Lloyd Bessinger, left, of Maurice’s Piggie Park, and Lake Hill, president of the South Carolina Barbecue Association.
COLUMBIA, SC — South Carolina gets short shrift — by North Carolinians, the greater barbecue community and, regrettably on this trip, by us. It is by all accounts a “100-Mile Barbecue” kind of state, the distance you’d travel for what many claim is toe-curling good food.
The food is so tasty, they say, because it’s labor intensive to make, explaining why many on our South Carolina itinerary are open only on weekends. Sweatman’s in Holly Hill, McCabe’s in Manning, Jackie Hite’s in Leesville — all employing the old-school method that relies on Mother Time. The cooking process begins the night prior, when the hog is placed in a wood-burning open pit.
The bandwidth we’ve devoted to North Carolina won’t be matched in the case of its southern neighbor. So apologies to the Palmetto State; we had a fun first date, how about we do this again soon?
The day started early and ended late. It was a mile-a-minute swing through Columbia and Lexington (our third Lexington in four days), a visit that revealed the possibilities of pork plus Southern hospitality.
There was one pitmaster on our list regarded as Mr. South Carolina, receiving more accolades, newspaper clippings and attention — good and bad — than any restaurateur in the state.
To not stop at Maurice Bessinger’s Piggie Park would be akin to visiting Vatican City and skipping the Pope’s Sunday Mass. The Maurice Experience begins 15 miles outside Columbia along Interstate 20. A billboard-sized Bessinger in a white suit jacket and with outstretched arms invites motorists to come by one of his 14 restaurants in the state.
This is home to what fairweather barbecue fans would consider South Carolina style: mustard sauce. Again, this would be giving short shrift to the state’s contribution to the smoking arts. For this, I deferred to Lake Erie High Jr.
High, a retired stockbroker, is the president of the South Carolina Barbecue Association, a man who spreads his state’s Good Word wherever pigs are smoked and sweet tea poured.
“South Carolina is the unrecognized barbecue capital of the world,” he said, “and it’s my job to make it the recognized barbecue capital of the world.”
His argument is compelling. Briefly: The first colonists came from Spain in the 1500s and settled in what is now Port Royal in Beaufort County. High said barbecue, as we define it now, began when the Spanish brought pigs over to the New World, and Indians showed them how to cook the meat by smoking it.
His second argument is that South Carolina is the only state in the union with four regional styles of sauce. Heavy tomato is what we picture when barbecue is mentioned — the thick, molassesy “KC Masterpiece” variety. Vinegar and pepper sauce, like in North Carolina, is found in the eastern third of both states; in South Carolina that region is known as Low Country. Light tomato sauce is essentially what’s found in the Piedmont region of North Carolina — vinegar and pepper with a touch of ketchup. This is popular in the upper middle and upper coastal regions of South Carolina.
Then there’s the aforementioned mustard sauce, linked to Germans who settled in the central East Coast and moved up the system of rivers and into present day Columbia.
High is fine with people visiting his state just to sample mustard-sauced barbecue. But he’s quick to point out that you’d be missing a lot.
We agree to meet at Maurice Bessinger’s flagship restaurant in West Columbia. From a distance, the restaurant’s marquee sign grows until you’re up close and your neck hurts staring up at “Little Joe,” the cartoon swine perched 120 feet up. Bessinger was inspired by a trip to Las Vegas, where he found marquees outside casino ostentatious — and eye-catching.
Here, much like the rest of the South, “barbecue” is a noun, not a transitive verb. Order and you’ll get a plate of chopped or pulled pork. Unadorned, both versions share qualities with Sunday morning Mexican carnitas — fork tender while retaining texture, a pure and singular pork flavor. Mustard is the house sauce at Maurice’s, school bus-yellow, tangy and sweet, with a Conway Twitty velvety twang.
Bessinger cooks hams. Why? Because hams cost more than shoulders. At one point, the restaurant used only left hams. The argument: In the way most humans are right-handed, a hog’s left side tends to be more tender. Or so they say.
Southern hash is a breathtaking, foreign experience. This Chinese guy tasted comfort in sausage (in slurry form) ladled over rice. And there are all-encompassing crispy hush puppies.
The high-highs are countered by low-lows: forgettable brisket, dried pork loin and an unwieldy spare rib with too much tug for my liking. What ultimately wins me over are the cracklin’s — audibly crunchy salted pork skin that could make grown men cry.
