When Howard Conyers cooks barbecue, the recipe includes community traditions as well as pork and savory sauce.
It would be hard for his neighbors in Central City to miss the fragrance of a whole hog simmering and crisping for hours over oak and hickory embers, in pits that Conyers and his welder father built using steel, sheet metal, cinder blocks and an old refrigerator.
“Barbecue is about community, a celebration; it’s how I grew up,” said Conyers, who was raised in Manning, South Carolina, and moved to Louisiana to work at the Stennis Space Center in 2009 after earning a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and materials science from Duke University.
A traditional South Carolina barbecue uses a whole hog, so none is wasted. Smoke tenderizes the tougher, less-desirable meats that were accessible to those laboring as slaves or sharecroppers. “They couldn’t be selective to get ribs, pork shoulder,” Conyers said. “They used what they had.”
“In the Carolinas, it might make some upset if they did not find a whole pig roasting,” Conyers said. “Barbecue strictly meant whole-hog barbecue, cooked over all wood. No Kingsford, gas, it was none of that.”
Barbecuing a whole hog takes a lot of time and labor. “It couldn’t happen if everyone didn’t come together,” Conyers said. The results are worth it, however, creating a meal that can serve an extended family of 50 or 60 people. Everyone pitches in, and everyone gets a seat at the table.
Recently, Conyers roasted three hogs for “From the Bayou to the Lowcountry,” a fundraiser held Oct. 18 at Kingsley House to raise money for the Clarendon County, South Carolina, Relief Fund for families affected by flooding there in early October.
The fundraiser provided an opportunity for some Louisianians who know good eating to sample Conyers’ work.
“I love what he does,” said Linda Green, who’s known as the “Yakamein Lady.” “I like the whole hog, the dark meat, and I love the skin!
“He knew what he was talking about,” Green said. “I saw the passion in how he deals with the pig. I’m glad he is continuing the tradition, keeping the flavors.”
“In Louisiana, cochon de lait is the closest; it’s whole hog but more open fire,” said Colleen Rush, co-author of “Low & Slow: Master the Art of Barbecue in 5 Easy Lessons.” South Carolina technique, Rush said, is “classic barbecue tradition; you get all the different pieces mixed in together. Not just white meat or shoulder, you get fatty bits, meaty bits, chewy, crunchy, fatty skin.”
“The gratification is, when it’s done, everybody who tastes it loves it,” New Orleans native and CarolinaQNola team member Eddie Smith said. “Many don’t understand what goes into it.”
Conyers sees his mission as promoting education as a vehicle for change. When the whole-hog feasting is over, he and his wife, Kathryn, continue to work for the betterment of their community, with a goal of helping young people in Central City know “anything is possible.”
“The only way to help change is to show different opportunities exist,” Conyers said. “Education has helped me to succeed. It can be a strong tool to get the youth of New Orleans to a better place.”
The Conyers family also shows its support for the community through work with Warren Easton High School; the Grow Dat Youth Farm; Dillard University’s Ray Charles Program in African-American Material Culture; and Young, Gifted and Classy etiquette courses.
“He and his wife, they care about people,” local businessman Andre Celestin said during the South Carolina flooding fundraiser.
“Good people are good people, in South Carolina or New Orleans,” Conyers said. “Barbecue goes across community lines, from the richest of the rich to the poorest of poor. It doesn’t exclude.”
Conyers will be curating “South Carolina Barbecue: Culture, Misconceptions and Preservation” Friday and Saturday at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, 1504 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., New Orleans. His offerings will also include a STEM presentation for young people.