James Freeman, whose grandfather started the family barbecue as a natural extension of his work as a pig farmer, says that whole-hog cookery simply cannot be formularized. Long ago, he scoffed when his father first told him that the only way to check meat for doneness is to sniff at it while it cooks. But now he is a believer and says that smelling is the only way. He uses no thermometer and he doesn’t poke to check resiliency. He inhales; and because he has been barbecuing long enough, his nose tells him exactly when it is done just right. Still, it is a tricky business, he says, because the cooking time changes according to the phases of the moon. Just as the moon effects tides, so it influences the moisture content of the hogs that are cooked low and slow over smoldering hardwood coals.
I am an eater, not a food-lab cook, so let me say that however the barbecue gets done, it is done extraordinarily well. The chopped meat is a variegated festival of creamy-sweet shreds and nuggets and long strips of smoke-haloed pork that need only the slightest application of house-made sauce to attain simple perfection. That’s the way it is served – lightly sauced – and there is more of the pungent potion available in bottles. Mr. Freeman told us that his wife uses it in nearly everything she cooks, from meat to vegetables. Indeed, I found myself applying drops of it to white bread just to savor it. Heat-seeking diners can ask for extra-hot sauce, which is so ferocious that it is kept in back unless specifically requested. “When I was young, I used to put the hot on my sandwiches,” Mr. Freeman tells us. “I can’t eat it now. I am not the man I used to be.” But he does say that he has Mexican and Indian customers who pour it on with glee.
The pork is available in a sandwich or on a platter. I definitely recommend the latter, mostly because it is such a joy to fork through the beautiful meat, but also because platters come with side dishes, which are excellent. Hash on rice is notable for the fresh, luxurious nature of the hash, made with both beef and pork. Mac ‘n’ cheese is a comfort-food classic, its noodles suspended in rich, eggy custard.
Dessert is the one menu item that Mr. Freeman does not make himself. Lovely lemon pound cake, sold by the slice, comes from a local woman named Tricia. It is good cake, especially welcome as a tender final note after a meal of such kaleidoscopic flavors.
Located on a desolate road just across the river from Augusta, Freeman’s is a well-worn enterprise, utterly without the spit and polish of a corporate-created restaurant. It exudes character, and once you walk in the door, hospitality reigns. Mr. Freeman has plenty of regular customers, but also a fair share of BBQ pilgrims with whom he is delighted to talk about smokehouse practice. His restaurant has become a Beech Island icon, embodying a soulful community spirit. When the notorious ice storm of winter, 2014, knocked out power, he cooked up everything he had in his refrigerator to bring to the local shelter for folks who were hungry. While he was cooking, he got a call from a woman who asked if he was open. He told her he was not, because without electricity he had no lights. She replied, “I don’t need no light to eat your barbecue.”
Note: Freeman’s is open only Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, for lunch and early supper.