You’ll know you’re in the Lowcountry when your boots sink into the ground a few inches. Ocean tides saturate the 200-mile stretch of coastal South Carolina and Georgia, dicing up the sandy soil into a muddy labyrinth of islands, peninsulas and estuaries. From the lowest muck of the marsh to the highest, driest islands — Savannah and Charleston included — history, culture and life teem, vibrant and unusual.
We were out exploring that life, lost somewhere in the backwaters of a lonely sea island, when a wise Queen cracked us open a nut of local wisdom. “You never learn about the heart of a community from a museum,” she said. “You never learn about the heart of that community by going to the festival. You should always go out. Go down those dirt roads. Go along that shoreline. Go with the people who actually live the culture every day. And then you can feel a pulse of it. Then you get the heart of it.”
And so we did. We broke bread with five people whose roots are buried deep in the mud, concrete and steel of the Lowcountry. These are their stories.
Bryan Furman, B’s Cracklin BBQ
“When I got there that morning, I was like, ‘Somebody burnt me down,’” says Bryan Furman. Behind him, in his outdoor barbecue pit, a hellfire visage adds drama to his line of reasoning: a monstrous steel barbecue grill, bleeding heat and smoke like a steam locomotive engine, neon-orange coals peeking out from the two opened vents of its furnace. The ribs and pork butt inside are crisped and blackened — just like his first barbecue joint, the original B’s Cracklin’, that morning about a year ago. He had just been ranked among the best barbecue restaurants in the South by Southern Living. “The paper published a story about us being ranked fourteenth in the top fifty Southern barbecue joints and titled it ‘B’s Cracklin’ Smokes the Competition.’ Title like that, and we burn down the next week.”
I ask him what happened. Furman plays with his hands, tattooed with burn scars, one finger heavily taped. “They said it was the Coca-Cola machine. Firefighter said when [Coca-Cola] came out to service it, they over-charged it with Freon. It basically boiled and made a bomb and blew up. That’s why we got Pepsi products now.”
Furman’s is a story of the roller-coaster American dream, accomplished by way of hard work, character, meat, fragrant smoke, heat and time. His mom taught him to cook, with particular attention to the topic of family-recipe, Southern-style sides. His dad taught him the basics of barbecue — on purpose and inadvertently. “He taught me never boil your meat, put everything on raw and slow cook it. But he didn’t have patience for stuff like butts, which take forever. They’d always end up tough. I’d always be like, ‘Hey Dad, you need to leave that on a little bit longer.’ He’d be like, ‘Naw, it’s ready.’ Then he’d put it back on the smoker.”
“These ribs right here, they’ve been cooking five hours. They’re ready when you can sink your fork into the thickest part.”
tFurman grew up and became a laser operator and a welder, but the seeds had been planted. In 2010, he cooked a half pig for his daughter’s birthday party. He couldn’t stop. He brought his barbecue to work one day, and his coworkers asked him if he’d sell it. So he did. He started catering. He cashed in his 401(k) and bought the original space for B’s Cracklin’. He started selling, and he started making a name for himself — started smoking the competition.
Then, Murphy’s Law, by way of the damned Coke machine.
Barbecuers from all over the South flowed into town to help out their fellow man. There were fundraisers and hog roasts and hour-and-a-half-long lines to pay up and get a young prodigy back on his feet. “We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the outpouring of love and support of the community,” Bryan’s wife, Nikki, told a local paper, Business In Savannah, when they opened their new location.
That Furman is here now, chattering away about barbecue, is indicative of a few moral platitudes. The standard stuff: the hard work; the refusal to give up after the world deals you a big kick in the groin; the character to take it all and not let the gleam of positivity in your eyes dwindle and die. But what about the benchmark for his meat that’s never wavered, that’s allowed him to reach the apex of a beloved Southern cooking style, get tossed off the cliff and haul himself all the way back up again?
