Neo-Confederate Cuisine

Bigoted barbecue baron gets burned

"Best All-in-One Barbecue Restaurant" is the title People magazine once bestowed upon Maurice Bessinger's popular Piggie Park restaurant chain.

The magazine may not have known that Bessinger, besides offering patrons a zesty, mustard-based barbecue, also serves up racist tracts. Or that until the U.S. Supreme Court intervened, he didn't serve blacks at all in his main dining room.

Now, Bessinger is paying the price for his politics. Wal-Mart and Sam's Club recently shipped Bessinger's products back to him, and Food Lion, Publix, Harris Teeter, Winn Dixie and Kroger quickly followed suit, spelling trouble for Bessinger's sizable barbecue sauce business.

Piggly Wiggly supermarkets — not to be confused with Bessinger's Piggie Park restaurants — kept the sauces and frozen pork dinners stocked longer than the rest, but in October they pulled the Bessinger line, too.

It all started when Bessinger raised Confederate battle flags above some of his restaurants — in place of American flags — to protest their removal from atop the South Carolina Statehouse. Controversy ensued as he defied city officials, who told him that a local ordinance required a permit for flying any such flag or banner.

Wal-Mart says it is the bigoted literature that Bessinger has sold in his restaurants, not the Confederate flag, that sparked its decision, and other retailers agree. The most offensive document, in the view of the Wal-Mart spokesman, was a pamphlet entitled "The Biblical Justification for Slavery."

For Michael Hill, president of the neo-Confederate League of the South, this rationale amounts to "deep seated anti-Southern and anti-Christian bias." Bessinger has been the caterer of choice at rallies for the Confederate flag.

During the Iowa Republican caucus, Bessinger also barbecued for right-wing Reform Party presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan, whose South Carolina campaign headquarters is located in Bessinger's Piggie Park building.

Bessinger himself has tried to make a name in politics. As a staunch supporter of segregation during the 1950s and 1960s, he ran an outfit known as the National Association for the Preservation of White People. Later, in 1974, he mounted an unsuccessful campaign for South Carolina governor.

Bessinger remains unapologetic. "We just served them on a segregated basis, like every other restaurant did," Bessinger told The New York Times, recalling the days of Jim Crow past.

"What the blacks didn't realize was that they got the best food because their dining room was actually in the kitchen."