You "can't hardly find" barbeque in Upstate South Carolina if you're unlucky enough to be visiting the region mid-week. Upstate BBQ eateries are open Thursday through Saturday, customarily; Wednesday through Saturday, if you're lucky.
It was Monday evening, we were in Clemson, where I used to teach journalism. The Circle M and The Smoking Pig were closed tight as ticks, and The B&B, up in Six Mile, was just too far uphill for two weary travelers. It had been another summer day of mid-90s heat, and we were plumb tuckered, after driving around Anderson County looking at "old home places," Federal-era farmhouses (two up; two down; elegant additions out the back; gorgeous fireplaces on each end).
So... we moseyed over to Clemson's Esso Club which, as I recalled from my days at the university, had some pretty decent pulled pork, even if it was better known as a student watering hole.
Well, in the years since I'd last been there, The Esso Club had morphed into a... mega-sports-bar, punctuated by huge flat-screens, intelligently amusing items of bar-décor, and literate, drop-dead-gorgeous wait staff (with a Ducati out front, people smoking real cigarettes on the wrap-around porch, and lots of fine beers we'd never heard of on tap).
By the way, I can do no better than reporters Candice Bell and David Brown, whose A Brief History of The Esso Club is carried in its entirety on the bar's website. This bar's worth a detour off I-85, should you ever be heading South or North on that endless interstate.
We wove in between the bar stools to the left of the long bar, asking what had become of the owners I'd known a decade earlier.
There, we were directed by the bartender-cum-ballerina-cum-marketing-major, Kathryn Chappell, to the right end of the bar, where Clemson's Democrats were holding forth, and actually self-identifying. (The left side of the bar is firmly defended Republican territory, we learned.)
Ted Balk and Kathryn Chapell at The Esso Club, Clemson, S.C.
At the right end, where we could sit and watch MSNBC for the first time since leaving New Jersey, Ted Balk was ensconced, with a beer, so we sat awhile amidst his gaggle of close friends, one of whom owns the Ducati--Balk told us this particular motorcycle is a 1997 Monster (Il Monstro in Italian), perhaps the fastest street bike made in 1997, and added, "The way Larry rides it, it may still be." -- and caught up on The Esso Club's recent history (which I'd missed, having been exiled in New Jersey for the past decade).
Ted, who lives about midway between Central (Pop. 3,000) and Pendleton (Pop. 3,800, excluding CU students), told us that, during the last national elections, when things seemed to be going poorly for the Republicans, they switched their widescreen to The Cooking Channel and so have ever since been known to those at the right end of the bar as The Cooking Channel Party.
This was all said in good fun: most of the regulars here are Clemson faculty, employees and students, all of whom are fond of the school and not prone to duking it out over politics at The Esso.
The bar, itself, is a stone's throw from the rich playing fields, stadiums and historic buildings of CU. Get drunk at The Esso, and you can crawl home. I suspect many do just that during football season.
Even on a slow Monday night in July, the parking lot was packed. We pulled into, literally, the last place, and went in to try the pulled pork and something called "onion buds" (delicious), and procured for Dean a beer on tap we'd never heard of.
Kathryn Chappell brought my husband samples of New Belgian Somersault and Kona Koko Brown, both of which were delicious. He chose the less exotic beer, the Koko Brown, and went through a couple of glasses with his pork.
Ted Balk then told us the story of his life. He described himself as "a semi-retired, consulting civil engineer and flaming Capital-L Liberal," adding, "Another engineer friend of mine once described me as one of only two engineers he'd ever met who was a true intellectual." We seconded that opinion.
A proud veteran of what he called "the Vietnam debacle," and a former peripatetic hippie and communard," Balk is a rara avis in Red-State-South-Carolina. Was he, perhaps, a Yankee transplant? No way. As an 8th-generation South-Carolinian who has taught at The University of South Carolina at Columbia, the University of Georgia at Athens, and Clemson, I immediately extracted his bona fides as a fellow descendant of early Southern settlers.
It's something that marks me, Ted, and many others as the real McCoy. Conversations such as ours usually start out with an innocent-sounding, "So, where are your people from?" and then one is quickly thrown back 200 years. Ted and I both had forebears who'd settled in Georgia; but both of us were very liberal Democrats, rare as hens' teeth hereabouts.
