FLORENCE, S.C. – It starts with the pies.
As soon as 67-year-old Martha Cain Ard, owner of Cain’s Barbecue on Pamplico Highway on Florence’s east side, steps into the restaurant each Thursday, Friday and Saturday morning, she gets busy making coconut, chocolate and lemon meringue pies.
But this weekend is bittersweet for her. It’s Mother’s Day weekend, combined with the one-year anniversary on Friday of her daughter Michelle Hanna’s death and what would have been her daughter’s 51st birthday on Saturday.
Her daughter worked with Ard in the restaurant that has been a part of their family history for more than half a century.
The story of her tobacco farming father Woodrow Cain’s vinegar-based barbecued chopped pork, a well-preserved secret family recipe, began in an old-fashioned tobacco barn in the late 1940s – around the time Ard was born in 1948.
When Woodrow Cain wrapped up the tobacco season each year around the first of August, he cooked a special barbecue pork supper for his family and farm hands as a way of saying thank you to everyone who had stood by him through the long, hot tobacco season.
Ard well remembers those hot days on the tobacco farm.
“When I was a little girl, me and my sister Donna and brother Wilson had fun climbing on the barn tier poles and playing under the barn shed,” Ard said. “When I got older, I helped Daddy drive the tractor and cropped tobacco in the field and brought it in to cure it in the barn.”
The tobacco hands highly anticipated Woodrow Cain’s annual feast, and word spread about his flavorful barbecue. When the Pamplico Tobacco Board of Trade heard about Cain’s barbecue supper, it asked him to prepare its annual appreciation dinner for various tobacco companies including R.J. Reynolds, Liggett Myers and American Tobacco.
His barbecue received such praise that after he and his brother Raleigh established a country store, Selrite Grocery, in the early 1950s, a dining room was added out back where the Cain brothers hosted a barbecue supper every other Friday in the winter. They served up liver hash over rice, cole slaw, bread and, of course, the well-known barbecued pork, served on paper plates with wooden spoons.
“Daddy and Uncle Raleigh stayed up all night and cooked whole hogs over the fire,” Ard said.
The bimonthly event gained more momentum when they began sending sent post cards to a list of people from all over Florence, Darlington, Marion and Lake City to remind them of the next feast.
In 1954, the Cain brothers opened their first restaurant in Florence, originally named “Woody’s Barbecue,” across the street from the current location, and the menu was extended to include barbecue chicken with red gravy, chicken bog, candied yams and hush puppies.
To top off the new menu, Martha Cain Ard’s mother, Nita Cain, along with her aunt, Louise Cain, started perfecting those homemade coconut, chocolate and lemon meringue pies.
“Mama made those pies from scratch, and she became very well known for her homemade pies,” Ard said.
After his brother Raleigh died at an early age of cancer, Woodrow Cain eventually bought the building across the street, formerly McGee’s Insurance and Real Estate, and renamed the restaurant “Cain’s Barbecue” in 1968.
“That’s what started this restaurant that sits here today,” said Ard, who opted to continue her parents’ restaurant tradition after her father died in 1981 and her mother died in 2005.
To preserve her father’s cooking custom, Ard works with her staff to ensure that several whole hogs are cooked all night in preparation for Cain’s Barbecue to open the next day. While the hogs are cooked on electric cookers now rather than over an open fire, they taste “just like Daddy’s used to,” Ard says.
“Daddy always figured cooking the whole hog makes better barbecue instead of cooking Boston butts or hams, so that’s why we still cook the whole hog, then debone it and chop it up and season it,” she said.
The buffet is also packed with her father’s crowd-pleasing barbecue chicken with red gravy, chicken bog, fried chicken, candied yams, hush puppies and seasonal vegetables. And the buffet couldn’t be complete without her mother’s homemade pies.
Ard’s daughter, Michelle Hanna, prided herself on baking up her grandmother’s coconut, chocolate and lemon meringue pies. In fact, while Hanna did “anything and everything” at the restaurant, Ard says, baking the pies was Hanna’s favorite task, along with working the take-out window.
“Michelle absolutely loved this restaurant and she made the pies just like Mama did,” Ard said.
Ard sat at a table in the restaurant recently and talked about Michelle.
“It was Wednesday, May 6, of last year and Michelle wasn’t feeling well," Ard said. "She told Willie, one of our employees who was cutting down a magnolia tree at her house, that she didn’t sleep well the night before and she was going to lay down so she could go to Cain’s the next day.”
Around 12:15 p.m. on May 6, 2015, Ard received a call from Willie Lee Isaiah Jr., who told her, “I can’t wake Michelle up.”
“She had a massive heart attack there in her recliner in the living room,” Ard said through tears.
Michelle Hanna would have turned 50 the next day.
“I miss Michelle every day, but I know God had a plan and she is at peace,” Ard said.
It was that peace that gave Ard the strength to take the pink wreath off the front door of Cain’s Barbecue the next Thursday morning and open the restaurant doors. Then, in memory of both her mother, Nita Cain, and her daughter, Michelle Hanna, she did the only thing she knew to do – she began baking the pies.
“It’s what Michelle would have wanted,” Ard said.
When she reopened the restaurant, many of her regular customers from all over Florence, Darlington, Marion, Lake City and beyond welcomed her back with heartfelt hugs.
“My favorite part about this restaurant is the connection I have with my customers, and I try to make them feel at home and talk to them for a few minutes when I can,” Ard said.
For many people, it’s more than merely a restaurant – it’s a family tradition.
“I’m particularly surprised, even during the hot summer months, that so many families make this a stop either on their way to or returning from the beach,” Ard said.
Wayne Rhodes, one of her long-standing customers from Darlington, enjoyed lunch at Cain’s Barbecue on a recent Saturday afternoon, eating barbecue chicken, fried chicken, red gravy and hush puppies – his favorite items on the buffet.
“I love it – I never get tired of this food,” Rhodes said.
“I’ve been coming here my whole life and my dad passed away two years ago, but I like to come in here and think about all the good times we had in here,” he said.
Customers like the Rhodes family makes the work worthwhile, Ard said.
“I’ve been blessed,” Ard said, “and I’m thankful for all the customers and a prosperous business and for my son, Stanford, who continues to help me out here. I’m also very thankful for my faithful employees – many that worked for my mom and dad and are still with me.”
Ard said she hopes to pass down Cain’s Barbecue and keep it going as a family tradition.
“Mama broke her hip and used to come in here and pull her wheelchair up to the family table and, one day, my husband, LaVerne, said, ‘You’re gonna sit right there at the family table just like your mama until your toes turn up!’”
She responded, “Yes, I probably will.”