I did something recently that I haven’t done in a quarter-century as a Carolinas food writer.
I drove to West Columbia and ate lunch at Maurice’s Piggie Park, the classic barbecue restaurant.
I pulled up to the building made to look like a farmhouse and parked in the lot scattered with woodpiles. I walked in past American and S.C. flags at the door, grabbed a plate and hit a buffet packed with Southern country-cooking staples: Fried chicken, squash casserole, banana pudding studded with vanilla wafers. And barbecue, of course: Shredded pork glistening with khaki-yellow mustard sauce and tangy barbecue hash, all true to South Carolina’s Midlands tradition.
In some quarters, though, I didn’t just eat lunch. I committed a political act.
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Lloyd Bessinger, who runs the place now, wishes that weren’t so: “We want to serve great barbecue and be known for that. Not for politics.”
But that’s difficult. Lloyd’s father, the late Maurice Bessinger, once made politics a part of every plate of barbecue he sold.
The markers of Bessinger’s segregationist thinking are gone now: The pro-slavery tracts he offered at the front door, some claiming African slaves “blessed the Lord” for slavery. The massive Confederate flag that once flapped over the parking lot. The smaller flags on bottles of his sauce.
Bessinger died in 2014. But the barbecue legacy he left behind is still stained. That raises a question: Do a man’s actions forever taint the cooking of his descendants?
[Above: Family members Lloyd Bessinger, Chris Bennett, Paul Bessinger Jr., Paul Bessinger Sr. and Debbie Bennett stand in front of the hickory and oak logs used in the barbecue pits.]
Astride a white horse
The late Maurice Bessinger occupies an outsized spot in S.C. lore. A theatrical character who loved attention, he ran for governor in 1974 with campaign literature that showed him in a white suit astride a white horse.
It wasn’t just that he posted signs at his restaurants saying black customers weren’t welcome. It wasn’t just that he fought and lost a case before the Supreme Court in 1964, Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, over his refusal to serve black customers. A lot of businesses in the 1960s tried to resist integration, in ways big and small.
No, what made Bessinger so notorious was how far and how long he carried the fight.
When the Confederate flag was removed from the S.C. Capitol and placed elsewhere on the State House grounds in 2000, Bessinger raised Confederate flags over his restaurants, including one at the main location that was as big as a king-size bedsheet.
He didn’t just display white-supremacist literature and audiotapes by the front door. He’d offer discounts on your food if you bought any.
After expanding his business nationally in the 1990s, selling frozen barbecue and bottles of his mustard-based sauce, he had the largest commercial barbecue operation in the country. Then he began putting the Confederate flag on his labels.
That’s when the world balked.
[Above, a file photo of Bessinger, who told the New York Times in 2000: “People say my restaurant never served blacks, but that's just not true. We just served them on a segregated basis, like every other restaurant did. What the blacks didn't realize was that they got the best food, because their dining room was actually in the kitchen.”]
‘I was so angry’
The State newspaper in Columbia, in a story in 2000, quoted the tracts he sold in the restaurant, including that slavery was a positive thing for Africans. National customers – including Walmart and the U.S. military – removed his products from their shelves. Bessinger later claimed it cost him $20 million.
The Rev. Calvin Griffin has been the rector of the historically black St. Luke’s Episcopal Church for 22 years. When he first arrived in Columbia in 1994, he bought a Piggie Park sandwich. He didn’t like it, because he’s from North Carolina – he doesn’t like mustard-based barbecue.
But a short time later, he saw an article about Bessinger’s policies. And he did something he calls unprecedented in his life as a priest: He asked his parishioners not to do business with the Piggie Park.
“I’d never done anything like that,” he says today. “But I was so angry about what I had read.”
Even today, I still don’t go there.
One of Griffin’s parishioners is Kay Patterson. Now 85, Patterson served in the S.C. legislature for more than 30 years, first as a representative and then as a senator. Patterson is known as a fighter for civil rights, who sponsored the first bill to remove the Confederate flag from the State House in 1983.
“A long, long time ago, everyone went to Maurice’s for barbecue, back in the 1950s and ’60s,” he says. But while a lot of businesses had racist policies in those days, Bessinger’s were worse – he made more of a point of it, Patterson says.
“Blacks just stopped participating, period,” he says. “Even today, I still don’t go there. The memory of the way Maurice was and that literature he had at the front, trying to justify slavery and say how good it was? Who the hell wants to hear that?”
The changes at the restaurant today aren’t enough for him, he says. And he knows other black people in Columbia who feel the same.
“They remember the battle of the flag, and they knew who was trying to keep it up. He was proud of that. He was proud. I said, ‘the hell with him.’ No reason I could go back. I don’t care how good it gets. I don’t go there.”
‘You’d feel weird going in there’
Carolinas barbecue, with its focus on pork and low/slow cooking over wood, has captured the imagination of people all over the country. The names of well-known Carolinas restaurants have became part of the national roster for people who arrange their travel around barbecue pilgrimages. But Maurice’s Piggie Park rarely turns up on the lists of important Southern barbecue experiences.
Several things should have made it interesting for serious barbecue fans: The mustard-based barbecue sauce that defines South Carolina is believed by some culinary historians to have been started by Maurice Bessinger’s father, Joe, who had a small diner in Holly Hill, S.C., in the 1940s. And even with 12 locations in and around Columbia, the restaurant still cooks completely over wood, with no electricity or gas. That has become so rare that it’s usually enough to attract attention.
If you ask writers who cover the national barbecue scene, though, they say their policy on the Piggie Park has been simple: They didn’t go.
“There was definitely a split of people who did not go to Maurice’s because they didn’t want to be associated with his political views,” says Robert Moss, a Charleston-based writer who covers barbecue history.
“You’d feel weird going in there.”