Ted waxed more specific. "Incidentally," he admitted, "I'm not from the ipstate. I moved here in 1974 when I came to Clemson as a 25-year-old freshman. Mama and Papa moved more or less directly across the Savannah River in 1946 and raised us in Barnwell County in the lower midlands."
Not a native South Carolinian? Ah well, none of us is perfect.
However, Ted and his clutch of Liberal friends were true-Blue Obama-Democrats.
Said Ted, "It's tough being a liberal in South Carolina. That's one of the reasons our crew gathers regularly at The Esso Club. We often claim, on Friday afternoons, to be the largest collection of Democrats in the state. There may be as many as 10 or 15 of us. [My jaw dropped.] We not only get cold, cheap beer here, but we reinforce our allegiance to the forces of good in the face of overwhelming numbers who lean otherwise. We are all very nervous about what an Obama loss would mean to the country. The Republican agenda is a complete repeal of the New Deal and the Great Society, returning the country to the 19th century. Hell, South Carolina has just made it into the 20th as it stands."
A man after my own heart.
Why Dean and I were eating again on Monday was truly beyond me, but any transplanted-Northeast Southerner will understand a compulsion to consume just about everything local and authentic in sight if one is fortunate enough to get home for a week or 10 days.
In the morning, I'd headed straight for the local Ingle's supermarket to stock up on cans of field peas and snaps, crowder peas and black-eyed peas -- the good brands, without MSG but with a hint of bacon.
Becky & Earl Dyar at their "Meat & Three" in Pendleton S.C.
We'd had lunch at Dyar's Diner: Buffet Bliss, a so-called "Meat & Three" (translation: a typically Southern serving of meat plus three sides of vegetables) located in Pendleton S.C., where I lived for over a decade before locating North, not entirely by choice, to Teaneck, NJ.
Dyar's, where I ate approximately 3-5 times a week while teaching at Clemson, was closed the week of July Fourth, an upstate tradition which began with the annual closing of the area's textile mills for the holiday weekend. This year, however, with the Fourth falling mid-week, Becky and Earl Dyar and their entire staff had decamped for seven whole days, leaving us meat-and-three-less in Clemson.
This morning, however, they were back in place, along with Chef Susie Willingham, of Townville (where all my mother's people rest in peace in the Townville Baptist Church's cemetery).
The menu board today -- and you can call Dyar's menu line, 864.646.6437, for any given day's offerings -- comprised: Meats: baked chicken, fried chicken, country steak, and Brunswick stew; Cold Items: cole slaw, carrot & raisin salad, and peaches; Veggies: mashed potatoes, green beans, turnip greens, macaroni & cheese [and Susie's is to die for], stewed tomatoes [Becky's recipe to follow], fried okra, rice & gravy, and blackeyed peas; plus Dessert: blackberry cobbler.
Of course, we also had cornbread and sweet-tea.
In 1958, Becky Adamsom, of Marked Tree, Arkansas, met and soon married Earl Dyer, of Pendleton, when Earl was stationed near her in Millington, Tennessee. Becky's two sisters had worked in restaurants, and so she'd always wanted to give the restaurant business a shot, too. In 1985, Earl took out a large-for-then loan and the couple opened their first tiny place in Pendleton, serving hotdogs, hamburgers, and not much else.
In 1992, they built and opened the new place, were immediately "discovered" by Greater Clemson, and now serve some 400 to 450 Upstate diners just on Sundays: everything's gone by noon. The rest of the week, too, one must show up early or go home hungry.
. . .
Becky Dyar's Stewed Tomatoes
Bring to a boil in a saucepan:
Large can Hunt's diced tomatoes (c. 12-14oz.)
3 T brown sugar
3 T margarine or butter
Add slowly and mix well:
4 T cornstarch
Pour mixture into a buttered casserole dish, and top with crumbled bread rolls combined with melted margarine or butter to cover. Bake at 350 degrees for c. 20 minutes or until topping browns.
. . .
