A look at South Carolina's contentious barbecue history

James Lee “Jackie” Hite is big, a physically and mentally imposing presence, a man who walks and talks with the (expletive)-kicking demeanor — though stereotype it may be — of a small-town southern sheriff. In fact, he has held most every local political position but parish police chief. After two decades of the political life he retired to focus on his barbecue business. Twenty-five years later, supporters were still dogging him, despite his being 72 years old and slowed by open-heart surgery, to run for office again.

“Messing with politics is one of my favorite games,” he told me, winking. “I’m not saying I ain’t gonna run for mayor again either.” Today, Hite continues to serve his people through the politics of pork.

“Most people ain’t even know where my place is,” Jackie Hite told me, waving toward an empty morning-hour dining room. “The local people don’t want a lot of people here because they said it would be too crowded. It’s people in here, but it’s not a whole pile of people.”

Returning for lunch, I counted up the customers: by my amateur estimation, the dining room looked to be filled with about a quarter pile of people or so, all silently munching through plates of barbecue. Another dozen or so individuals stood clutching Styrofoam plates, quietly queued up, like pilgrims waiting to touch a holy shrine, before a buffet-style steam table. I paid for a plate, took my place behind an elderly woman whose royal blue blouse neatly matched her bouffant, and inched my way up the line. We waited as preceding customers swarmed the first station of the buffet table: barbecue.

Heat lamps threw a string of pale-orange halos upon a four-foot long chafing dish that contained an unholy mess of barbecue pork. With the meat chunked and pulled, and fried pork skins scattered about, it looked as if a pig had exploded. I rummaged through the meat with a pair of kitchen tongs, piling my plate with some dark, a couple pinches of white, and a triangular jib of crisped skin. I moved on down the line feeling more than a bit bewildered. A barbecue buffet? Just as I was beginning to find my barbecue bearings, I felt I’d crash-landed, a man fallen to earth, Piggy Stardust.

The table’s far end opened up on to the usual blanket of southern sides: collards and cabbage and limas, green beans with boiled potatoes, macaroni swamped in neon-yellow cheese, potato salad, fried okra, squarish lumps of yeast rolls, and mayonnaise-whipped coleslaw. There was fried chicken, banana pudding, and an untouched salad bar. In the thick of the sides was a deep-troughed warming pan brimming and burbling with a brown-gravied stew called barbecue hash, or simply hash, in this part of the state. Though from the way customers ladled thick globs of the stuff onto their plates, it looked like an embarrassing kissing cousin to chili that had fortunately been consigned to oblivion long ago. This mysterious meat soup evidently played the sidekick role to barbecue here. Following the lead of my blue-haired guide, I poured a dipperful over a bed of white rice. I smiled at her with a knowing nod, to tell her that I knew just what I was doing.

Seated at a table, plastic fork in hand, I studied my plateful of spoils with the analytical intent of a scientist sifting through a Martian soil sample. First, I poked around the pile of barbecue. The meat was tinted an unnatural shade of bronzed-yellow — like the hog had fallen asleep in a tanning bed — the telltale sign of South Carolina’s famed mustard sauce.

To be sure, the sauce contained the classic hints of vinegar and spice, but I knew, from the mildly pungent scent that wafted up from the plate, that I was eating mustard-covered barbecue. Similar to but different from America’s tried-and-true ballpark-style yellow mustards, this sauce triggered slightly sharper rattles across several surfaces of the tongue, minor earthquakes that those bland French’s varieties can never touch.

I’ve always been a bit of a mustard freak; the shelves of my refrigerator door, like those of most artisan-label-hoarding foodists, fill with Dijon-zipped this and chipotle-zapped that, but for the first time I understood how mustard got its name.

From the Latin mustum (young wine) and ardens (hot), mustard is a paste made from the spicy mustard seed with an acidic liquid, like vinegar. I dove in for a few more fork loads. But I still wasn’t completely convinced; mustard felt all too alien. Wasn’t North Carolina–style vinegar and spice enough to accent barbecued pork?

