By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2004 Gourmet Magazine
ONE OF THE MOST EUPHORIC moments of our eating career was the first time our eyes adjusted to the darkness inside Sgt. White’s Diner and the buffet came into view. By centerfold standards of chic cuisine, the food isn’t photogenic—the color scale is all earth tones—but it is seductive.
In fact, it is haunting. Days after a recent visit, Sgt. White’s paper menu radiates a cooked-pork smell so vivid and so irresistible that it bears tooth marks. They’re not ours. We rescued the document from the maw of our bullmastiff, Clementine, who had snatched it off the desk and run to her favorite lair. The dog’s jubilation was very much like our own feelings back in Beaufort, South Carolina, when we carried full plates of Sgt. White’s food to a table in his lunchroom.
Michael got a pile of pulled pork—soft nuggets, chewy shreds, hard strips; Jane chose chicken parts basted with a dark red sauce. Our sides were crunch-crusted macaroni and cheese, peppered collard greens, leaves of smothered cabbage, and butter beans hefty enough to slice with a knife. Each plate was crowned by a large block of steaming-hot corn bread, just cut from the baking pan. Included in the price of $6.49 for meat and two sides is all the iced tea you can drink, sweet or unsweetened.
While the food may be homely, its presentation is uncannily neat. That is because customers do not monkey with the sacred steam-table trays. When your time comes to order, you tell Rita Smalls, at the serving line, what you want. She dips the plate, expertly balancing an impossible amount of what you’ve chosen, then puts it on the counter. Pay for the meal and carry it to an adjoining room where soft light filters through red-checked gingham curtains. Your dining companions will be men and women in uniform—Beaufort cops and marines from the Parris Island Marine Corps Recruit Depot, just down the road—as well as local business people making multiple napkins into patch-work smocks to protect their clothes.
Smalls periodically strolls through the dining room refilling tea glasses, and at the serving line she calls back through the kitchen window for more candied yams, okra stew, or pork ribs. Sergeant White remains on duty in the kitchen, visible in the pass-through window below a print of the Last Supper and near a poster of the “Prayer of St. Francis.” From his smoky realm, he issues pans of what is needed and looks out into the front room to make sure everything is running smoothly.
And everything does run smoothly, as you might expect of an enterprise overseen by a former Marine drill instructor. “Before I was a D.I., I was a cook,” the sergeant tells us. “I made breakfast and lunch for four thousand, dinner for five thousand. Here, it’s just me in the kitchen. My food salesmen tell me, ‘Man, you can’t do it alone; you’ve got to get some help.’ But I don’t like anybody in my way.”
The Marines taught Ron White to cook in quantity, but his grandmother taught him to cook. “I watched her all the time when I was a boy,” he says. After eating a Sgt. White meal, a culinary anthropologist would have little problem knowing that this early education took place in Memphis, Tennessee. You taste Memphis in the thunderous sauce that infuses the pork. Like so many of the vegetable side dishes he makes, the sauce’s character is built on what White calls the triple balance. “I put in pepper for the fire and vinegar for snap. It’s out there. But then I pull it back with sugar.” Hot, tangy, sweet: Memphis-style.
After his term as a mess sergeant, White reenlisted and became a D.I. “It’s the best job in the Marine Corps,” he says. “You make Marines.” But that came to an end after he was injured in the 1983 terrorist attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut. It was then that he enrolled in cooking school. Johnson & Wales in Charleston put the finishing touches on his culinary education and taught him something he had not learned from his family or the Corps: how to start a business.
In 1988, he was working in the kitchen of a hotel on Hilton Head Island. There was a forlorn cinder-block structure out on Route 21 in Beaufort at the turnoff for Parris Island that housed a T-shirt shop. “One night I dreamt about the building,” he recalls. “The next day I found the landlord and asked him if it would be available. The T-shirt shop wasn’t doing well, so I got it. I thought I would open a home-cooking diner. The landlord wanted a barbecue.”
Sure enough, Sgt. White’s is known for its alluring smoke signals, and the sergeant regularly pit-cooks pigs for the officers club on Parris Island. He. has turned down invitations to open a barbecue on the base itself, preferring to stay close to the diner of his dreams. He is a charismatic cook, and we love the barbecue as well as all the brilliantly seasoned dishes he calls “home cooking.” For us, though, a meal here is more enriching than food alone can be. In its decorous Marine bearing and plain, religious air, this restaurant expresses a man’s principles as much as his cooking skills. Sergeant White put it this way: “It is spiritual to get up in the morning and go somewhere you love to be and do something you love to do. That’s how it is for me and my mess hall.”
Sgt. White’s Diner (permanently closed)
1908 Boundary Street
Beaufort, South Carolina