaining liberties that both enslaved and free blacks once enjoyed, including the ability to gather for barbecues and other feasts."
So, in addition to paying "homage and respect to our ancestors," Middleton says the choice to cook a cow versus the standard hog is because "we love to cook, and it's a big challenge ... I reimagined those 28 hours working with Howard — to get these things in order, there are two parts to it. The day of the event, and the cooking process."
After culinary school, Middleton says he had a fire in him — he was hungry to learn everything about the food industry, and Dennis soon became his friend and mentor. Middleton says he was always interested in barbecue, that that was what got him cooking in the first place. He now owns and operates a personal chef and catering business, Middleton Made Cuisines, and in addition to private events, participates in pop-ups around town.
"Someone has to keep the fire going," says Middleton. Saturday will be a long day for the chefs, but he's ready. They'll do what pitmasters have done for centuries in the Lowcountry — cook the animal over direct heat, making sure the coals are hot, but not too hot. "We don't want to burn it, we want a mahogany-type cow," says Middleton. "I'll be ready mentally, spiritually, physically, you have to be sharp with all your senses."
The event is BYOB, but Middleton says he won't sip until they're almost finished — 20 to 24 hours is a long time to keep your wits about you. Before it meets the simmering heat of the pecan and oak wood, the animal will be scored, stuffed with garlic, thyme, and bay leaves; during the cooking process, the chefs will mop it with a special, secret blend. "In South Carolina, the whole hog is a big thing that's always done, not everyone has cooked a whole or half cow," Middleton says. "Maybe you've gotten brisket or short rib or T-bone steak or beef ribs, but the shredded meats all mixed together, the flavor and texture. It's another source of flavor, another kind of experience."
And when he does feel comfortable taking a swig? "A nice red wine would pair well."
The Sea Island Winter BBQ. Sun. Dec. 8. 3-5 p.m. $75. Purchase tickets on eventbrite.com.