My buffet spoils turned downright peculiar when I guardedly turned my fork toward the hash, a runny mound of ground-meat gravy that just taunted me to take a bite. Hash is basically whole-hog soup, a curious culinary invention that can only be fully appreciated by those who are committed to consuming an entire animal in one sitting. Hashmasters combine everything edible (the meaty muscle tissue) and semi-edible (skin, fat, cuts from the head, and other offal) from a hog, boil these piggy parts in gargantuan black iron cauldrons (repurposed wash pots and molasses kettles), grind or pull the meat, and add liquid, before rounding out the stew with a filler (potatoes, onion, and sometimes even beef) and spices to cook a second time through.

Along the hash corridor that runs through South Carolina’s midsection, the stew is flavored with either ketchup or mustard, while in the Upcountry hash is often and quite quizzically — because this is still hog country — made solely with beef.

Jackie Hite spices his hash, like his barbecue, with the same yellow mustard, shading the ground meat a dull earthy tone. It looked like cafeteria food, which, served on a buffet line, made sense. It was stringy and thick enough to eat with a fork, but, like the hashes I tasted elsewhere throughout the state, the taste and texture put me off from eating more than two or three forkfuls. I passed my plate to Denny, my friend and this book’s photographer. That boy will eat anything.

I had no desire to try hash again, but I would not pass up an opportunity to watch it being made. We returned to Jackie Hite’s two weeks later for a behind-the-scenes tour. Arriving half an hour early for our scheduled appointment, I let myself in through an unlocked gate. The hash house sat in a corner between the kitchen and the barbecue pits. Inside, Hite’s pitmaster, Tim Hyman, stirred a hot-tub-sized stew pot with a wooden paddle. Traditionally, the hash kettle was fired, like barbecue, with hardwood coals. Though Hite switched to propane to boil his stew following his heart attack, he insistently tosses a few shovelfuls of hickory embers alongside the pot to impart barbecue’s classic smokiness to the stew.

I peered over the cauldron’s edge, where gelatinous chunks of pork and slivers of yellow onion boiled and bubbled in the gurgling hell broth. One hash hound has described the dish as “liquid meat,” and, boy, was he right. I had always thought that I would not mind a visit to a sausage factory, but the old adage about never wanting to see the stuff being made finally rang true. The stench of boiled meat — 78 gallons of boiled meat to be exact — filled my nostrils, my stomach, my head. Woozy and feverish, I felt as if I had swallowed a whole hog whole.

Just at that moment, as I wobbled in my hash-induced haze, Jackie Hite burst through the kitchen door. “I thought I told you to be here at 9,” he hollered in his best bad-cop imitation. Hands raised in surrender, I apologized and slowly backed away from the hash pot while pulling on Denny’s shirtsleeve. Red faced and roaring mad, he pointed to the exit, grumbled something about “keeping a man’s time,” and demanded that we immediately remove ourselves from the premises.

Was Hite a stickler for punctuality? A vigilant guardian of a classified hash recipe? Was he tired of me hanging around his place? Or maybe something else was at work. Too afraid to ask, Denny and I stepped double quick to our vehicle and, like Bo and Luke Duke evading Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane of Hazzard County, sped away in a cloud of gravel dust. Laughing off our escapade, while cautiously glancing in the rear-view mirror, I vowed to never again come between a man and his hash.

Most barbecue proprietors carry few secrets. Their pits are open source. Ain’t nobody gonna put in these hours, work this kinda work, sweat this sorta sweat, many have told me. So look around, take notes, but just don’t ask about the sauce. A sauce’s ingredients, instructions for assembly, thoughts on tasting notes: all inquiries are off-limits. Sauces, like bloodlines, harbor secrets. Sauce recipes are handed down but rarely, if ever, written down. Sauce is the one rule of barbecue: you do not talk about sauce.

I’ve been met with dead-eyed stares and been threatened for asking about sauces. Sauces are grave business. Literally. Pitmasters like to tell stories about men dying with their sauce recipes locked away in their heads.