Daniel Vaughn, barbecue editor of Texas Monthly magazine, travels the country tracking barbecue. He’s made repeated visits to the Carolinas, for places like the Skylight Inn, Lexington Barbecue and Bridge’s Barbecue Lodge, but he’s never gone to the Piggie Park. He hasn’t heard many people recommend it, he says. And that could be less about the quality of the barbecue and more about the discomfort people have about the restaurant’s history.
“I cover a lot of places, I talk to a lot of pitmasters. I myself wonder, if I heap praise upon someone and it turns out they’re this extreme racist or bigot, how does that affect the way I cover it in the future?”
What about now?
There was a time when I was a fan of Maurice Bessinger’s barbecue.
When I came to Charlotte to work for The Observer in 1985, I discovered frozen packages of Bessinger’s mustard-sauced pork at supermarkets. It wasn’t the Parker’s barbecue I had loved when I was a kid in Wilson, but it was handy for a quick dinner when I was working nights. The mustard sauce was a little different to my Eastern N.C.-formed palate, but it was good chopped ’cue.
Then, in the 1990s, I became a food writer and started to cover the Carolinas’ barbecue culture. When I learned about Bessinger’s history, I stopped buying his products. I followed a simple policy on the Piggie Park: I didn’t go there. Ever. When readers asked my opinion on the restaurant’s food, I would explain that my rule was the same as so many others’: We all vote with our dollars, and I couldn’t vote for that.
There are a lot of litmus tests in popular culture. After Woody Allen and Bill Cosby were accused of sexual abuse, it became more difficult for some of us to watch their work. The Piggie Park felt like that to me. I couldn’t send readers to a restaurant where I wasn’t comfortable myself.
But earlier this year, two years after Maurice Bessinger’s death, I was at a gathering of Southern food writers when someone raised the question: The Piggie Park has changed. The racist symbolism has been removed. Does that mean it’s OK to go?
We’re not trying to hide anything. We’re trying to move forward.
So I made a trip to Columbia to see for myself. The Piggie Park I found was a different place than it used to be. The atmosphere was friendly and down-home, a little like a Cracker Barrel. The barbecue, lightly smoky and moist, was a good example of the South Carolina style.
Lloyd Bessinger now runs the business with his brother, Paul, and their sister, Debbie Bennett. The changes started when Maurice Bessinger retired in 2010, says Lloyd Bessinger. When his father turned the business over to his children, he let them run it as they saw fit.
One of their first moves was to replace the Confederate flag with the American one. Eventually, other changes followed, including removing the flag from the label on the sauces and removing the white-supremacist literature.
Like his brother and sister, Lloyd has worked at the restaurants since he was a kid. When his father lost his national accounts over the flag, he says, it was a terrible time. They had to lay people off. The business will probably never return to the level of success it once enjoyed, he says. But the changes were something the whole family wanted.
“Dad was passionate about politics. He was kind of overboard about it. We just want to serve good barbecue.”
Debbie Bennett’s daughter, Carolyn Shvetz, 27, is a graphic designer, and she has taken on the world of social media, adding Twitter and Facebook feeds and a blog that emphasizes their family-friendly, all-are-welcome message.
“We’re a local business, and people like to support local,” she says.
The Bessingers still resist talking about the history, though. In an interview, Lloyd Bessinger spoke softly, smiling frequently. He made it clear that he’s not interested in talking about his father, his politics or the past. His only interest, he says, is in making great barbecue.
“We’re not trying to hide anything,” he says. “We’re trying to move forward. We have children and grandchildren we want to work here.”
He will say, though, that he was against the messages that his father’s policies sent. He wanted those messages removed.
“I disagreed with the message,” he says today. “We want to get beyond that.”
’Cue as ‘unifying thing’
Some people see the changes the Bessinger family has made and wonder: Is it only for profit? And does it matter if it is?
Rien Fertel wrote about the Bessingers’ history, including the family’s claim as the origin of mustard barbecue sauce, in his recent book, “The One True Barbecue: Fire, Smoke, and the Pitmasters Who Cook the Whole Hog.” He thinks their story may be even more interesting now.
“They’re actually rehabilitating their history,” he says. “They’re humanizing the restaurant. They’re making it a better place by putting a better face on it. That’s a beautiful thing.”
If you just ignore it, you’re ignoring the very complicated history barbecue has.
Food writer Robert Moss
Others value the Bessinger story as a reminder of how complex barbecue history is, particularly in the Carolinas, where the origins are both white and black and many restaurants were once segregated.
“It’s such an interesting, historic place,” says food writer Moss. “And if you just ignore it, you’re ignoring the very complicated history barbecue has. The question becomes, do you sweep all that to the past and not talk about it?” Going to the restaurant while acknowledging the history may be a part of reconciling that history, he says.
Rodney Scott is an African-American barbecuer whose restaurant in Hemingway, S.C., has brought him national fame. He’s building a new restaurant in Charleston that he hopes to open by the end of the year. He remembers going to the Piggie Park in the 1990s, before the Confederate flag flapped over the parking lot, but didn’t pay attention after that.
He doesn’t dwell on segregation history, he says. “To each his own. Everybody has a right to be wrong.”
Like the Bessingers, he’d like to see barbecue shake off that part of its past.
“I like to use barbecue as a unifying thing. It all just brings us together.”
If any of writer Daniel Vaughn’s barbecue trips bring him close to Columbia, he says he would go.
“I doubt any of us, even writers, would want anyone judging us based on comments our grandfather might have made.”
Maurice’s Piggie Park
Original location: 1600 Charleston Highway, West Columbia, with 11 additional locations; 803791-5887; www.piggiepark.com.
Main location hours: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. Buffet hours: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday and Wednesday-Saturday (no buffet Monday), and 3-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday. (Hours may differ at other locations.)