Said Becky, "When we first started out in the first little-ole restaurant, we opened two cans of green beans and served one pan of mashed potatoes, with about 20 pieces of chicken. Now, on Sunday, we serve twelve large pans of macaroni & cheese and, per week, go through about 600 pieces of chicken."
Chef Susie Willingham and assistant servers behind the blissful buffet at Dyar's.
Our time in South Carolina was fast drawing to a close, and I realized we'd be leaving before we could eat at any of my three favorite barbeque restaurants (listed below for those luckier than I).
Nor was I going to be able to take Susie-the-Chef out for coffee, or meet Ted again at The Esso Club to swap tales about our overlapping slices of The South, new and old.
I was mightily disappointed.
But, as our great Southern bard, William Faulkner writes, "Happen is never once," and I knew I'd be back to Clemson, Townville, Pickens and Anderson in precisely a year's time, which is about as long as I can stay away.
Locals Taylor Pucetas and Tiffany Ruff serving up "Meat & Three" at Wade's, Spartanburg S.C.
Our last stop on The Great South Carolina Culinary Road Trip of 2012 would be Wade's, in Spartanburg, nominally on our way home to New Jersey.
Four years before I was born, Wade's came into existence as a tiny, clapboard grocery-cum-lunch-counter touting "curb service" and seating six diners. That was in 1947. Today, Wade's seats 400, has a staff of 125 and, per day, serves 2,500 diners, bakes 3,500 homemade yeast rolls, brews 260 gallons of iced tea, and dishes up over 700 pounds of fried chicken.
In 2008, Southern Living magazine, that bible of upscale popular culture, from Memphis to Mobile, awarded Wade's a first place Readers' Choice Award among family restaurants, beating out Lady and Sons of Savannah GA and Paula Deen's
Hamp Lindsay and his sister Carole Lindsay Miller, who own Wade's, were tickled pink to have beat out Paula Deen. What most impresses me, though, is that it was Hamp and Carole's parents, Wade and Betty Lindsey, who first opened that tiny little old eatery in 1947: Wade's really is a local, Southern, family restaurant.
Dean and I cannot come South without eating at Wade's. He always has their Meat & Three: a fried chicken breast and wing, stewed okra and tomatoes, cole slaw (the best in the South, as far as we're concerned) and macaroni and cheese (not quite as good as Becky Dyar's in Pendleton).
I always have the vegetable plate, as I'm leaving room for Wade's Peanut Butter Pie: navy beans, sweet potato soufflé (deadly), cucumber and onion salad, and navy beans.
Dean somehow wedged in French Chocolate Silk Pie afterwards, and we went out, bound for New Jersey, with to-go, sweet-tea cups.
By the way, our bill, for more food than it was humanly possible to consume, stellar service, and the true Southern ambience of Wade's came to $21.25. Well worth the drive.
Carole was kind enough to e-mail me one of Wade's signature dessert recipes, which I include here, a pie developed by a former Wade's waiter.
. . .
Brian Laughinghouse's Banana Split Pie
1 C powdered sugar
½ C butter, softened
¼ C liquid eggs
½ t vanilla extract
1 graham cracker pie crust
2 bananas, sliced
20 oz can crushed pineapple, well drained
2 C whipped topping
Beat first 4 ingredients at medium speed with an electric mixer until fluffy and smooth. Spread the mixture into the bottom of the graham cracker pie shell. Top the filling with sliced bananas. Follow with drained pineapple. Finish with whipped topping, sealing the edges. Sprinkle with chopped pecans. Chill for 1 hour. Garnish before serving with chocolate syrup and top with a maraschino cherry.
. . .
Postscript For those more fortunate than we, the three finest (in our estimation) Barbeque Restaurants in Upstate South Carolina are: 1) The Circle M BBQ, 345 Martin Sausage Road, Liberty SC 29657, 864.375.9133; 2) The Smoking Pig, 6630 Hwy 76, Pendleton SC 29670, 864.646.5150/7827; and 3) The B&B BBQ, 3020 Walhalla Hwy, Six Mile SC 29682, 864.868.9200.
Photos by the author. The author's "especial thanks" to Mr. Theodore Balk of Central S.C.