By Hayley Hutson
During the third weekend in October, my BBQ-loving fiancé and I ventured from Charlotte, NC to Abbeville, SC to check out the annual Hogs & Hens BBQ Festival for the first time. Since its inception a decade ago, this event has been a crowd favorite in the Old 96 District. With the promise of live music, local vendors, and “some of the best BBQ this side of the Mississippi,” we decided it was time to see what all the fuss was about.
I’ll start by admitting a hard truth: I have never liked barbecue. Crazy, I know. Something about the smell of barbecue sauce and messy food that winds up equally as much on your face as it does in your belly had always turned me off, much to the dismay of my pulled pork-obsessed family. With that said, I’ve always loved small-town events – whether it’s a state fair with fried food galore or a local carnival with questionable rides you’re taking a gamble by strapping into.
The camaraderie of seeing locals and out-of-towners come together in celebration over food and music while supporting the local economy genuinely warms my heart. When we arrived in downtown Abbeville, we parked by the circa 1842 Trinity Episcopal Church and took a few dozen photos before moving on. Eerily beautiful in its Gothic Revival architectural style, the church would set the stage for a downtown area that was teeming with a rich heritage that had clearly been preserved with great care.
As we headed down the block, we stumbled across The Livery Stable, a historic stable-turned-event venue where dozens of craft vendors were selling everything from baked goods and scented candles to handmade jewelry and holiday decor. I have a slight obsession with candles, and I’ve yet to attend a craft fair where there were none. So, naturally, I have yet to leave a craft fair empty-handed.
After snagging an apple cider-scented soy candle from Tinketon’s booth, we followed the tantalizing smell of smoked brisket to the Square—the heart of downtown Abbeville. Upon arrival, we were met with more local craft vendors and nearly twenty different food vendors. While the majority of the food vendors were BBQ trucks where pitmasters were tending to enormous smokers, there were also funnel cakes, freeze-dried treats, snow cones, and other concessions.
Since we had shown up on the earlier side, we grabbed a couple of beers and prime people-watching seats on the Two Brews balcony to take in the scene. The energy was palpable and families were slowly beginning to stream in, with children eagerly jumping up and down at the sight of so much excitement. When the band started to play, we began making our rounds through the Square to check out the vast array of food choices.
It was at this time that I realized just how diverse the ‘barbecue food’ category truly is. There was Caribbean BBQ, Lowcountry BBQ, Carolina BBQ, and more. Lines had begun to form at many of the food trucks, and we wound up deciding on Smokin’ The City—an award-winning, family-owned business based out of nearby Greenwood. We were staying in Greenwood for the weekend, so it seemed like a serendipitous moment worth capitalizing on. We each ordered a brisket sandwich with smoked mac & cheese, and I changed my mind about barbecue food just one bite in.
Was it messy? Of course. But the disaster scene on my plate and all over my hands was a sacrifice worth making for the juiciest, most tender, and flavorful brisket I’ve ever had. And don’t even get me started on that creamy, glorious mac & cheese. The meal was a 10/10 and I seriously debated getting a second helping. After our indulgent nosh, we watched Mac Arnold and his band enchant the crowd with the sound of blues before calling it a night. All in all, the Hogs & Hens BBQ Festival was a fantastic time and I’m glad we made the trip to experience it.
I’ve never been disappointed by a small-town event in the Carolinas, but there’s something special about the Old 96 District. The sense of community feels stronger, the town pride more immense, and the atmosphere more electric. I look forward to returning for next year’s festival, and maybe for a few other events in between.
Hayley Hutson is a freelance travel writer based in Charlotte. Channeling her passion for exploration into her work, she loves writing about everything from charming towns off the beaten path to luxury spa resorts in popular destinations. When she’s not on the road, you can often find her listening to a podcast or wheezing her way through a hot yoga class. Follow her on IG @haaayleyh.