South Carolina, the nation’s smallest and most diverse barbecue-centric state, has five distinct sauce varieties and regions. In the eastern Lowlands of South Carolina, they eat their pork with the same vinegar-pepper combination that is popular up the coast in eastern North Carolina. On the opposite end of the state, a pair of sauce regions is embodied by South Carolinians who add tomato ketchup to their dressing — lighter in the north and west, heavier along the Georgia borderlands to the south. A third ketchup variety defines the fourth region in the state’s sauce pastiche. In the dozen or so Dukes family barbecue shops located throughout the state, the sauce comes thicker than other Heinz-fortified variations and stained a burnt-orange hue, due to an additional hint of mustard. In Orangeburg, the medium-sized city located halfway between Charleston and Columbia that spawned this little quirk, one barbecue shop owner told me that he calls his sauce “rust gravy.”

Among its patchwork quilt of sauces, it is South Carolina’s mustard sauce that stands out. An oddity ostensibly descended from another planet, it is the David Bowie of sauces: blond, beautiful, and, though it is way beyond weird, always inexplicably appealing. Despite the fact that only a small swath of South Carolina barbecue establishments serve the yellow stuff, it has become recognized as the state’s unofficial sauce, with its success owed to the state’s unofficial first family of barbecue.

South Carolina’s most storied, and it would be right to add infamous, version of mustard sauce is aptly nicknamed the Golden Secret. The original brand of the Bessinger clan, the life and times of the Golden Secret is thickened with mystique, family squabbles, and broad, public battles involving the politics of race, war, and southern history, making many South Carolinians wish that the secrets behind the Secret had remained, well, secret.

According to family lore, the Golden Secret emerged from Orangeburg County, an inland area settled by German and Swiss immigrants beginning in the 1730s. In the waning years of the Depression, Joseph Jacob Bessinger, a cotton farmer in the town of Cope, struggled to do exactly that: cope. He was a churchgoing man and a fine home cook, raising 11 children. But he desperately needed hope. And in 1939, hope came in the form of a newspaper article that alerted his saintly wife, Genora, to an area restaurant in need of a new owner.

United State Census Bureau

United State Census Bureau

Bessinger sold off the family’s only viable asset, a milk cow named Betsy, and with that $75 in milk money (other versions of the story add a mule to the equation), Bessinger purchased the Holly Hill Café in a nearby town of the same name.

Though he hadn’t a day of restaurant work behind him, money could be made here. On Saturdays, Holly Hill absorbed thousands of outlanders from the neighboring farm communities, field hands and overseers in need of food, beer and trouble. Unlike in the cotton fields, a better life could be grown here. Seven years later, Bessinger reopened in a new location across town, under a new name: Joe’s Grill. Big Joe, as he was called, served lunch-counter food: hamburgers, blue-plate specials, and, on the weekends, barbecue.

At some point, Big Joe began saucing his smoked pork with a mixture of mustard and vinegar and spice. It made sense: mustard and Germans, Germans and pork, mustard and pork. Maybe the idea belonged to Big Joe. Maybe he inherited the recipe from his father, or his father’s father or some other sauce-souled prophet with deep Germanic roots. Maybe that first pot of mustard sauce was carried over by the inaugural ship full of Germans in 1735. Maybe it was not German at all. The exact moment of inspiration has been lost to time, but that brief flashpoint of genius, to whomever the credit is due, lives on.

Maurice Bessinger in front of the West Columbia location of Piggie Park. Photo

Maurice Bessinger in front of the West Columbia location of Piggie Park. Photo

Like all great barbecue sauce cultures, there is a distinct uniformity to the range of mustard sauces found throughout South Carolina restaurants and groceries today: mustard bold and vinegar tanged, a little salty, and stippled with black pepper. The best-tasting, and most aesthetically pleasing, varieties are always, always, the color of goldenrod, a deep, muted glow that warms the senses as it gilds the pork. South Carolinians defend this dash of culinary esoterica against skeptics, barbecue know-it-alls, and the whole damn state of North Carolina. They prize their golden-hued sauces like gold. And as Shakespeare wrote regarding humanity’s abiding and often blind devotion to that soft, sometimes priceless metal, there is no “worse poison to men’s souls.” If gold corrupts and barbecue sauces brim with secrets, we might expect a golden sauce to be the most soul poisoning of all.

Throughout the 1940s, Maurice Bessinger, the eighth-born among Big Joe’s brood, acted as his father’s right-hand man. During the early breakfast rush, each morning from 5 to 8 a.m., Maurice ran the Holly Hill Café as a one-man operation. Just 11 years old, he’d have to stand on a stool to reach the stovetop. After a midday break to attend school, Maurice returned to work the afternoon and evening shifts alongside his dad.

