“Barbecue and politics are two things that are ugly to watch in the making, but are a work of art in the end.” – Anonymous
Whether you are talking about former President Jimmy Carter, the late U.S. Congressman Charlie Norwood or the feisty former Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox, it’s a sure bet that at one time or another all of these men could be found with a little barbecue sauce in the corner of their mouths and a piece of chopped pork stuck between their teeth.
Politics and barbecue are a Southern tradition that is rumored to date back to the days of George Washington in Virginia. It doesn’t matter whether the candidate is a Democrat or a Republican, liberal or conservative, generations of politicians have learned, if you’re in the South, the secret to gathering a crowd is a pig and a pit.
To get the job done in Augusta, there’s one man to call: the Barbecue King himself, former Augusta Mayor Larry Sconyers.
Known for once decorating the mayor’s office with tiny, porcelain pig figurines and wearing shiny gold and pink pig cufflinks, Sconyers has fed more Southern politicians barbecue than probably anyone in Augusta and most across the state.
His restaurant, Sconyers Bar-B-Que off Peach Orchard Road near Bobby Jones Expressway, officially opened in 1956 and is known throughout Georgia. In 1989, People magazine ranked his restaurant as one of the Top 10 barbecue spots in the nation. And Sconyers can even be found in the “Glove Box Guide to Barbecue” which identifies the best barbecue joints in Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina.
“I’ve been doing this since I was little boy,” Sconyers told the Metro Spirit back in 2001, sitting in the sun room of his restaurant with the American flag and Georgia’s former flag flying in the background. “My daddy used to drive me around to all of the barbecues we would do for politicians. A lot of them were his friends and it just got to be a tradition.”
Most people don’t realize that Sconyers’ father never set out to open a restaurant. Barbecuing was just something he loved to do.
“My father’s hobby was cooking barbecue,” Sconyers said, as he began pointing to the walls around the restaurant. “If you notice all the farm memorabilia around here, my father was a farmer. And, in the early 1950s, when farming kind of went south, so to speak, he changed his business from farming to barbecue and he changed his hobby from barbecue to farming. He just reversed his roles and I’m certainly glad he did.”
Sconyers Bar-B-Que, which started out as a small business in what was then called an “open-air curb market” in the 1950s, has grown into a three-story log cabin with an elevator and a downstairs kitchen with several giant barbecue pits.
“I’m proud to say, most of the better barbecue comes from a little hole in the wall,” Sconyers said. “And I say this with pride because we had one of those. You can see the pictures downstairs as a matter of fact. But what we try to do is take the food that came out of that little hole in the wall and put it into a nice surrounding that gives you the illusion of going home to grandmother’s house. But we retain the flavor of the food that made Sconyers what it is today.”
Sconyers eventually inherited the business from his father, but not before he learned the art of catering political events.
“Barbecue is a fellowship,” Sconyers said, as fiddle music played in the background. “Years ago, when it got started, people had barbecues, invited their friends out and I think that kind of carried over into the political arena. People began to learn that the best way to get people together in a big crowd is to feed them.”
But, most politicians know, you can’t feed people just anything.
Margaret Mitchell proved in her novel,“Gone With the Wind,” that it’s just not Georgia if there’s no barbecue. “Even before Twelve Oaks Came into view,” Mitchell wrote, “Scarlett saw a haze of smoke hanging lazily in the tops of tall trees and smelled the mingled savory odors of burning hickory logs and roasting pork.”
While Sconyers says he enjoys a good spaghetti or catfish dinner like anyone else, he thinks those political functions don’t quite have as big of a turnout as barbecue dinners.
“It doesn’t have the same appeal,” Sconyers said. “Spaghetti is something that people can do at home. But they can’t get barbecue at home.”
The method Sconyers uses to cook his pork, he said, is the same technique that was used 150 years ago.
“All our meats are cooked for a minimum of 18 hours. Most of them get 24 hours,” Sconyers said, as he walked into the main kitchen of his restaurant.
He lifted up the door to one of his barbecue pits and there were about 20 pork hinds lined up in a row, cooking above a slow burning fire. The mouth-watering aroma of the barbecue filled the air.
“These are the ones for tomorrow. They’re already on the grill. So, it’s a real slow process,” Sconyers said. “All our meats are cut by hand. As a matter of fact, we bought some machines, and I still have them, that we used to cut the meat with, but it changes the flavor of the meat. So, we’ve gone back to cutting it by hand. It’s more labor intensive and more costly but it gives you a better product.”
And the difference between barbecue and other meals, Sconyers says, is the freshness.
“When we go to Savannah or Atlanta for the legislative barbecue, we cook the meat here and we put it in these giant thermos bottles and take it up there,” Sconyers said. “And it tastes just as fresh there as it does here because barbecue has a long life. Whereas fish or chicken, the life is not long because it gets soggy. Barbecue won’t do that.”
In the world of politics, having barbecue fresh and ready to go is important, Sconyers said, because you never know who will be the next person you feed.
“Remember when President (Bill) Clinton came to Augusta State (University) a few year ago with then-Governor (Zell) Miller?” Sconyers asked. “I’ll never forget it. Since I was mayor at the time, we were out at Bush Field Airport and the secret service had us in a little room telling us all what we were supposed to do and what the protocol was when the president got there.”