Part of High’s duties as South Carolina barbecue’s ambassador is to train aspiring competition barbecue judges. His philosophy on food criticism is fascinating and can take hours to articulate, which he in fact did. Here’s a man who has taken the discriminating standards of a sommelier and applied it to barbecue. To become a sanctioned “master barbecue judge,” one must complete an intensive two-day seminar, adjudicate 30 competitions and have cooked with at least three teams. In South Carolina, your prerequisites can’t just be, “I enjoy tasting good barbecue.”
One point he makes resonates with me, and I’ll try to summarize a 45-minute talking point into a few paragraphs: Lake argues the notions of “food you like” and “food done well” are mutually exclusive, even though they often overlap. This is one of the harder points for beginning judges to grasp, the idea of separating the critical analyzer in me from the “me.”
Example: I might dislike the taste of lamb. But I can sample a lamb chop, think about its flavor components, textures, accompanying sauce, aroma and method of cooking and conclude that a dish was prepared exceptionally.
This is not to say subjectivity is irrelevant. Know the difference between your grandmother making your favorite lasagna and a chef from Emelia-Romagna using hand-rolled dough and Bechamel sauce, one who executes the dish better with greater precision.
High’s arguments are sound. As I sit listening to him, I look around the restaurant and try separating the food from my surroundings.
Maurice Bessinger’s restaurant is a paean to Southern Baptist conservatism. Walk in and you see a portrait of the man standing proudly with a Confederate flag. Next to the mustard sauces and dry rubs are books on sale — Mitt Romney, Pat Buchanan, The Bible. There’s Bessinger’s autobiography, “Defending My Heritage.”
In the 1960s, Bessinger associated himself with a group called the National Association for Preservation of White People. He dabbled in politics, running for governor in 1974 and lost. In 2000, on the day the Confederate flag was lowered from the South Carolina Capitol for the final time, Bessinger raised Ol’ Dixie at his restaurants — drawing praise from those defending his First Amendment rights — and the ire of those offended by the flag’s symbolism. Major retailers including Wal-Mart soon pulled his line of barbecue sauces from shelves.
(Note: Maurice Bessinger was at the restaurant when we visited. He left before we had a chance to speak with him.)
Many friends in the food-writing business, voices I respect, discouraged me from visiting the restaurant. One food critic at a major daily newspaper wrote to me: “Are you eating racist barbecue at Maurice’s? Please say no…”
I struggled with the idea. In the end, I set my beliefs aside for what many say is superlative food.
When I bring this up to High, he says: “Is it possible to separate Barbra Streisand’s music from her politics? I don’t care that she has strange politics. I don’t care Maurice has strange politics. I just eat his damn barbecue.”
And so when we are greeted by Maurice’s son, Lloyd Bessinger, a first-class gentleman, I observe Rule #1 for guests at a dinner party: Do not discuss religion or politics. Instead, I pick the younger Bessinger’s brain about barbecuing. (For what it’s worth: He was aware I was a reporter from the Chicago Tribune.)
I might not agree with the politics on display, and he might not agree with mine. But if I want to sample his pulled pork, he’ll be glad to serve it to me. My not contributing $20 to his business will make little difference to the company’s bottom line. I was the one who decided to be a guest at his restaurant. And I respect his right to his views, no matter how abhorrent I find some of them. Good food is the ultimate equalizer.
Lake High next brought us to Hudson’s Smokehouse in Lexington. Purists may scoff at the lack of wood-burning open pit — they cook with a Southern Pride — but High still considered this “100-Mile Barbecue.”
“Because they cook it right,” he says.
The house sauce includes a variation of the area’s classic mustard, one indigenous to the town of Orangeburg. Its distinction is the addition of ketchup, lending a sweetness to offset the mustard’s snap.
We, of course, left the ordering to High.
One plate looked awfully familiar. Here was pork that was chopped to the point of minced, a mixture of dark and lighter meats with strands of brown from the smoked exterior. This was the Eastern-style of North Carolina barbecue, with a vinegar-pepper dip — they call it “Ultimate” sauce here — that made the greaseless, moist pork taste even porkier. Later we would find out Hudson’s owner grew up in eastern North Carolina.
When it comes to barbecue, there are more similarities than differences between the two Carolinas. And this was the other lesson I took away from Lake High: People associate regional styles of barbecue to sauces; instead, judge barbecue by how meat is cooked. Sauces are crucial, but they serve in a finishing capacity.
Still, High has his biases. Vinegar-pepper pairs best with chopped pork. It highlights and accentuates the meat. Tomato-based barbecue sauce would overpower it, and the 12 hours of smoking would be for naught.
“When a dog gets sprayed with a skunk, you know what you use to wash away the odor?” High asks. “Exactly.”