Maurice knew that he would inherit the family business one day; in his autobiography, self-published in 2001, he writes that his father told him as much. But there were other Bessinger boys, including Melvin, a World War II veteran, D-Day survivor, prison-camp escapee, and GI Bill college student, who was seven years Maurice’s elder. When a sudden heart attack left Joe’s Grill without a Joe in 1949, the war-hero son stepped in to replace his father. Mirroring the best of Shakespeare’s tragic characters, the spurned heir, Maurice, rather than fight the battle at home, chose self-exile, joined the army, and, one year later, found himself at the front in Korea.

Following Big Joe’s death, the arrival of a new Bessinger-owned barbecue shop became a seemingly annual event throughout South Carolina. Each opening, and inevitable closing, portended another soap-operatic schism between brothers. Just before his father’s passing, Melvin opened Eat at Joe’s across town from Joe’s Grill. In 1953, Maurice returned to South Carolina and with another older brother, Joe David “J. D.” Bessinger, opened Piggie Park in Charleston.

Within five months, they split; the elder brother kept the restaurant, bringing in brother Woodrow, while Maurice decamped to Winston-Salem to open another, now nonaffiliated, Piggie Park. North Carolina didn’t take to barbecue from the other side of the state line, so Maurice hightailed it back to South Carolina, relocating to Columbia, to launch the second coming of Piggie Park.

Soon after, Melvin, together with another brother, Thomas, opened his own drive-in barbecue restaurant to compete with J. D.’s original Charleston location. Naturally, they named their operation Piggie Park. Back in Columbia, Maurice had hit the barbecue jackpot, opening six additional Piggie Parks across the state capital by 1963.

Finally, at some nebulous point in time, Robert, the Zeppo Marx of the Bessinger brothers, operated two barbecue storefronts in North Charleston. Thankfully, these locations were never named Piggie Park.

If you’re confused, so am I. The point is, Bessinger barbecue, in all its familial iterations, spread Big Joe’s mustard sauce across the map of South Carolina like an invading virus, with each brother serving his own version. Nowadays, this mustard-sopped sauce is a nationally known condiment. The Golden Secret produces gold like Joe Bessinger’s cow — poor Betsy — once produced milk. In fact, if he were alive today, Big Joe could trade back his original recipe for millions upon millions of dairy cattle. But once money could be made elsewhere, the Bessinger’s hometown was forgotten. The quiet closings of Joe’s Grill and Eat at Joe’s yanked little Holly Hill from the limelight, reducing the town to a mere footnote in barbecue’s history.

Though Melvin Bessinger registered the copyrighted use of the Golden Secret name, it was his scrappy younger brother Maurice who became the king of South Carolina’s mustard barbecue. Trotting into the 21st century, his empire had expanded in directions no other Bessinger dare stride. He had built his very own Willy Wonka–styled barbecue factory, pumping out bottles of his Carolina Gold brand sauce for grocery store shelves stretching from New York City to Tampa Bay.

His white-mustachioed face beamed proudly from the packaging of Maurice’s Gourmet BBQ dinners, frozen and microwavable barbecue and hash for those devotees who could not make the drive to any one of his eleven locations scattered throughout South Carolina. He smoked hams to feed the masses — estimated at 20,000-plus customers each week, an impossible number to supply with whole-hog barbecue — but steadfastly refused to alter his cooking process (24 hours over hickory coals), though every other large-scale barbecue entrepreneur in the nation had switched to gas-fired cookers. Maurice Bessinger was on top of the world.

But then he hit his moment of hubris. On July 1, 2000, after years of debate, protests, and boycotts, the state legislature finally removed the Confederate flag from atop South Carolina’s capitol dome. Bessinger was incensed.

As two students from the Citadel — one black, the other white — lowered the Confederate flag from the State House (and placed it, not so inconspicuously, at a monument honoring the Confederate dead on the capitol’s front lawn), Bessinger removed the Stars and Stripes. In its place he hoisted the Confederate flag, the battle flag of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, the rebel flag, the Dixie flag, the old Southern Cross, high above each of his nine restaurants. He opened a religious mission in the parking lot of his flagship Piggie Park and distributed literature covering, among other far-right-wing topics, a biblical defense of slavery.