In the middle of the briefing for the mayor and several commissioners, one of the secret service agent’s cellular phone went off.
“The secret service guy walked over in the corner and he had his little cell phone up to his ear and he looked over to me with a kind of strange look on his face,” Sconyers said. “Then, he walked over to me and said, ‘Do you own a barbecue place?’”
Sconyers said, as a matter of fact, he did.
“The secret service agent then asked me, ‘Well, I have Air Force One on the line here and they want to know if you can provide barbecue for the president when he comes to Augusta today,’” Sconyers said. “I told him, ‘Not a problem. We’ll take care of it.’
“And it was really ironic, and this will show you how the Lord takes care of his children, because that day we were closed. I think it was a Tuesday, but we were already planning to serve the White House press corps, so it wasn’t a problem. We were able to take barbecue over and feed the president.”
Later that day, Miller relayed to Sconyers Clinton’s reaction to his barbecue.
“Governor Miller said, ‘Larry, I’ve seen a lot of people eat barbecue, but never like that,’” Sconyers recalled, laughing.
Miller told Sconyers he was sitting in the back of the limo with the president, when Clinton opened up the large canister of Sconyers barbecue and grabbed a slice of white bread.
In one swoop of the hand, Miller said, Clinton stuck the slice of bread deep into the barbecue, yanked out a big helping and in minutes, “it went straight in.”
“I thought that was pretty good,” Sconyers said, chuckling. “And I remember, President Clinton made a good comment about it on national television when he was making his speech. He said something to the affect, ‘Mayor Sconyers promised him some good barbecue and he knew, being the good politician he was, he would follow through with it.’”
But Clinton is not the only president Sconyers has served.
“We’ve been fortunate enough to serve it at the White House with President Carter,” Sconyers said. “And we served at Congress and of course we go to Atlanta every year and serve it up there. We’ve been real blessed in the business.”
Locally, whether it’s the sheriff’s race or a candidate running for a county commission seat, it’s not a campaign without at least one Sconyers barbecue dinner. So, it was only natural that Sconyers eventually entered the political scene, first as a Richmond County commissioner and then in 1995 as the first mayor of the consolidated government.
When asked what caused him to jump into the political ring, Sconyers just laughs and shakes his head.
“I lost my mind,” he said, smiling. “No, really, I felt like the city of Augusta and Richmond County have been real good to me and to our family over the years and I just wanted to give something back…. And my dad was in politics. He was on the school board as a matter of fact, back in the 1930s and early 40s. He was very politically oriented.”
But Sconyers admits, hosting political campaigns and actually running for office are two completely different animals.
“You have to have a thick skin,” Sconyers said. “You are constantly doing battles. And I learned real quick when I first got into it, there is politically right and politically wrong. And politically right is probably wrong and politically wrong is probably right.
“So, I tried to do what was the right thing and a lot of it was politically wrong. I didn’t understand a lot about the way politics works and I got a good education right quick.”
Being the Barbecue King from south Augusta, Sconyers said he immediately was classified as a politician from the good ol’ boy system.
“I got kid a lot of times about being from the good ol’ boy system, but you know if you look back at what the good ol’ boy system was able to accomplish versus what we’ve got today, it wasn’t that bad,” Sconyers said. “It really wasn’t.
“I think when they said, ‘the good ol’ boy system,’ it got taken in the wrong context. The whole thing was that all those people were trying to help the community and help the people in the community. And I mean, that’s what you are down there for.”
Through the years Sconyers Bar-B-Que has hosted several good ol’ boy victory parties, but according to Sconyers, he’s always happy to serve any candidate, whether he agrees with him politically or not.
“When I’m in business, I’m in business to do business,” Sconyers said. “If you are going to be successful in the business world, I think you’ve got to separate your business from your political background.”
And there is nothing better to start a good political debate, according to Sconyers, than a great big plate of barbecue. Because barbecue itself is notorious for causing heated arguments.
“Barbecue probably changes every 50 miles,” Sconyers said. “It’s probably the most regional food in the world. You know fried chicken is pretty much the same everywhere you go. A hamburger is a hamburger. But barbecue is completely different and people get a little testy about the barbecue sometimes. They really will.”
Just the topic of the best barbecue sauce alone can cause a fist fight.
“In some areas you have a mustard sauce, in some areas you have a plain vinegar sauce, and some areas you have a tomato-base sauce. Ours is sort of a combination of the three,” Sconyers said. “But it changes from state-to-state.
“And I remember asking a guy one time, whose barbecue he thought was the best and his answer was one I remembered because I thought it was pretty unique. He said, ‘The barbecue you think’s the best is the barbecue you grew up with.’”
So, quite naturally, Sconyers says he believes the barbecue he was taught to make by his father years ago is the best around.
“That barbecue is what made us and one of the little things that I live by is, I will never forget where I came from,” Sconyers said. “And so we use that same philosophy in our restaurant. We remember what made the restaurant successful so we won’t ever change that.”
And as long as traditional barbecue is around, Sconyers said, Augustans will always chew the political fat surrounded by a cloud of smoke and some roasting pork.
“Barbecue and politics just go hand-in-hand,” Sconyers said. “I suspect some of the biggest deals that have ever been made in Augusta came either over at Julian Smith’s barbecue pit or in somebody’s private barbecue. Absolutely.”