James Island. 538 Folly Road. 762-0511
Mt. Pleasant. 925 Houston Northcutt Blvd. 881-0549
Considering the tender glories that come out of them, the “pits” at Melvin’s Barbecue are nothing romantic to see. Two metal boxes, each the size of a pair of refrigerators, that might as well be in a dry cleaner’s.
But inside are smoldering wet hickory logs and a dozen pork shoulders. Twenty-four hours each at 200 degrees and you’ve got the best barbecue in Charleston, 10 years running.
At the Mt. Pleasant store on a recent weekday, owner David Bessinger (Melvin’s son) took orders while his longtime general manager Mehdi Rahimi worked the wheel.
Rahimi, 54, came to America from Iran to attend the Citadel. When he graduated in 1979, bringing his new Western education back to the throes of the Islamic Revolution didn’t seem like such a wise move.
“So I was looking for work and Melvin gave me a job,” he says, shrugging.
It was Rahimi who cooked the very cheeseburger that Emeril Lagasse ate and — BAM! — proclaimed the best in America. (Busy with the impending lunch rush, Rahimi couldn’t remember the loudmouth Cajun’s name, which is funny considering the proclamation is presented to Melvin’s diners at every turn.)
If it seems strange that a place that serves 140 shoulders worth of pulled pork a week is managed by an Iranian, welcome to the weird world of Bessinger brothers barbecue.
Let’s break it down for you. Melvin Bessinger’s father “Big Joe” first started serving pig back in 1933. Now his boys (in their 70s and 80s now) own four unaffiliated barbecue chains.
Melvin’s are on Folly Road and Houston Northcutt (his original Piggy Park Drive-In was on Rutledge Ave. across from where Jaber’s Grocery is now, from 1961-71). Bessinger’s, on Savannah Highway, is now owned by Thomas Bessinger. Robert’s, with two locations in North Charleston, is owned by Robert Bessinger.
The most noted Bessinger brother of recent years has been Maurice, in Columbia, who as recently as 1999 had the largest commercial barbecue operation in the country. When the Confederate battle flag came down from the state capitol in July of 2000, Maurice raised it over his nine stores.
Melvin (now retired to the family farm in Orangeburg) and Maurice are not on speaking terms. Born in 1923, Melvin stormed the beaches at Normandy, was captured and later escaped from a POW camp. Maurice, still a boy, was in the barbecue pits back on the home front. When Melvin returned home from war, Dad slaughtered the fatted pig and gave him the restaurant. There are some other good details about hiding from the Nazis in a German farmhouse attic and Big Joe’s lost will, but suffice it so say an already acrimonious sibling rivalry grew even more bitter.
When Maurice’s flags went up in 2001, his “Carolina Gold” sauce came off the shelves of several area grocery stores. (The NAACP also took exception to the literature he displayed at his restaurants, decrying the miscegenation of the races and listing some benefits of slavery.) The bottling operation lost 98 percent of its revenue; Maurice claims he took a $20 million hit.
And then Melvin stepped in with his own bottles of “Golden Secret” sauce. It took a lot of explaining to South Carolina NAACP leaders that Melvin was seizing an opportunity and not helping a brother out by offering the same goods under a different name.
During the sauce flap, the more enlightened Melvin was quoted as saying, “I don’t say anything about black people, as long as they’re educated and do right. I don’t hold myself up as better than nobody.”
Both mustard-based sauces claim their lineage from the original tangy stuff that made “Big Joe” Bessinger a legend.
Jack Hitt is a native Charlestonian who writes for Harper’s Magazine and appears on NPR’s This American Life. He came home to take on the war between the barbecue brothers for the New York Times Magazine (the article was entitled “A Confederacy of Sauces”). He ended up positing a radical new theory of sauces.
The standard line of thinking is that eastern North Carolina barbecue has a thin vinegary sauce, western North Carolina a sweeter-ketchup based sauce, and South Carolina is mustard-based.
“I grew up being told that yellow sauce was my cultural heritage,” Hitt writes. “But it’s clear that without the siblings’ anxieties and their nomadic habits, Joe Sr.’s recipe would have died out. ”
In other words, if the Bessinger boys all got along and didn’t spread out across South Carolina, we’d be just another red (sauce) state.