In February of 2015, Kathleen Purvis, the food editor of the Charlotte Observer, drove to Birmingham, Alabama, to attend Food Media South, an annual symposium. The keynote session, “Hey, You, Pitch Me Something,” was meant to be a friendly wind-down to a weekend of talks. Participants were invited to get up in front of the editor of the Web magazine the Bitter Southerner and, well, pitch him something.
There were several hundred people in the room. Purvis knew that in the name of politeness she should probably stay quiet, but she couldn’t resist the opportunity to “toss a good word grenade,” she recalled later, into a clubby crowd that she felt tended to overlook, along with chiffon cakes and canning, some of the most complicated questions about Southern cuisine. She raised her hand, and the editor nodded her way.
“Men are the new carpetbaggers of Southern food writing,” she said.
He replied, “Sold.”
The resulting essay argues that “the Southern food-writing world has been unduly influenced, usurped, yes, even invaded, by a barbecue-entranced, bourbon-preoccupied and pork belly-obsessed horde of mostly testosterone-fueled scribes,” who dwell on hackneyed tales of Southern eccentricity without developing “the clear-eyed vision” to see them in a contemporary light. The piece generated controversy, though not as much as Purvis’s investigation into the racial dimensions of the practice of putting sugar in corn bread. “Honest to God, I really hate that hokey-jokey Hey-us-Southerners-aren’t-we-cute stuff,” she told me. “I’ve always said that my beat is food and the meaning of life.”
Gamely, the organizers invited her to the conference the next year as a speaker. “I was getting ready to get up and talk,” Purvis said. “I was sitting there very quietly in a corner, and a woman came up to me and said, ‘So, is it O.K. to go back to the Piggie Park?’ ”
The woman was referring to Maurice’s Piggie Park, a small chain of barbecue restaurants, established in West Columbia, South Carolina, in 1953. The original restaurant occupies a barnlike building on a busy intersection and is presided over by a regionally famous electric marquee that features the boast “world’s best bar-b-q,” along with a grinning piglet named Little Joe. The Piggie Park is important in the history of barbecue, which is more or less the history of America. One reason is that its founder, Maurice Bessinger, popularized the yellow, mustard-based sauce that typifies the barbecue of South Carolina’s Midlands area. Another is that Bessinger was a white supremacist who, in 1968, went to the Supreme Court in an unsuccessful fight against desegregation, and, in 1974, ran a losing gubernatorial campaign, wearing a white suit and riding a white horse.
In 2000, when the Confederate flag was removed from the South Carolina statehouse dome, Bessinger raised Confederate flags over all his restaurants. (By then, there were nine.) A king-sheet-size version went up over the West Columbia location, where he had long distributed tracts alleging, for example, that “African slaves blessed the Lord for allowing them to be enslaved and sent to America.” He was a figure whose hate spawned contempt, leading a writer from the Charleston City Paper to fantasize about how “Satan and his minions would slather his body in mustard-based BBQ sauce before they dined.”
In 2007, Bessinger, who suffered from Alzheimer’s at the end of his life, handed the business over to his two sons, Paul and Lloyd, and a daughter, Debbie. In the months before his death, in 2014, they took down the flags and got rid of the slavery pamphlets. “Dad liked politics,” Lloyd, who serves as the public face of the operation, told a reporter. “That’s not something we’re interested in doing. We want to serve great barbecue.”
By the time the news reached Kathleen Purvis, she hadn’t eaten Bessinger’s barbecue in nearly three decades. She grew up in Wilson, North Carolina, where her father was an R.C. Cola salesman and barbecue sauce is made with vinegar. Early in her career, she’d become a fan of the Bessinger family’s line of packaged foods—“handy for a quick dinner when I was working nights”—but, she wrote, in an article in the Observer in December, “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.” During the flag scandal, thousands of South Carolinians made the same call, going cold turkey. “I first made Maurice’s acquaintance when I was a child,” the barbecue expert William McKinney wrote, on the Web site of the Southern Foodways Alliance. “His barbecue was sold in the freezer aisle of the grocery store. It would bubble up in our family’s oven, its orange sauce as vivid as a river of lava. My mother would pack his barbecue in my lunch bag routinely, and I ate those sandwiches all the way through high school, wrapped up in aluminum foil and still a touch warm once lunch time came around.” It was as though Jif peanut butter or Katz’s Deli had become irredeemably tainted.
The Piggie Park had bad vibes, but it retained a pull on the community. For barbecue obsessives, it held a special fascination as one of the few restaurants in the country to still cook entirely over hickory wood, using no electricity or gas. One prominent Columbia resident, a black man, told me that he was addicted to Bessinger’s sauce, but that he would never admit it in public. The regime shift, then, represented a touchy moment. Some people wanted to go only if things had changed (but, if they were going to go, they wanted to get there before things had changed too much). For others, no amount of change was ever going to mitigate the legacy of a man who had caused so much hurt. Even asking if it was O.K. to return was a form of blindness to that pain. “They could change the last name, redo the building, then dig the old man up . . . it still wouldn’t matter to those who continue to carry the ‘chip on the shoulder’ mentality,” a man named James Last, of Wilmington, North Carolina, wrote in response to Purvis’s article, prompting Durward White, of Katy, Texas, to reply, “Are you saying no matter how vile and disrespectful his actions were we should move on? People still can’t move on from Tom Brady and deflate gate and that was 3 years ago.”
Barbecue might be America’s most political food. The first significant reference to it that the barbecue scholar Robert F. Moss has been able to find is in “The Barbacue Feast: or, the three pigs of Peckham, broiled under an apple-tree,” an account of a 1706 banquet in Jamaica. The revellers were English colonists, but the pigs were “nicely cook’d after the West Indian manner”: whole, over coals, on long wooden spits on which they turned as a cook basted them in a spicy sauce (green Virginia pepper and Madeira wine), using a foxtail tied to a stick. Native Americans on the East Coast of North America used similar cooking techniques. But the main thing about barbecues is that they were social affairs, a day’s entertainment for the community. Between 1769 and 1774, George Washington attended at least six of them, he wrote in his diary, including “a Barbicue of my own giving at Accotinck.”
A whole hog can feed as many as a hundred people. Barbecues, often held on the Fourth of July, became overtly political in the nineteenth century. As Moss writes in “Barbecue: The History of an American Institution,” they were “the quintessential form of democratic public celebration, bringing together citizens from all stations to express and reaffirm their shared civic values.” They adhered to a ritualized format: parade, prayer, reading of the Declaration of Independence, oration, and dinner in a shady grove near a drinking spring, after which dignitaries gave a series of “regular” toasts (thirteen of them, on patriotic subjects), followed by “voluntary” toasts from the masses (thirty or forty, on issues ranging from local elections to the free navigation of the Mississippi, or whatever else happened to be the day’s concerns). Often, the festivities turned rowdy. If an antebellum politician had wanted to rile folks up about building a wall, he would have done it at a barbecue.
Before the Civil War, enslaved men often cooked these civic meals. They prepared their own feasts, too, either sanctioned by their owners or organized on the quiet. Much of the planning for the rebellions organized by Gabriel Prosser and Nat Turner took place at barbecues. After emancipation, black men continued to be some of the country’s leading pit masters, catering enormous spreads that featured everything from barbecued hogs, shoats, chickens, and lambs to stuffed potatoes, stewed corn, cheese relish, puddings, coffee, and cigars. In 1909, the Times noted the death of a man born around 1865, on a plantation in Edgefield County, South Carolina. “Pickens Wells, . . .