It’s simple. “To me, food’s done when it’s done,” he says, hard-eyed all of a sudden. “There is no time with barbecue. Once you start making shortcuts, that’s when you start messing up. A lot of customers get mad. At 6:30 we start running out of ribs. I’m like, ‘Dude, they take five hours. What do you want me to do, go back there and rush you some ribs?’ Nah. We all outta ribs.”
He throws open the smoker like an 18-wheeler’s hood. “These ribs right here, they’ve been cooking five hours. They’re ready when you can sink your fork into the thickest part.” He applies his tongs to that very spot, and they slide in like a boot into the salt marsh.
A young man in a B’s Cracklin’ uniform meets us at the smoker to check on the meat. He looks at Furman, then at the camera, then at me. “Make sure you mention how he’s helped a lot of us young black men,” he says. “I’m a military vet. At one time was homeless; he made sure I was all right.”
He goes back in and it’s just us again, bathing in the sweet oak and cherry smoke, sweating in the meaty heat. “That’s what it’s all about,” Furman says. “Giving back. People done took care of me, looked out for me, helped me out. I feel like the only way you get blessings is by giving them back.”
Then we go inside, and Furman blesses us with his ribs. When the waitress asks what I’d like to drink, I decide to skip the soda altogether and just have a water, please.
Queen Quet, First Queen Mother and Head Pun De Bodee of the Gullah-Geechee Nation
So there’s Queen Quet, standing in front of the general assembly of the United Nations, talking. (Except back then she wasn’t Queen Quet yet, just a young woman with a Columbia degree in computer programming named Marquetta Goodwine, born and raised on the island of St. Helena, South Carolina.) And nobody’s really listening. “So I started talking in Gullah,” she says now, sitting in front of me at her favorite Gullah food joint on the island she grew up on and now serves, smiling over her mac ‘n’ cheese and crab balls. “For the first time all week, that whole place got quiet.”
A quick note on Gullah. It is the language of the Gullah-Geechee people, a culture begun at the onset of slavery’s arrival on these shores and spread between northern Florida and southern North Carolina, mostly by people from Angola, the Congo Republic, and the Rice and Gold Coasts of West Africa. These people, and their different languages, were thrust together under the horrors of slavery; they responded by growing into something new and unique, with their own shared language and traditions born of Africa but grown here in the pluff mud of the Lowcountry, alongside the indigo and sea-island cotton they labored without pay to create. When slavery ended, William Tecumseh Sherman awarded those former slaves the land they’d worked. The Gullah-Geechee stayed and did not abandon their culture. They’ve been here four centuries. Their language, when Queen Quet speaks it, is a rumbly-tumbly, English-based creole blend of Bahamian dialect, Jamaican patois and African loanwords. It stops you in your tracks and gets your head spinning a little.
It is a powerful language. “If I go to Texas, and I start talking like this” — here she gallops into beautiful, indecipherable Gullah — “they go, ‘gasp! — wait a minute now, my grandma used to talk like that!’”
“There’s a saying: The land is our family and the waterways is our bloodline. I feel like I can feel my ancestors’ presence when I’m out here.”
That speech in front of the UN was a major step in turning Marquetta Goodwine into Queen Quet; in 2000, after a year-long election process, she was voted first Queen Mother and head pun de bodee (head of state) of the Gullah-Geechee people. As the lead spokesperson of the Gullah-Geechees, she was instrumental in passing a bill in Congress that not only recognized the Gullah-Geechees as a community, but set up an appropriation of $10 million over the course of 10 years to create a protected Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor along the coast from Wilmington, North Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida. The land it covers includes St. Helena Island, where 90 to 95 percent of the population is Gullah-Geechee. The importance of that bill was not just money, but recognition. “If people don’t see it,” Queen Quet says about her nation, “they don’t know what it is. They may plow it under if we don’t speak up and say we’re here.”
