7 Iconic Midlands Dishes

Fried quail, onion sausage, and other South Carolina delicacies

The chicken bog at the Warmouth in Columbia pays homage to a classic Midlands recipe
The chicken bog at the Warmouth in Columbia pays homage to a classic Midlands recipe (The Warmouth)

By Stephanie Burt

The Midlands region of South Carolina seems to get lost in the shadow of its flashier food cousins, the Lowcountry and the Upstate, where shrimp and grits, good vegetables, and plenty of farm-to-table dining reign in the restaurants. But the region in the middle shouldn’t be left out of the cuisine conversation.

While it’s true that some dishes from other parts of South Carolina might solo in the choir, the central part of the state sings a wonderful bass note with a cuisine rooted in the rolling hills and practical traditions of a community that hunted, farmed, and knew how to use all parts of an animal.

Beyond that, there’s strong evidence that pimento cheese was perfected in this part of the state, and if that’s not a calling card for a Southern cuisine, we don’t know what is—oh wait, we do: it’s that same cheesy goodness slathered on a chargrilled burger. The pimento burger is just one of many things to love about sitting down to eat in the Midlands, and here are some essentials to try on your next visit.

#1. Mustard-Sauced Barbecue

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Known for its yellow color and sweet tang, this Midlands barbecue style is probably the one most associated with South Carolina, though our editor (and barbecue writer/historian/man who will always eat a plate of barbecue) Robert F. Moss says he “doesn’t buy” that the mustard association comes from German ancestry in the state.

While its origins may be a little murky, mustard sauce’s popularity is still alive and well all around the Midlands. Each family has its favorite, but one of ours is Big T Bar-B-Q in Columbia (and in Gadsden, where the barbecue is cooked.) The family-run spot is also known for its lemonade, a perfect accompaniment to cut through the sticky sweet sauce dripping off smoky chopped pork or ribs.

#2. Hash & Rice

No tray of Midlands-style barbecue is complete without hash and rice on the side
No tray of Midlands-style barbecue is complete without hash and rice on the side (Robert F. Moss)

Included on the menu at most of those mustard-sauced barbecue spots is another iconic Midlands dish: hash and rice. It’s a dish of economy traditionally made from the offal and leftover pig parts not used for barbecue, which are stewed down with onions and sometimes other vegetables and often cooked alongside the pit in large iron stewpots as the smoke tinged the choicer meat. I metaphorically dove deep into that hash pot for a 2016 Food Republic article, but it's increasingly being made with choicer cuts as pit tenders purchase selected pieces of the pig instead of whole hogs, which leaves them with fewer leftovers.

Still, in the Midlands, there’s many a dish of hash and rice to be found, including at the aforementioned Big T’s. True BBQ touts its hash and rice as “the Best in South Carolina,” but Hite’s in West Columbia or Little Pigs on Alpine Road are also worthy samples.

#3. Fried Quail

South Carolina was known for quail hunting before the 1930s, when quail numbers began to decline year-by-year as smaller farms disappeared and either development or larger, industrial farms began to take hold, impacting quail habitat. The population decline, according to Tideline, has plateaued in the last few years, and the state has kept its long-established taste for the bird on the plate.

Quail is the rare dish that sits as comfortably atop a white tablecloth as it does a picnic table, and many fine dining restaurants in the Midlands include it on their menus. For a more down-home bite of fried quail, look to Mr. Bunky’s Market in Eastover. The popular spot gets its quail not from the fields but, like so many restaurants do, from a family-owned Columbia farm, Manchester Farms Quail, which processes 80,000 birds a week.

#4. Pimento Burger

The Rockaway Burger: sloppy, messy, and Southern comfort at its best
The Rockaway Burger: sloppy, messy, and Southern comfort at its best (Dispatch Staff)

Although there is some debate about whether Columbia is the birthplace of Southern-style pimento cheese, there isn’t any argument that the city is a pimento burger mecca. This burger can be as simple as a dollop of the pimento cheese atop a chargrilled patty, or include more mayo, a slice of raw onion, or even a Creole flavor, as in the case at Bourbon.

“I’m very passionate about my burgers,” says Kim Jamison, the Director of Marketing and Air Service Development at Columbia Metropolitan Airport and also the author behind a “just-for-fun” Instagram account, @eatinsc. “Pimento cheese and burgers are a match made in heaven, and each place that makes them here has a twist or a spin on them that make them unique.”

Jamison actually ranked four pimento burgers for me in her top favorites, including Rockaway Athletic Club’s pimento burger, which she calls “sloppy, messy, college nostalgia . . . but Southern comfort at its best.” She’s not the only one who loves Rockaway’s signature burger from her time at USC, but as she’s made the city her home for years post-graduation, she’s gravitated to a new favorite: The Whig’s Pimento Burger. “It’s by far the best in the biz, and it’s cooked to perfection each time.”

