For Barbecue lovers, the sauce defines us as much as what kind of meat, tofu, or
vegetable we put it on. Sure, you think of Texas for beef, North Carolina for Pork, and North Alabama for Half Smoked Chickens. Not half chicken - half some other bird. That’s just unnatural and wrong––even for Alabama.
What you put on the meat and when you put it defines regions, ethnicities, and even social strata. I grew up in Northern Alabama, where you had one kind of barbecue: pulled pork. For your sandwich or plate, you ordered your pork “inside and outside.” That gives you the tender juiciness of the meat with the crunchy goodness of bark on the butts. Bark’s the candy and, for me – the best part.
There were three or four barbecue restaurants around Decatur, AL, and my people ate at Big Bob Gibson. There you sauced your pulled pork with a North Carolina-ish sauce of cider vinegar with black and red peppers. Those were the main ingredients, and if there were other things in there, it was hush-hush. The sauce was in plastic squirt bottles on each table. You took your finger and covered the hole in the bottle, and shook it hard. You’d never do such a thing today––it’s certainly not pandemic friendly. My grandmother would take a small piece of napkin and hold it over the hole as she shook the squirter. She probably took this precaution to protect her powder blue suit more than for hygiene. Looking back, I suppose there was a little bit of all of us in that sauce. Not a comforting thought.
The other sauce offered was unique to our area. It’s what is now called Alabama White Sauce or Morgan County White Sauce. We called it white sauce (we weren’t ones to put on airs, don’t you know). It was also in squirt bottles on tables and intended for dressing chicken, but the stuff was also great on everything else. White sauce is mayonnaise, vinegar, and black pepper primarily, living in flavorful harmony. You’ll see recipes that include lemon, horseradish, and other things. Maybe they were in there. Who knows? Big Bob would have known. He developed the concoction. And true to his name, he was a huge man. His split-half chickens were smoked on the grill, dipped in vats of white sauce, and plated. You added extra as you ate.
There was also a Little Bob Gibson. I guess Big Bob got around. This joint had the usual barbecue, slaw, and chips like the other spot, but it was considered the lesser of the two restaurants. Who lives up to their daddy?
But Little Bob excelled at Brunswick Stew. A savory spoon-hugging stew so good that you bought it for takeaway in repurposed gallon pickle jars. We would wash out our pickle jar and take it back for a refill because sometimes Little Bob ran out of them.
When I moved to the metropolis of Birmingham and married someone from there, I was shocked when I found no vinegar-based sauce or white sauce. These magic elixirs hadn’t made the 80-mile journey down I-65. In Birmingham, they ate a thick, red, sweet barbecue sauce. Typically, there were two kinds on the table. The regular sweet sauce, along with a hotter version of it. This was wrong, an affront to humanity, not to mention smoked meats, but I came to enjoy them. These sauces helped give some character to the dry, tasteless pork that you often got.
These red sauces were not all the same. Some are like glorified ketchup, and others have a strong chili powder aftertaste. The sweetness level can vary. Some can be insulin-inducing. Most families, including my wife’s, had their
secret sauce recipe when they cooked pork butts and ribs. The sauce was somewhere between Decatur and Birmingham (which would be Cullman). It was a sweet red sauce with a lot of vinegar. There were factions of the family that took liberties with the ingredients. Chili Sauce or Ketchup? It was a dividing line.
Frankly, I can’t taste the difference.
When my wife’s family recipe was revealed after several years of marriage (they had to make sure I was sticking around), I began doctoring it—shallots instead of onions. Exotic kinds of vinegar. Honey instead of brown sugar. But my sauce was somewhere in the ballpark. I’m surprised by how much butter goes in, but butter does make everything better.
Then you have a special Mop Sauce. That’s the tart juice you keep mopping on the meat with while it cooks for flavor and moisture. In some places, that’s all the sauce you’re going to get.
I asked my wife for permission to share the family recipe for our Trailheads readers. It’s silly, but everyone who has a recipe likes to keep it secret because they do one or two things that make theirs unique and much better than any other. We lock away our sauce recipe in a lockbox at the bank, like the Coca-Cola formula. But my wife surprised me and happily gave me a photo of the recipe handed down to her by her father. Enjoy. And share your family’s recipe!
Or at least the one ingredient that made yours unique and different.
Barbecue Sauce photo courtesy of LeitesCulinaria.com
Photographer: Wyatt McSpadden