Well, Queen Quet says the community only ever got $1.5 million of that $10 million due to ineffective governance by the local council that the government created. So the fight goes on, mainly just for the simple right to be recognized as a culture worth defending in the face of land grabs by developers (she calls them “destructionaires”) who want to take traditional Gullah homesteads and turn them into beach houses and Walmarts.
She takes me on a ride around the island, pointing out the lack of fences and the old, defunct general store by the tidal creek that she wants to turn into a Gullah fishing club. We end up at one of her favorite spots, a stretch of salt marsh that ends at the horizon. This is her people’s kingdom. She tells me her family’s compound is just over a far-off stand of trees. Her ancestors are buried there, facing east, toward Africa.
At first it looks flat and empty. But as I swat away the gnats, the panorama unfolds from empty reedland to something else. I can feel it humming with life. I look at Queen Quet and realize she is seeing the very same water where her ancestors were rowed ashore in chains, some 400 years ago, somehow holding onto hope where the only logical emotion was despair.
“There’s a saying: The land is our family and the waterways is our bloodline,” she says. “I feel like I can feel my ancestors’ presence when I’m out here. Especially on a day like this, when the clouds are about touching the earth, it’s like they just looking down at you. You can see them sitting up there with their legs hanging, like off the porch.” She points up at them, waving, then gives them a voice. “‘Hey! What y’all doing down there? Hold onto it, now!’”
Matt Garappolo, Bartender & Owner, The Original Bar
Matt Garappolo is tired. Sitting in his dark bar at 11 in the morning, all alone with the PBR posters and grainy photos of powerful patrons long dead, his lanky frame droops in its chair. He ought to be beat. He’s pulled off a coup d’état — the complete turnaround of Savannah’s once-beloved bar, Pinkie Master’s Lounge — in the span of three weeks. During this most celebrated of all Savannah drinking weeks, the lead-up to St. Patrick’s Day, Garappolo is the toast of the city.
Before the Californian came to its rescue, the bar known as “Pinkie’s,” a legendary haunt of all sorts of Savannahites, from students and cooks to community leaders and politicians, had been in trouble for years. “But it wasn’t always a dirty dump,” Garappolo says, mixing up a Manhattan in a plastic cup behind the bar. “When this place opened, it was a funky, crazy bar. It didn’t open up with plastic cups and tall boys of PBR and tons of dirt and people getting stabbed.”
“You get people who are going to church. People after work. People coming in on their cigarette break. People coming in on their lunch breaks. Students. Everyone in this entire city comes in here regularly.”
The stabbing is a long story involving several beefs and a man named Catfish. (Catfish still bartends downtown; the bouncer who tried to stab him in the heart missed.) It’s only important because it marked the end of a long line of transgressions and ugliness that had afflicted the 60-odd-year-old neighborhood bar and sapped it of its regulars. The old owner, amid a flurry of lawsuits and debt, stripped the pictures from the walls and fled to a new spot, down by the waterfront. Garappolo, who was well known as a bartender at Sapphire Grill, a fancy joint downtown, knew the landlord. He and a partner snapped up the spot.
Then he got to work — not remaking, but restoring. He cleaned the floor. He redid the electrical and the plumbing. He reprinted the old wallpaper. He renamed the place The Original. Now the dirt and grime and ugliness are gone, and the regulars have returned, bringing their old photos to hang on the wall once more.
“We got all the people that had stopped going. You know you have a cool bar when everyone from twenty-one to eighty-five was hanging out drinking. Nobody gives a rat’s ass. You get people who are going to church. People after work. People coming in on their cigarette break. People coming in on their lunch breaks. Students. Everyone in this entire city comes in here regularly.”
