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3-Course Interview: Howard Conyers

Talking with the barbecue master who’s also a rocket scientist



Growing up in rural South Carolina, Howard Conyers pit-barbecued his first whole hog at age 11, a tradition his father taught him. Now an engineer for NASA and a Central City resident, he spends his days testing rocket engines at the John C. Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. He also carries on the tradition of South Carolina-style barbecue, a practice ... he believes often is misunderstood. On Nov. 6, Conyers is leads an overnight barbecue presentation at the Southern Food & Beverage Museum to demonstrate South Carolina barbecue traditions and spark youths' interest in science and engineering careers.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about South Carolina- style barbecue?

Conyers: Barbecue is a celebratory thing in South Carolina. It's not simply a meal; it's a way to bring people together. For my family, we reserved it for special occasions, whether it was the holidays or a church homecoming.

  For me, the biggest misconception out there is that South Carolina barbecue is just pulled pork. ... A lot of people think that it's simply a vinegar-based or mustard-based sauce, which it's not. The way I grew up and always understood it to be was always a whole-hog barbecue. ... It's pit-cooked. Its origins come from when (people) cooked in the ground with direct heat. It's different from a barbecue with a smoking box on the side. ... That style tends to be a lot smokier. With direct heat, you still have smoky flavor, but it's not as smoky.

  (The meat) cooks for anywhere from 10 to 12 hours. It's not a "walk away" process. ... I'm putting coals underneath the hog every 30 or 40 minutes. I don't use thermometers; it's a thing of real patience.

How does science and engineering relate to barbecue?

C: As human technology has improved, the process of cooking has improved. When I cook barbecue now, I think more technically about it. ... I think more about the (cooking) apparatus. Even though it's something simply made, I put more engineering where I'm thinking, "How can I make this more functional to do the job in a more efficient way?" To make sure it's better insulated or it's better able to hold (the pig). ... [O]r I think about ... what would make it easier for me to move around, to transport it? That takes some engineering and math. When I first started cooking in New Orleans ... I had to design a pit that I could use to cook without having any backyard or access to a trailer.

How does understanding science and engineering improve cooking outside of barbecue?

C: Even if you are cooking in your own house, understanding (science) can make a big difference. For instance, some ovens are very high-tech, whether you work with conduction ovens or convection ovens. Understanding why you have air circulating in your oven to help circulate heat better is one thing that will help you appreciate the process. Even something as simple as adding a little bit of water in the bottom of the oven (can change) the outcome. There are several things about heat control which can alter your product. A lot of cooks like gas better because (they) can control it better than electric, but there are some things about electric stoves that you can't do with gas. ... If you can understand what's going on behind that, it helps.

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