When Douglas Oliver passed away in the fall of 2017, the food world lost someone special. For more than 30 years, Oliver cooked hogs in a small town in South Carolina and made people happy, whether or not they knew who he was. Hidden in the pits, working through the night, probably most of the customers never even saw him. It was like their succulent, smoky pork just came out of nowhere. But Douglas Oliver, like every cook, busser, server, or dishwasher in every restaurant, has a name. And we remember that name with a story by Rien Fertel, author of The One True Barbecue.
Restaurant kitchens are full of unsung heroes, obscurity toilers, invisible workers like Douglas Oliver, who died this past October. For over three decades, Douglas worked as a pitmaster at Sweatman's Bar-B-Que in Holly Hill, SC. He called himself a "worker ant." His work was cooking whole-hog barbecue. Back in 2012, he invited me to stay up all night and watch him labor. It was brutal, tedious work: shoveling fresh coals under the hogs every 20 minutes from well before dusk to just after dawn. Peace and quiet kept him there, he told me. A place to think about the past and the future. A place to keep your head on straight.
"My momma always told me if you put something in it, you'll get something out of it," Oliver told me. "We start on Tuesday getting this thing ready for the weekend. We've got to gather wood, get the stuff ready, and clean up. Then on Thursday and Friday we cook. We're put a lot in it. It's a lot of hours. We're all putting it in, everybody, even the boss. Like the sign says: 'Sweat. A man.' That's it."
Douglas was born on a neighboring plantation farm, the son of sharecroppers, the youngest of thirteen. He started at Sweatman's right out of high school. Back then they fell their own trees for fuel. In 1989, he kept cooking as Hurricane Hugo toppled tree after tree surrounding the pithouse. When a famous food personality stopped by with a film crew, he ignored Douglas. When the episode aired, a manager (white, likely never cooked a hog in his entire life) was given credit for Oliver's work. For that, I insisted that he appear on the cover of my book, The One True Barbecue. Douglas calculated that he had cooked over 50,000 hogs — at 150-175 pounds apiece — throughout his life. Still, he refused to call himself a pitmaster. He was "just a cook," he told me. "That's it. Just a cook trying to do the right thing, trying to cook something good."
Hear Douglas Oliver interviewed by Rien Fertel at Sweatman's Bar-B-Que in this Southern Foodways Alliance video.
The barbecue in this part of South Carolina comes slathered in mustard sauce — golden in color. The sauce has never been my favorite, but on my first night with Douglas, he pinched a morsel of meat from the hog, still sizzling on the pit. As I wrote in my book: "He held this piece upward, like a mother bird feeding her nestlings, like a prospector examining his discovery in the light, this pure golden nugget glowing in the dark pit house, and handed it over to me." It was the best single bite of barbecue I have ever eaten.
Douglas had been sick for several years. His body wracked, inside and out, from a life shoveling fire, inhaling smoke and grease.
Douglas Oliver passed away on October 30, 2017, at the age of 56. He fed hundreds of thousands.
Okracast: Douglas Oliver of Sweatman's Bar-B-Que in Holly Hill, SC (Southern Foodways Alliance)
Rodney Scott on passing of pitmaster Douglas Oliver: It's like a legend left us (The Post and Courier)
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