A Rocket Scientist Wants to ‘Nourish’ Your Love of Barbecue

Let’s be clear: there is a chasm of difference between “grilling out” and authentic barbecue. A summer gathering over hastily charred hot dogs, hamburgers and ears of corn may be called a backyard barbecue in certain circles, but, for others, that’s close to blasphemy.

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Howard Conyers pours South Carolina-style barbecue sauce onto a whole hog he slow-cooked. Image courtesy of “Nourish.”

The first episode of “Nourish,” the new PBS Digital Studios series featuring rocket scientist Howard Conyers, will help you understand why.

“Authentic barbecue to me is the cooking of whole pigs over wood fire or charcoal, low and slow,” Conyers said to Rewire. “Barbecue to most…, is any meat that is cooked low and slow.”

Conyers, a legit NASA rocket scientist by day, is a South Carolina whole hog pitmaster, meaning he specializes in cooking whole pigs in a pit over coals. The entire process can take up to 13 hours from start to finish, and the meat is topped off with a vinegar- and mustard-based sauce, traditional to South Carolina. It’s a method he learned from his father, passed down through generations of cooks.

“Barbecue is my passion because it pays honor to my ancestors in South Carolina who had significant roles in defining this American cuisine,” Conyers said. “Barbecue connects me to my culture and community because I get to continue and pass down a tradition in cooking with direct heat pits, similarly to what was done over 100 years ago in nearly exactly an identical manner, except the earth-dug pits have been replaced with above-ground pits.”

Pitmaster to the rescue

You’ll likely find yourself in a barbecue situation at some point this summer. Rewire asked Conyers to share some of his best practices:

What elements define the perfect barbecue gathering?

Howard Conyers: The perfect barbecue has great food and seasonal-appropriate sides. Sides might be watermelon, sliced cucumbers, fresh crowder peas and either a blackberry or peach cobbler. However, what really makes the barbecue special is the people enjoying this food over great music, for instance, music by DJ Jubilee, a leader of the New Orleans Bounce movement, or a classic like “Summertime” by the Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff.

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Howard Conyers looks at the plan he drew up for his own portable barbecue pit. Image courtesy of “Nourish.”

What are the best veggies to grill with meats?

HC: Veggies that I particularly enjoy grilling with meats include Brussels sprouts, squash and asparagus, and my favorite—sweet potatoes.

Any tips for grilling meat substitute?

HC: For grilling faux meats, I would definitely recommend cooking them over a charcoal or wood heat source. I cooked a Beyond Meat burger recently, and I placed cold pressed okra oil on a piece of aluminum foil to add another layer of flavor while grilling, which (could) be replaced with olive oil or sesame oil if okra oil is hard to find.

What are the top tools you need to be a backyard BBQ boss?

HC: A grill, tongs, some gloves and a mop for basting meats if needed. Finally, you need a good cellphone camera, so you share your food and the community you created (on Instagram) or Snapchat. Do it for social media, so we can be jealous and drool over your food!

Pass the plate

While the first episode of “Nourish” features Conyers’ personal story, future episodes will focus on the food of other cultures, and the people creating those dishes.

“Food … is the quickest and (easiest) way to learn about someone else’s culture,” Conyers said. “I attended a potluck recently where I was able to learn a lot about Korean culture when talking about the kimchi stew and Korean fish being served. Vice versa, I was able to share foods that African Americans eat and why we eat things like rice and peas a lot.”

To learn more, subscribe to the “Nourish” YouTube channel.

Marissa Blahnik

Marissa is managing editor of Rewire and an award-winning digital and broadcast media producer. She identifies as a Leo, a Jersey girl, and a musical theater fanatic.