Romney’s mustard base: A guide to South Carolina barbecue and the Republican primary

Roll over to see 2008 results. (Illustration by Trenton Duerksen.)
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Once every four years, the state of South Carolina—first in the Confederacy, and first in the hearts of late-night comedy writers—becomes the object of frantic amateur anthropology. Natives know to brace themselves for the gale force of the clichés that blow into the state, along with the presidential candidates, as it prepares to hold its primary.

South Carolinians, in the stereotypical depiction, are simple, God-fearing folk, easily swayed by conservative propaganda. In truth, the state is more complex than it’s usually credited with being—which is one reason why its Republican voters seem poised, if the most recent polls hold up, to hand a victory to a moderate, Mormon, ex-Massachusetts governor.

In my opinion, the best way to affirm the state’s diversity is by tasting it. South Carolina, like Gaul, is divided into three parts, demarcated not by mountains or rivers, but by recipes for pulled-pork barbecue. The eastern third of the state makes its barbecue using a vinegar-and-pepper sauce. The upstate third favors tomato-based concoctions. In between, running roughly from Columbia in the center of the state to Charleston on the coast, is the mustard belt, where you find a yellowish sauce that is South Carolina’s distinctive innovation.

“Sandlappers,” as South Carolinians are colloquially called—apparently because (I am not making this up) before barbecue came along, we used to be renowned for eating dirt—profess fierce loyalties to their local variety of sauce.

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This tribal geography supersedes race, religion, maybe even college football—and it also happens to coincide rather closely with the divisions of the Republican electorate.

Here are two maps of the state.

The first delineates the culinary terrain:

And here is a second map, depicting the county-by-county results of the G.O.P. presidential primary in 2008:

Leaving aside a few sparsely populated outlying counties, the barbecue map and the electoral map match each other fairly closely, and the route to victory for a moderate Republican—McCain in 2008, Romney this year—becomes clear. Roll up big majorities in the mustard belt, limit the losses in the conservative tomato country, and fight it out in the vinegar-based battleground regions. So, for an enterprising candidate (or journalist), exploring South Carolina’s barbecue may well be the most productive—and surely the most delicious—way of getting to know its electorate.

What follows is a politics-minded traveler's guide to South Carolina pork.

Region 1: The Vinegar Hinterland

Barbeque started where the European colonists did: down on the Atlantic coast. Spanish explorers introduced the pig to South Carolina, and they also imported the indigenous Caribbean term “barbacoa,” which referred to a method for slow-cooking meat over hot coals. Barbecue as we know it, however, can be traced to practices brought over by the Scottish settlers who populated the Carolina colonies. Their simple vinegar and pepper recipe, in use since at least the 18th century, is still the dominant style in North Carolina. As in basketball, when you mention “Carolina” to outside barbeque aficionados, they immediately—annoyingly—assume you’re talking about the Tar Heel variety.

Politically, vinegar country is South Carolina’s most divided region. The I-95 corridor running through Florence and Dillon Counties—best known to wayfarers for its gantlet of “South of the Border” billboards—is primarily rural and gave Mike Huckabee some of his heaviest majorities in 2008. Horry County, down on the coast, is home to Myrtle Beach and many northern retirees, and it went heavily for McCain in not only 2008 but 2000, when George W. Bush beat him almost everywhere else.

The best vinegar barbecue, though, is to be found in Republican-sparse Williamsburg County, where the last names are still often Scottish but the population is 65 percent black. Probably the two most famous joints can be found in Hemingway (population: 483). Scott’s, a tin-roofed place where the cooks use mops to brush roasting pigs with sauce, has lately been discovered by Yankee foodies. Prosser’s sells its bottled sauce in Piggly Wiggly, and has a branch restaurant in Murrell’s Inlet, near Myrtle Beach.

I asked my high school friend Tracie Broom, a Columbia-based public-relations consultant, food blogger, and doyenne of the local Slow Food movement for further recommendations. She obliged by posting a call on her Facebook page, and a lively debate broke out in the comments, as far-flung South Carolinians championed their favorite varieties and tried outdo one another’s claims of ramshackle authenticity. By that measure, the clear winner was someone’s recommendation of “a tiny shack on the side of a train trestle,” but it was just over the border in Saluda, North Carolina, and thus disqualified. Other suggestions included Schoolhouse BBQ in Scranton, Brown’s Bar-B-Que in Kingstree and McCabe’s Bar-B-Que in Manning.

Finally, Cooper’s Country Store, located in tiny Salters and open Thursday-Saturday only for takeout, was described by one of Tracie’s friends as “quite the experience!”

Region 2: The Mustard Belt

If you’re an out-of-town visitor flying into Columbia, your introduction to South Carolina barbecue is likely to come just a bit beyond the airport, where there stands a neon sign topped by a giant, smiling swine. This marks Maurice’s Piggy Park, the flagship restaurant of Maurice Bessinger, the self-proclaimed king of South Carolina barbecue. No one mixes sauce and politics more controversially than Maurice—a first-name figure in South Carolina, where he once ran for governor, literally riding atop a white horse.

White is an important color to Maurice. He favors white suits. During the 1960s, he fought a long battle to keep his white clientele separate from blacks, bowing only after the Supreme Court decided against him in a landmark integration case, Newman v. Piggy Park Enterprises (1968). In the 1990s, Maurice ran into trouble when local zoning authorities objected to his flying an enormous Confederate flag over one of his many franchise restaurants. This led a local newspaper columnist to write about the pamphlets, long available next to the Piggy Park cash register, on subjects like the Biblical justification for slavery. That, in turn, sparked a boycott and led grocery stores to pull Maurice’s sauce from shelves in favor of a similar product made by Bessinger’s comparatively liberal brother Melvin, who operates two restaurants near Charleston.

There are actually four Bessinger brothers competing in the barbeque business. (This great New York Times Magazine story examined the family’s dynamics.) They learned the craft from their father Joe, who in turn practiced a style that dates back to the mid-1700s, when the administrators of the South Carolina colony offered land grants to German immigrants in order to encourage agricultural development. The Germans brought their mustard with them, and began using it to spice up their barbeque sauce. Maurice calls his stuff “Carolina Gold,” and claims the recipe was biblically inspired.

During the 1990s, Maurice was a Pat Buchanan booster, housing his local campaign office in his restaurant at one point. As far as I can tell, he hasn’t formally endorsed a candidate this time around, but on the evidence of this blog post, it seems he’s been selling Mitt Romney’s book in his stores. Romney may not be strictly simpatico with South Carolina bible beaters when it comes to social issues, but the state’s conservatives also tend to venerate entrepreneurialism. One thing that Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry may not be taking into account when they make populist attacks on Romney is that the South Carolina has actually benefited as much from outsourcing as it’s suffered, luring companies away from the industrial north with its promise of cheap labor and few unions.