Q&A with Rien Fertel of 'The Barbecue Bus'

Contributor
Duo finds history, tradition, and family along the South Carolina BBQ trail
Danny Culbert / The Barbecue Bus

The last time you stopped in a town populated by just fewer than 500 people, it probably wasn’t so you could grab some barbecue. You probably just stopped for some gas, and moved on.

But The Barbecue Bus is on a mission. It’s been travelling all summer through exactly these sorts of barely-on-the-map towns, spending days in each place as it follows a barbecue trail through South Carolina.

The drivers, food historian Rien Fertel and his best friend, photographer Denny Culbert, aren’t just in it for the tasty perks. Their mission is to document and share the rich historical culture behind these storied barbecue destinations to reveal just how essential barbecue is to the Southern tradition and identity. Along the way, they’ve had some pretty amazing ‘cue, but the stories they hear are the real treat.

The Daily Meal chatted with Rien about the project’s background and the duo’s mission. Here’s what he had to say. For more stories and photography, check out the Barbecue Bus blog.

Tell me a bit about how this project got started.

I started working with the Southern Foodways Alliance in the summer of 2008. I went to Memphis and did a barbecue trail in west Tennessee, documenting 24 barbecue places.

Then, they offered for me to do some more barbecue trails in North Carolina, and I wanted to bring Denny because he’s my best friend and I wanted someone to capture some really great photography.

We were originally going to drive one of our cars and stay in cheap motels and spend as little money as possible, but my parents offered me the use of their RV, which was brand new. And then I took it, and it worked out. It gives you a place to live and gives you a sort of identity.

After North Carolina they offered us the chance to do South Carolina. The assignment was eight barbecue establishments, and we took it because we wanted to explore a new part of the country and a new barbecue culture. 

   

Are there major differences between barbecue in North Carolina and South Carolina?
North Carolina has two very, very separate barbecue cultures: In west/central North Carolina, they cook shoulders and they chop the barbecue really fine, and they have sauce that’s ketchup-based. In east Carolina, they have a kind of spicy vinegar sauce and several places still do whole hog. And they still chop it very fine.

South Carolina is very, very different. There are four sauce regions: a mustard one, which is the most well-known, a spicy vinegar one, and a tomato-y one. It’s kind of a patchwork of other barbecue cultures, except for the mustard one. That’s all their own. 

          

I think a lot of people are likely to think of Red Hot & Blue when they hear "barbecue." Where would you say that style comes from?

I point to Memphis for that style. It’s very, very spicy, tomato-y ketchup, similar to kinds you buy in the grocery store. In Memphis they do ribs, which is what we also think of when we think of barbecue. In the Carolinas, very few places will cook up a rack of ribs.