News from campus and beyond

Where there’s smoke, there’s BBQ: MayX pulls apart the tradition

Jeff Little, co-owner of Mike and Jeff’s BBQ in Greenville, right, talks to students in the “BBQ-It’s a Noun, Not a Verb” MayX course.

Last updated May 22, 2024

By Clinton Colmenares, Director of News and Media Strategy

Mark Britt’s MayX class of about a dozen Furman University students crowded into a shed in front of Mike & Jeff’s BBQ on Old Buncombe Road in Greenville, South Carolina, making their way past wood smoke so thick and rich it’s like a dry, fragrant fog. Midday sun seeped through the shed’s open sides but it’s still dark as dusk. Over the past 21 years the smoke has passed over pork shoulders, ribs and chicken, imparting flavor before clinging to the ceiling, walls, shelves, everything, turning the place dark as a creosote cave.

With the giddiness of a middle-aged man talking about his grandkids Jeff Little taught the students about meat bathing in smoke and low heat for 16 hours, the all-important smoke itself and the ins and outs of running a barbecue joint.

Students sit around a plain wooden table while a man in a purple Furman shirt talks.

Mark Britt, professor of music, talks with his MayX class about barbecue.

The students in “BBQ: It’s a Noun, Not a Verb” spend three weeks learning the many facets of the ancient method of cooking meat that’s become a pop culture phenomenon in recent years. They cover the history of barbecue, inherent racism and appropriation, the environmental impact of cooking with wood and creating demand for hogs and cattle reared en masse by corporate conglomerates, and business models that keep restaurants open.

“There are a little over 15,000 barbecue joints in the United States. The demand for meat supply is huge.  We’ve looked at wood sourcing. That’s a lot of impact,” said Britt, a professor of music who teaches low brass instruments, but whose thing is barbecue.

Another topic the class explores is diversity. In an industry dominated for decades by white men, “we’ve seen female pitmasters, African American pitmasters, immigrant pitmasters,” Britt said.

The class also gets to eat. Britt mapped out barbecue joints within a 40-mile radius of Furman that, he says, represent the four styles of South Carolina cue sauces (mustard, vinegar and pepper, thin tomato and thick tomato), plus some Kansas City and Texas styles.

In addition to Mike & Jeff’s, they’re visiting Henry’s Smokehouse, Moohogz, Bobby’s, the Pig in the Park BBQ Festival, Lewis BBQ, Smokin’ Butt Heads. They also drove out to Providence Farm, in Liberty, South Carolina, where hogs roam in pastures, and Circle M BBQ, where Providence pigs become barbecue pork.

Near the end of the MayX session, Britt will discuss how each student’s major relates to barbecue. For instance, the sustainability of the industry and sustainability science. Or, for music majors, Black pitmasters followed the northern migration of Black jazz musicians.

The students’ final projects are to identify and present information on 10 barbecue restaurants worth visiting within 10 miles of an interstate in South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky, or within 15 miles in Texas. Given the growth of the barbecue business, limiting their finds to 10 might be the hardest part of the class.

Contact Us
Clinton Colmenares
Director of News and Media Strategy