Friday, July 6

The Secret History of Barbecue Sauce

From the sauce-stained keyboard of guest blogger Robert Moss. 

If there's one issue that divides barbecue fans more deeply than any other, it's the kind of sauce that should be served on the meat—if, indeed, a sauce is to be served on it at all. Though it inspires passionate argument, the colorful variety of regional sauces—peppery vinegar-based in eastern North Carolina, orange tomato-based in Kansas City, yellow mustard in South Carolina—is actually a rather recent phenomenon.

Regional sauce variations originated in the early 20th century with the rise of barbecue restaurants. Before then, barbecue sauce was pretty much the same from state to state. It was generally not a condiment applied at the table, but rather used to baste the meat just before it was served.

From Virginia to Texas, 19th century accounts of barbecues are remarkably similar in their descriptions of the sauce. In 1882, a reporter from the Baltimore Sun visited a Virginia barbecue and noted male cooks mopping the meat with "a gravy of butter, salt, vinegar, and black pepper." A guest at a San Antonio barbecue in 1883 recorded the sauce as, "Butter, with a mixture of pepper, salt, and vinegar." In 1884, the Telegraph and Messenger of Macon, Georgia, described the sauce of noted barbecue cook Berry Eubanks of Columbus as, "made of homemade butter, seasoned with red pepper from the garden and apple vinegar." Similar descriptions can be found of sauces in Kentucky and the Carolinas, too. Sweeteners—be they brown sugar, molasses, or honey—were notably absent from any 19th-century formulas.

Vinegar-based sauce at Grady's BBQ in Dudley, NC. Photo by Denny Culbert.

Based on these descriptions, could one conclude that the eastern North Carolina–style sauce—which consists of vinegar, salt, black and red peppers, and not a trace of sugar—is the closest to the original? I'll let readers decide for themselves; that's not an argument I want to get in the middle of.

Robert Moss, a food writer and restaurant critic for the Charleston City Paper, is the author of Barbecue: The History of an American Institution. You can follow him on Twitter at @mossr.