The reaction was swift: several major grocery and wholesale chains pulled Maurice’s Carolina Gold and mug-stamped TV dinners from their shelves, the NAACP called for a boycott of his restaurants and the national news media pounced on the unreformed barbecue baron. His wholesale sauce and frozen dinner business nose-dived by a staggering 98 percent. Yet Bessinger’s restaurant business gradually ticked upward.

Unrepentant and bolstered by the support of his customers, Bessinger took aim at those retail chains that dared to purge his sauce and sued those bastards.

Bessinger sued nine retail grocers, including the Bi-Lo chain and Walmart, and even several individual store managers, “alleging that discontinuation of his products constituted violations of the South Carolina Unfair Trade Practices Act.” Two courts disagreed that Bessinger’s lawyers had sufficiently proved that the grocery chains had violated the Trade Act by acting in an “immoral, unethical, or oppressive” fashion in removing Maurice’s barbecue sauce from their shelves.

In my South Carolina summertime travels of 2012, the Maurice Bessinger brand evidently rated as popular as ever, with 14 of his own Piggie Parks now dotting the state. The architects behind Maurice’s West Columbia headquarters might have taken a cue from the South of the Border theme park. A towering BAR-B-Q sign, its neon glow reminiscent of Vegas and likely visible a mile or more up and down this frequently gridlocked stretch of four-lane blacktop, welcomed patrons. An anthropomorphic pig stood upright and cocksure atop the sign; dressed in a red shirt and cap, the porker appeared to be smirking. Nearby, perched above what looked to be the corporate offices, big block letters spelled out CHRIST IS THE ANSWER. In an opposite corner of the property — which, end to end, stretched, in my guesstimation, over a small Bible college–sized plot of land — a tall redbrick chimney issued a thin thread of smoke into the afternoon’s glorious firmament. I scanned the sky but couldn’t locate the infamous Confederate flag. Instead, a jumbo-sized American flag waved peaceably in the breeze.

Because I am a half-Catholic, half-Jewish nonbeliever who subscribes to the basic tenets of racial equality and human kindness, I strangled the steering wheel while taking several deep, serenity-granting breaths before heading inside for a taste of Carolina Gold.

I have eaten plenty of bad barbecue in my life: microwaved mystery meat; pork doused with vegetable oil to remoisten stale grub; pork the taste and color of cigarette ash. Maurice Bessinger’s barbecue was not the worst bite I’ve ever chewed, but it ranks mighty low.

Maybe my Piggie Park visit started rolling downhill before I took my first bite of barbecue. Maybe it began with the table full of stomach-churning right-wing propaganda that welcomed patrons in through the front door. Or the painted portrait of South Carolina’s barbecue tycoon himself, clad in a white suit, holding a bottle of Carolina Gold, and posed smiling in front of the rebel flag. Or perhaps it came down to the barbecue: bland, dull, forgettable. Every table was packed. Hundreds of customers, white and black, appeared to be enjoying their lunches. But I could hardly lift fork to mouth. I left hungry.

Adapted from “The One True Barbecue” by Rien Fertel, Copyright © 2016 by Rien Fertel. Reprinted by permission of Touchstone, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Behind the story


Nothing says Independence Day like American flags, fireworks and hot dogs. But in the South, it just isn’t the Fourth of July without barbecue. Our region is famous for its pit-cooked pork, and its many variations delineate the South’s culinary differences, often along state borders. But not in South Carolina. Our neighbor to the east boasts several iterations of the dish, including one made with a unique gold-colored, mustard-based sauce. In “The One True Barbecue,” author Rien Fertel travels the country to unearth stories about the makers of our beloved ‘cue. In this excerpt, he explores some of the not-so-savory sides of South Carolina’s barbecue lore.

Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor

Rien Fertel is a Louisiana-born-and-based writer, historian and teacher who grew up washing dishes and busing tables in his family’s chain of restaurants. While earning a PhD in history, he spent four years on the road documenting barbecue for the Southern Foodways Alliance. His work has appeared in dozens of print and online publications. He lives and teaches in New Orleans.