One of the founding principles of this blog is that in general, Northerners don’t know how to write about the South because in general, Northerners know nothing about the South. New Yorker staff writer Lauren Collins must have Southern roots, then, because her popular April piece, “America’s Most Political Food” hit the nail on the head. Barbeque is, indeed, one of the most contentious foods in the United States—take for proof the fact that a boy from DC (not the South) and I once had a ten-minute argument about whether my preference for pork barbeque made me a fake barbeque fan or not. Outside of the arguments about which meats belong inside the categorization, Collins takes a moment to discuss which people are welcome at the barbeque table—and which of us are excluded.
I’m a big fan of barbeque of all kinds, but I was raised on one thing—tangy, sweet, vinegary (fight me Gabby) mustard based barbeque, the kind South Carolina is known for. It’s a unique sauce that is hard to find (done well) outside the Carolinas, and is used solely on pork, especially pulled pork sandwiches and ribs. There’s no shortage of places to find this sauce in the state, especially in the Midlands, but the place that practically birthed the sauce is Maurice’s Piggie Park, a local barbeque chain with a history as infamous and important to my understanding of the South as any confederate landmark.
I can’t recall the first time I saw a Maurice’s, but I do remember the first time I saw someone eating it. I was at play rehearsal for The Sound of Music, in which I played Louisa in an interracial Von Trapp family, when my friend’s mother brought him an after school snack. The whole theatre immediately filled with the smell of meat and salt, particularly alluring to us all, since food was technically off-limits during rehearsal. I remember turning to ask him what his mother had brought him and seeing, to my surprise, a white bag adorned with the Maurice’s logo, an apathetic-looking pig wearing a red crop top a la Winnie the Pooh. I was shocked because the people I knew didn’t eat Maurice’s. Despite there being one directly across the street from where I’ve lived almost all my life, I’ve never eaten at a Maurice’s, not even once, for one simple reason—the flag.
We’ve already talked a bit about the confederate flag, and in that post I alluded to the several restaurants in the South that fly it. For many years, Maurice’s was one of them.or many years, it was the only one who’d held out in this particular display of blatant racism. This can mainly be attributed to the founder of Maurice’s, Maurice Bessinger, a well-known white supremacist. He fought against desegregation, and when he lost that fight, made it clear that black people were not welcome at his restaurants. In 2000, when South Carolina’s congress brought the flag down off the top of the South Carolina state house, he put the flag back up at each location. Soon after, his barbeque sauce line was pulled from local grocery stores, and a court case followed. Bessinger claimed discrimination. He made it known that black people simply were not welcome at his restaurants, no matter what the law said. And for a while, that’s the way things were in Columbia--Maurice had the flag, and thusly, no black customers.
But one day, Bessinger died. And soon after, the flags came down.
It’s here that our Northern friend Lauren Collins enters with her question—is it now okay to eat at the Piggie Park? It seems that the answer has still been no. To this day, I know no one, especially no black people, who frequent Maurice’s, even though there have been a couple of write ups of people hemming and hawing over it. His children, who run his restaurants now, say they just want to talk barbeque, not politics, but the legacy that Maurice Bessinger had over my hometown still seems to stand.
But I can’t help but be curious. I really enjoy barbeque, y’all. More importantly, I feel a right to enter this place that is such a landmark of my home. They say it defines something that’s a part of region--our love for something tangy and sweet, our stubbornness when it comes to our beliefs.And so, that’s why I’ve started this series, both to respond to Collin’s amazing article, but also answer the question I’ve had since I was a kid—am I missing something at Maurice’s?
Illustration Credit to David Sandlin and the New Yorker.