Smoke beginning to clear on the changing face of barbecue

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comOctober 29, 2013 

Detail from the cover of "A History of South Carolina Barbeque" by Lake E. High Jr.

The golden age of South Carolina barbecue has gone platinum.

So says the co-founder of the S.C. Barbeque Association, Lake E. High Jr. of Irmo.

And he's not talking about the big barbecue news of the week: The Bessenger family has finally come to its senses.

The State newspaper in Columbia reports that the last two Confederate flags that flew outside Maurice's BBQ restaurants in the Midlands came down quietly a couple of months ago.

Maurice Bessenger has probably sold more barbecue than anyone in history, but he brought shame to the state in 2000 when he took down the American flag and raised the state flag and Confederate flag at his restaurants. He was mad that the Confederate flag was taken down from the Statehouse dome. He put rebel flags on the labels of his heirloom mustard-based sauce. He had neo-Confederacy shrines in his restaurants.

Maurice found that he had a right to express himself, but the rest of the world had a right to quit supporting him.

Now Maurice is out of the day-to-day business. His son Lloyd Bessenger told writer Kristy Eppley Rupon: "Dad liked politics. That's not something we're interested in doing. We want to serve great barbecue. We want to get past that."

He does serve great barbecue -- slow cooked over wood, the same way his grandfather started doing it at Joe's Grill in Holly Hill in 1939.

Lake High said he and Walter Rolandi founded the S.C. Barbeque Association with this important understanding: "We aren't going to do politics. We aren't going to do religion. We're going to do barbecue."

Maybe we can now fight over hot sauces instead of Lost Causes. We can acknowledge that African-Americans with reason to be most offended by the Confederate flag have been pitmasters for a lot of the barbecue now putting South Carolina on the map, including Maurice's. African-American Rodney Scott serves barbecue as good as any, anywhere, at Scott's Bar-B-Que in Hemingway. And we can credit German immigrants for adding the mustard-based sauce that defines our barbecue.

But there are other signs that we are in a golden age.

The Barbeque Association has trained more than 800 barbecue judges, raising the bar for pitmasters statewide.

High has a new book out, "A History of South Carolina Barbeque." It documents the delicacy's genesis right here in Beaufort County, when Spanish explorers had the pigs and Native Americans had the pits.

The state tourism agency has bellied up to the table. Interstate billboards now blast out to motorists that they are on holy ground -- the birth state of barbecue. South Carolina has a new website and "BBQ Trail Map," produced by the BFG advertising agency in Bluffton. Slow food has met social media. It's getting coverage all over the world.

The smoke is beginning to clear on the changing face of barbecue.

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