For years, people of faith have journeyed from their homes to special places in the world. Jerusalem. Mecca. Camino de Santiago. Brunson Crossroads. Wait, Brunson Crossroads?
In South Carolina barbecue is a faith. And Brunson Crossroads is the home of Scott’s, a legend in the whole hog denomination.
Don’t get me wrong. There are many many great que joints near (Smoking Pig, Henry’s, Bobby’s), soon to be near (Home Team, Lewis) and far (McCabe’s, Brown’s, Sweatman’s) which provide satisfying barbecue and are worthy of your time; some even command a road trip. But a pilgrimage is different from a call ahead order while out running errands. A pilgrim strikes out to a far off place where the sole purpose in going is the search for expanded knowledge, with the journey being just as important as the destination. Nowhere else in South Carolina delivers that experience and opportunity for personal growth like a trek to Scott’s.
We have all suffered due to COVID-19, some more than others (and yes, we know our readers have suffered too as this is the first post in more than a year). The coronavirus ravaged our daily routines, and obliterated any opportunities to reach beyond what is directly in front of us. Now that the vaccines are taking hold and warmer weather has returned, it is time to consider reconnecting with your adventurous side with a pilgrimage to Scott’s.
Let’s get this out of the way first. You will hear people talk about Scott’s in Hemingway. Same place. Feel like a local by knowing that Hemingway is just the closest incorporated place and landmark of any size. Not much further away is Johnsonville (Hemingway and Johnsonville are just 4 miles apart and referred to locally as the Twin Cities, though they are in different counties). But I am getting ahead of myself.
Take the off-ramp from the infernal interstate and its focus on points A and B and nothing in the middle. Driving towards Brunson Crossroads you will quickly find yourself traversing the type of country that is often ignored and is increasingly unknown: rural America. Two lane blacktop, ditches on each side, with sandy roads branching off to the right and left and quickly disappearing into forest. Pick-up trucks and metal jon boats galore. Tractors on the road. Swamps. AME churches. Historical markers. Shuttered factories. Cotton fields. Collapsed tobacco barns. Volunteer fire departments. Used car lots in front yards. Roadside family plots with all manner of headstones. There is the mundane (litter, and gobs of it) and the unusual (a house shaped like an igloo). Most of all, for the pilgrim there is the ability to spend considerable uninterrupted time with your thoughts as you effortlessly drive at 60 mph for long stretches of traffic-free state roads, with the anticipation building.
As you come into Johnsonville, look left as you cross the Lynches River at the old Witherspoon’s Ferry location. This is the site where Francis Marion accepted command of the Williamsburg Militia in 1780, becoming the genesis of the Swamp Fox’s immortality. Johnsonville bills itself as the “Outpost to the Coast” (I give this about a 3 out of 5 on the small town slogan scale) and is also home to The Skinning Shed (presently selling catfish for $4/lb as well as frog legs, rabbit, and other true country fare; I once brought a wild hog I killed here for processing and told the lady I wanted the tenderloin and she looked at me like I was crazy). Towns like Johnsonville and Hemingway once served as the backbone of this region. As times have changed, there are many empty storefronts. Commerce is dominated by local convenience stores with names like “Betty’s Quick Stop” and “OM Mini Mart”, off brand grocers and motels, regional banks with names like “Anderson Brothers”, a prodigious scrap yard; there are a few familiar small town sights sprinkled in like multiple chain auto stores and a McDonald’s. And, of course, there are churches. One had a letter board out front that read “I want to be like Saul and be on the road to De-Mask-us” and I laughed out loud. Touché Rev., touché. There are even barbecue restaurants within just a couple of miles from Scott’s that appeared to be doing good business based on the parking lots on a Saturday afternoon.
Finally, past several beat up mobile homes and about the ugliest abandoned government building you can imagine, the crossroad comes into view and there it is: an old store sitting on the corner, at least 50 years young. Just 1.1 miles down the road to the left is the Tupperware plant, the only place in the US where the plastic to go containers are made and distributed (it’s a shame they don’t have a cooperative agreement with Scott’s as there are plenty of to go orders that would benefit).
Out front and across the road cars are parked somewhat haphazardly and one is always coming or going, usually backing up precariously into the road; on a busy day it can be a challenge to get your spot. True to form given the nature of the destination, you are just as likely to spot a late model Volvo SUV with out of state plates as you are to spot an older local sedan, as the commonality is the faith in the journey’s end. E pluribus unum.
