Barbecue Is Sin

Is it really, though?

I don’t know about that, but at Maurice’s Piggie Park in West Columbia, South Carolina, there is plenty to atone for (and I don’t mean just the mustard sauce). Founder Maurice Bessinger was an outspoken segregationist in Columbia who forbade African-Americans from eating in his restaurant until the Supreme Court forced him to, led the National Association for the Preservation of White People in the 1960s, and argued that the Civil Rights Act “contravenes the will of God.” A precedent-setting 1968 lawsuit against Bessinger—Newman vs. Piggie Park Enterprises—ended up before the United States Supreme Court, which ruled 8-0 against Bessinger, forcing him not only to admit black customers to all his restaurants but to pay the plaintiffs’ legal fees to boot. Six years later, Bessinger campaigned for governor in 1974 by riding around the Palmetto State on a white horse, wearing a white suit and white tie, saying that “all the white stood for clean government.”

Maurice Bessinger is so white in this photo that he barely shows up in print. This is his scarcely-visible and not-at-all-ridiculous campaign get-up for his disappointing fifth-place shellacking in the Democratic primary for Governor of South Carolina in 1974, the year Maurice reined in his ambitions and rededicated his life to disseminating his white supremacist views not from the Governor’s Mansion but from his chain of uniquely braggadocious barbecue restaurants.

 

When Maurice hobble-clopped into his home county to drum up support for his campaign, his former homies in Orangeburg did not exactly roll out the red carpet for him. If he still had friends on the police force, they didn’t pull strings for Maurice this time. The police didn’t even give Maurice or his beloved horse, Queen, the escort he thought they deserved.

But Maurice didn’t just suspect negligence; he saw a nefarious anti-Queen conspiracy at work. “Somebody has pulled another political string in Orangeburg,” he said to the Orangeburg Times and Democrat. “I’ve been afraid for my horse. A car might have hit him.”

The Times and Democrat, it seems, was non-plussed. A not-very-informative headline in the paper declined to name either Queen or its rider:

Bessinger did not win, place, or show in the election.

But Maurice didn’t give up his fight for “heritage.” When the Confederate battle flag was removed from the dome of the state capitol in Columbia in 2000, Bessinger raised Confederate flags at all nine of his restaurants. Retailers including Walmart and Winn-Dixie soon stopped carrying bottles of Maurice’s “Southern Gold” sauce, a substance that David Firestone described in The New York Times in 2000 as “an act of defiance, a thick, yellow mustardy glaze that dares to call itself a barbecue sauce despite its utter lack of tomatoes. South Carolinians are among the only humans known to allow it upon their meat.”

Maurice’s business tanked. By December 2000, he had laid off fifteen employees and lost 98% of his sales, he said. “Freedom of speech has a price, I guess,” he claimed.

Southern Gold has since returned to shelves, but still struggles. Earlier this year, Piggie Park Enterprises was forced to recall two years’ worth of the sauce because they chose not to disclose that the powdered honey used to make the substance contained wheat and soy. Freedom of speech has a price, I guess.

Maurice Bessinger died in 2014, but controversy around him has hardly abated. Last year an ice cream shop opened on John C. Calhoun Parkway (you really can’t get away from these guys if you try) in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Owner Tommy Daras set up The Edisto River Creamery in a building once occupied by one of Maurice’s Piggie Parks. The corner lot came with a Confederate flag that Daras did not particularly want. 

But he couldn’t do anything about it. Before he died, Maurice Bessinger apparently deeded 3/1000th of an acre to the Rivers Bridge Camp No. 842 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who fly the rebel flag from their microscopic bit of real estate.

Maurice’s children are now having a go at running the barbecue behemoth, without the rebel flag. The Christian mission he operated next door to the original location on Charleston Highway (seen above on Tour 2 in 1998) is now shuttered, and the sin-denouncing cross marquee is gone. 

But Little Joe remains atop the original sign on Charleston Highway, still touting Maurice’s golden pig.

World’s best barbecue? I don’t know about that.

 

Read more about the Bessinger legacy in Lauren Collins’ 2017 excellent piece for the New Yorker, “America’s Most Political Food.”

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