Barbecue Babylon

Hite’s Bar-B-Q, the dash between Batesburg and Leesville.

Pick a day when you will be starving for traditional pit-cooked barbecue and make the 63-mile drive to Jackie Hite’s Barbecue just off Highway 23 in Leesville. You’ll know you’re in the right place when you park by the tracks and inhale the delicious aroma of hogs sizzling over hickory coals. Look for wisps of smoke and look for the patriarch of pork, Jackie Hite, who barbecues hogs the old-fashioned, traditional way. 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.

Hite burns 4-foot logs of hickory in a firebox where pitmaster Tim Hyman wears a path to the pits carrying shovels of red coals, which he spreads beneath sizzling half hogs. A picky type once asked Hite how he knew the coals were hot enough. “If them hogs ain’t smoking and ain’t dripping, they ain’t cooking,” replied Hite, who’s been cooking hogs for 42 years.

Hite’s operation functions like a well-oiled machine. He’s got a veteran crew that knows what it’s doing. “I’ve had the same crew all my life. Some people just like to work,” said Hite. And some folks, make that a lot of folks, just like to eat his barbecue. Inside the buffet you’ll see 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 — a 25-hour process. “Sloshing mustard sauce on hogs makes it real barbecue,” he said, pulling on the bill of his Gamecock cap. (You won’t catch him without that cap.) Now and then he’ll pull out a 4-foot 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’s lessons. “I could be a cop without a gun. Folks respect me ‘cause I do the right thing.”

You can boil Hite’s approach down to seven words: hogs, hickory, fire, smoke, sauce and hungry people. As the hogs simmer and mustard sauce rains down 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!’ ” Every so often they cover 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. Outside folks queue up at 10:45, eager to get Hite’s barbecue.

A food reviewer wrote that it’s worth driving 100 miles to eat at Hite’s. For sure it’s worth driving 63. Make the trip to Hite’s. About $22 will feed two. The buffet opens at 11 o’clock in the morning. Once you get good and full, visit Leesville’s Historic College District and Batesburg’s Commercial Historic District. Walk around a bit. You’ll need to. And know that Jackie Hite, who served as mayor in these parts, put the hyphen between Batesburg and Leesville. “I helped bring these two towns together.”

Learn more about Tom Poland, a Southern writer, and his work at www.tompoland.net. Email day-trip ideas to him at [email protected]