On a Saturday night (or really, any night at all), the little room on the corner with a three-sided square bar in the middle reflects Savannah’s weird, thirsty culture. Garappolo doesn’t try to dilute the dive aspects; he just muddles in his cocktail knowledge. “The way that I look at it, if I’m working, and someone walks in and wants something, I’ll make it. It’ll be 2:30 in the morning, and someone will order a mezcal Old Fashioned and you’re like, ‘What the fuck?’ Or they’ll order a bunch of Negronis. Then it’ll be eighteen Fireballs and a bunch of PBRs.”
When I return at noon on St. Patrick’s Day, a throng of drinkers and smokers spills outside the bar onto the sidewalk and street, sloppily socializing in the broad daylight; Savannah doesn’t have open-container laws downtown. Inside, a horde of green-clad celebrants crowd the bar. I order a Manhattan, and Garappolo pours one from the vat he’s pre-batched. He looks tired but happy, and I think of what he told me about his aspirations at his bar.
“As long as I have ownership of this place, I’ll be working here.” And then, with a smile: “Hopefully it won’t be seven days a week.”
Phillip Rhodes, Executive Managing Editor, Garden & Gun
“Have you ever found a pea crab in your oyster?” asks Phillip Rhodes from across the big reclaimed-wood table. I have not. He leans in excitedly, baritone voice filling the library-like quiet of Garden & Gun’s clinically handsome Charleston offices. “They’re the size of a pea. It is parasitic crab that develops as the oyster develops. They meet in their infancy and form an attachment, and the crab lives inside the oyster. It is a symbol of good luck, and you eat it. It’s really sweet.”
“It is absolutely crucial that you understand the South. If you don’t, people can sense it, smell it, taste it.”
The things you learn when plying the managing editor of a Southern magazine with breakfast sandwiches. Rhodes digs into his biscuit sandwich with hungry glee; he doesn’t usually eat breakfast. But then, good luck finding a managing editor who has the time. “Eventually the printing press is going to turn on, and you have to have something to put on it,” he says. “Or things get even more expensive than they already are.” Rhodes manages things at Garden & Gun magazine, which is about to celebrate 10 years of strong success defining the abstract concept of the Southern lifestyle. It is the young, industrious professional’s guide to Southernness — more garden, people and food than gun. Great writers like Pat Conroy have contributed; when we visit, they’ve just published an issue with Matthew McConaughey on the cover, drinking a big glass of bourbon.
Everyone who works for Garden & Gun, Rhodes claims, is from the South. “It is absolutely crucial that you understand the South. If you don’t, people can sense it, smell it, taste it. It’s often something you’re born with. You grow up with it, you grow up with the traditions. Our tagline isn’t ‘Soul of the South’ for nothing. And there’s nothing worse than artificial soul.”
Rhodes is from Tennessee and a passionate cook. For him, the pea crab, a miracle confined to the Lowcountry, is a great example of the South’s encyclopedic range of diversity. So is the biscuit. Ours, from Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit in downtown Charleston, are made with lily-white flour, butter, buttermilk, salt. And cream cheese, which Rhodes’s mother would never, ever use.
“The biscuit is kind of like being Southern,” he says. “Each person does it their own way. The way they were taught to do it, the way their grandparents did it, from their corner of the South. One is not better than the other.”
Another note about managing editors: they must be diplomatic. Rhodes is easily able to hide his slight disdain for the cream cheese biscuit — he scarfs it down pretty damn quick. “The thing that is great about food in the South is the traditions that fold into it,” he says over the crumbs. “You’re connected to your personal past through your family, however you learned to do it.” And occasionally, you learn something new and add that tradition into your family’s heritage, like eating a tasty parasite for good luck.
Eric Esser, Wildlife Tech, Georgia Department of Natural Resources
“It’s just something we have to do,” Kara Day says, breaking the silence. We are staring down at a heavy steel cage trap; inside is a wild hog her colleague Eric Esser just shot in the head. It’s heaped on its side, brains dripping out its ear, kicking its last spasms into the dirt. The small clearing among the palmettos, live oaks and palm trees is silent but for the wind. “You need to get your mind around that it’s not sport. They’re not supposed to be here anyway. It’s for the health of the island.”