Once you are on foot and standing in front, you realize it is like you have stepped into a time warp. The smoke smell is immediate, with the hint of cooked meat. The physical structure is really just a shell, and honestly a recent paint job made it lose some of its old time appeal, as did the removal of the ancient Scott’s Variety Store sign with its missing letters (full disclosure: I used an old picture I took for this post so you could see how it used to look). There is a relatively new pit house immediately to the right of the store; several fires scorched previous iterations.
Scott’s does whole hog barbecue, smoked over wood in concrete pits for hours on end, having started the practice in 1972. The hogs are cut down the belly, cleaned, and split open; they are cooked belly down first and then flipped one time towards the end. Their pits can accommodate about 20 hogs at a time, cooked over embers burned down from hardwood, itself split freshly out back before going into the burn barrel to create the natural charcoal. Strays hang around hoping for a hand-out and the remnants of old cooking gear is strewn about; again, this is the country, where land is plentiful and neighbors are not close.
Taking stock of the front, you see reminders that this used to be a true country store: concrete islands with overhead lights where the gas pumps were, bars on the windows, soda machine, sign reading “no drugs or loafers allowed”; in the summer, there are often watermelons in a box for sale in one of the several battered old grocery buggies sitting under the awning. There is a laminated menu tacked up along with the program from the homegoing ceremony for patriarch Roosevelt “Rosie” Scott, passed just three months ago. And of course there is the Scott’s B.B.Q. sign, changed some over the years. As more well-earned attention has come, there are even markers from government entities proclaiming the bona fides (although, criminally, one official Williamsburg County marker on site shows the 4 South Carolina sauce regions map and references a map copyright to “amazingribs.com”; I saw that map in my textbook in Professor Kovacik’s class at Carolina in 1998, and his book was published in 1987 - well before Al Gore invented the internet. You can read a 1993 article in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal about Professor Kovacik’s map here: https://www.goupstate.com/article/NC/19930712/News/605195568/SJ).
As you approach the entrance, you are reminded of (or, perhaps, learned of) the fact that Scott’s is. not. a. barbecue. restaurant. You are not there to eat and definitely not to be waited on; you are there to pick up. In fact the first time I journeyed to Scott’s about 15 years ago there was not a table inside. Today there is but one table, and the permit taped to the door by the fire marshal reinforces this with its occupancy limit: 3.
Once inside, look at the walls. While some famous proprietors steer away from politics (with one very notable exception in West Columbia), that is not the case at Scott’s. There is a poster of Congressman Jim Clyburn speaking with President Obama (“Jim has the President’s ear and we must have their backs!!!”), and photos of the family with Senators Sanders and Clinton.
There are also two great signs:
Credit is “Dead”
Funeral “Non” Sat.
Place County Jail
Burial in “Hell”
Rev. “Devil” in Charge
* * *
You must have “shirt”, “shoes”, and “no drop down pants” or you will be asked to leave!
I can only imagine the circumstances that led to these two signs, but they have been hanging for years. There are also numerous hometown touches, like photos of high school athletes and festivals.
The whole experience is both cutting edge and old-timey, refined yet achingly simple. And, because it is barbecue, it transcends race and class amongst the patrons.
Finally you reach the end of the line - the counter where you will give your order. The pork is the star, and there was a time when Scott’s sold nothing else but pig (in addition to barbecue, ribs and skins). Now there are a couple of sides (beans, cole slaw, potato salad), but I have never given a thought to ordering them. Or the chicken, although I would guess it is strong to quite strong. The skins are worth it, the fried variety coming in a stuffed baggie for $3 at the counter or even better you can ask for fresh cracklin to be put in with your pork if they have any left.
I believe - strongly - in expectation management, but are you ever in for a treat if you make it to Scott’s. While the journey is important, the destination wins the day with remarkable strands of smoke-kissed, spicy, tender, flavorful, timeless, simple yet complex, wood-fired goodness. Much has been written about this pork, and I have nothing to add except it is on time and you will not be disappointed.
Barbecue comes by the pound ($12.84 per) and includes a cup of their famous “atomic” sauce (we are in the Pee Dee so this is obviously of the vinegar and pepper variety; the hogs were sauced while cooking and you really don’t need extra sauce unless you really want to spice it up). You can buy a whole cooked hog for $600 and a gallon of sauce for $25 if you are feeling flush. You can also buy a bag of white bread by the sliced loaf as well as bottled drinks. Bring greenbacks though, as credit cards are not accepted. But you knew that already.
Scott’s is open on Wednesday through Saturday. It’s 213 miles from Greenville to Hemingway. What are you waiting for?