#5. Chicken Bog

Chef Rhett Elliot's Chicken Bog at the Warmouth requires hours of labor
Chef Rhett Elliot's Chicken Bog at the Warmouth requires hours of labor (The Warmouth)

The iconic Lowcountry rice dish purloo (a.k.a. pilau, perloo, and perlo) becomes Chicken Bog in the Pee Dee, then further west into the rolling hills of the Carolinas transforms into chicken and rice or chicken and egg noodles. In the Midlands, you’ll see both, depending on family ties. This mix of stewed chicken, onions, rice, and summer sausage is more of a home cooked meal or meal for a community fundraiser than a restaurant dish, but Chef Rhett Elliott, who grew up in Camden, has it on the menu at The War Mouth in Columbia, a restaurant he calls a “love letter to the 803.”

“I still hear a few times a week that it brings up a childhood memory,” he says, though some diners unfamiliar with the dish might expect more chicken in it. “My aunt says, ‘Bog is white rice that a chicken walked through,’ and now, that’s how we train the staff on this dish.”

Chicken Bog may sound simple, but the best meals rarely are, and this dish requires an estimated 12 hours of labor each day, Elliot surmises. It’s comfort food at its best, especially as the weather cools, with time and tending melding the flavors together.

#6. Onion Sausage

Since 1945 Rhoten’s Country Store in Lexington has been making the family onion sausage recipe
Since 1945 Rhoten’s Country Store in Lexington has been making the family onion sausage recipe (Rhoten's Country Store via Facebook)

Speaking of sausage, The War Mouth’s bog uses onion sausage for its sausage component, which provides an even deeper Midlands experience for the diner. This is link sausage in which raw onions are ground into the meat before it goes into the casing, and it most likely originated in the Dutch Fork area. Currently, it’s most associated with the town of Lexington, and more specifically with Rhoten’s Country Store, which has been in business since 1945 and still makes the family onion sausage recipe.

Other companies, including Morty Pride and Triple J Farms, also make onion sausage, and not only is this product sometimes used for Midlands bog, it also is a great addition to the grill. In the past it was served at convenience stores on white bread with mustard. That tradition has mostly disappeared, and now it is much more likely to be seen on a tailgate table or breakfast plate than anywhere else.

#7. Peach Cobbler

The peach-painted water tower looming over the horizon in Gaffney is there for good reason. South Carolina is one of the top three producers of peaches in the United States—in 2020, the USDA recorded 76,500 tons grown in the state—and most of those orchards reach their stubby, leafy, and fruit-laden branches skyward from fields in the Midlands of South Carolina. Farmers grow approximately 40 varieties for the market, and at each peach stand each summer, old timers can be heard asking “Are these peaches freestone?”

Freestone peaches are those where the flesh of the fruit isn’t attached to the pit, and they are easier to cook with and eat, though some of the semi-cling and the cling can be touted for superior flavor, depending on the variety. Summer Gold and late season O’Henry are both freestone and easy to find at farmstands, but peach variety can be as personal to a palate as a tomato since acidity, sweetness, and shelf stability all come into play. No matter the variety, though, one of the most popular ways to enjoy peaches in the Midlands is in a simple cobbler, especially if one or two have ripened a little past their prime.

Key Ingredient: Grains and Milling

The rolling hills of the Midlands offer fertile ground for grains, and that, coupled with the crossroads that run through Columbia, have made the region a hub for grain production. In the early 1940s there were more than 40 mills operating in South Carolina, but while there are some in operation in the region who mill pet food and livestock feed, Allen Brothers Milling Co, located in the heart of the Vista area of Columbia, is the only mill in continuous operation from that era.

Allen Brothers Milling Co., home of Adluh Flour, is the last of its breed of Carolina flour mills
Allen Brothers Milling Co., home of Adluh Flour, is the last of its breed of Carolina flour mills (Ryon Edwards via Flikr under CC-BY-ND-2.0)

Minutes away from the historic mill, California-native Glen Roberts bought an old warehouse behind a car wash in Columbia in 1998 to house his just budding Anson Mills. Now beloved by chefs nationwide (and beyond), Roberts’ research and products have helped change the conversation about heirloom grains in the US as well as reintroduce flavors lost to the Southern palate.

Both of these mills work with a lot of South Carolina farmers, and since the Midlands is home to both, that means there may be products that are regionally available, such as Allen Brothers’ excellent Adluh hushpuppy mix, that doesn’t even make it to grocery store shelves in Charleston or Greenville. As with all agricultural products, fresh flour is better, and so the Midlands’ baked goods, grits, and other grainstuffs offer a unique flavor of South Carolina.

About the Author

Stephanie Burt

Stephanie Burt is an audio producer, food and travel writer, and the host/producer of The Southern Fork podcast. She has contributed to numerous publications including Saveur, The Washington Post, The Bitter Southerner, and Conde Nast Traveler. In the kitchen, she loves cooking from her vintage community cookbook collection or trying to perfect her roasted chicken recipe. Follow her on Instagram.

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