Esser nods solemnly. In a few minutes, he’ll grab the hog by its back legs and haul it off into the woods. The island will take back what it made. “He’ll be gone in two, three days,” Esser says. “Buzzards, eagles, alligators, other hogs.”
We’re on Ossabaw Island, one of the more than 100 sea islands off the coast of Georgia, South Carolina and northern Florida that represent some of the most unique and wild ecosystems in the country. Ossabaw’s 40 square miles, accessible only by a 20-minute boat ride, are owned by the state and nearly untouched by man. It’s a naturalist’s paradise infested with shady groves of live oaks, brackish marshes, gators, ticks and a less welcome guest: Ossabaw Island hogs.
The Ossabaw hog is a prehistoric-looking pig, capable of growing to over 200 pounds, typically black, but sometimes spotted or striped with white or red. Its ancestors were brought from Spain when the Spanish settled Georgia’s sea islands in the early 1500s, and it adapted to life on the island extremely well, growing a long snout for rooting through the sandy dirt of the island like a bulldozer and building enormous fat reserves for surviving when food becomes scarce.
“There’s a few people out here in the summer, but you can avoid ‘em. You might go a month without seeing anyone, if you didn’t want to go into town.”
You’ll seldom meet a more divisive creature. Chefs prize its meat for its immense fat content and intense flavor; scientists research it for its natural ability to fight diabetes and heart disease. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Day and Esser’s employer, loathes its rampant population and propensity to eat everything in sight, including the eggs of endangered loggerhead sea turtles. While farmers and scientists have removed hogs from the island and fostered populations on the mainland for their own use, the DNR has set to work destroying the hog population on the island in an attempt to rebalance its ecosystem, which it says the hog has thrown into disarray.
So, for about 10 years, the DNR has left several employees to live full time on the nearly deserted island to maintain roads, transport visitors from the mainland by boat and, most importantly, control the invasive hog population with heavy steel cage traps and pistols. For three of those years, from 2009 to 2011, Esser was one of them, living by himself with his infant daughter.
“I miss it,” he says as we roll slowly along one of the island’s dirt roads in an old Chevy pickup with no A/C. Esser’s life here was Robinson Crusoe-like. He lived in his own house with a TV, just him and his daughter and his dog. “There’s a few people out here in the summer,” he says. “But you can avoid ‘em. You might go a month without seeing anyone, if you didn’t want to go into town.”
This also meant he had to be entirely self-sufficient — catch fish and shoot hogs to eat, fix the truck, the tractor, the porch. “I’ve learned carpentry, mechanic stuff — everything,” he says. “You learn a lot about yourself also, ‘cause you didn’t realize you could do it. There’s no school that can teach you that. Everything ’s hands-on.” Driving the island with him was like following along as two old friends reminisced over their good times. Esser knew every hole where a gator lived, told stories of hunters exaggerating about cow-sized hogs, and spoke of the ghost, an old caretaker, who supposedly haunts the north end of the island. Esser may have grown up in Florida, but this felt like his hometown.
The hogs, like it or not, are a part of that. The state kills roughly 1,000 per year, but Esser says that’s only enough to maintain the population, not decrease it. As we round our way back to the island’s dock for the boat ride home, I ask him if he thinks it’s really possible to eradicate every single hog from the island. He seems to soften. “I think it’s impossible, to be honest with you. The new technology — night-vision scopes, traps you can set with your cell phone — is helping. But it’s not gonna catch ‘em all.” And if a small population manages to hold out, refusing to leave? “I don’t think it’ll be bad,” he says, haltingly. “They’ve been here for hundreds of years.” I think I catch a tinge of jealousy in his voice.
A version of this story appears in Issue Two of the Gear Patrol Magazine, 286 pages of stories, reports, interviews and original photography from five distinct locations around the world. Subscribe Now: $39