I grew up in a barbecue-obsessed household, where Dad’s basting sauces were the food of legend. My father didn’t consider his barbecue sauce a supporting cast member to the meat. On the contrary, his sauce played a leading role. He served his crimson-colored concoctions accompanied by white bread for dipping, just as you might do with artisan focaccia and pure Tuscan olive oil at a fine Italian restaurant. Fortunately—if ever pot washing were fortunate—the sauce pot would retain caramelized bits of the makings of Dad’s sauce. Smearing those sticky bits on bread (buttered cornbread for me) was my sweet reward for painstaking work. I can still taste the flavor today. It was evident to me early on that Dad had a great palate.
Dad’s sauces were a reflection of the influences my ancestors picked up over the years. Their great migration took them through North Carolina, Mississippi, Arkansas, and northward; and each of these destinations found an outlet in Dad’s cooking.
“Food is what binds us,” Dad would proclaim as we stood at the pit basting our creations. He taught me many life lessons over the fire. The food we cooked, I understood, showed the world where we had come from and where we were going. Though food was a hobby for him, he worked at it with the seriousness of a master. If one new ingredient could make his barbecue taste better, he was up for the challenge. And because I was Dad’s right-hand man at the pit, this meant I, too, was up for the challenge. Add pineapple for a Hawaiian twist to your sauce? Sure, why not. Try strawberries as a sweetener? Yeah, I’ll give that a go. We found common place in the experimentation and pride in the final result. I carry that ethos with me today.
Who knew the simple act of preparing food could be so loaded with intent? Luckily, I was smart enough to mop up not just Dad’s delicious sauce, but all the lifelong lessons contained within. These recipes speak to Dad’s pursuit of perfection on the plate—and to this son’s understanding of the larger meaning in that pursuit.
BBQ Sauce: A Regional Guide
A quick tour of the history of barbecue sauce evokes a delicious road trip across America. Read on to see how the Richards’ migration across the states brought inspiration and variety to the family repertoire of sauces
Most likely, this is the image of barbecue sauce that’s conjured up when thinking about the genre. In this variation, ketchup, molasses, brown sugar, and vinegar come together to create a thick, tomatoey concoction that works on just about any barbecued meat you can think of. It’s closely related to the St. Louis variety, but known for a thinner consistency and a slightly sharper, tangier high note.
Or more specifically, Eastern North Carolina, this is a thin, vinegar-based sauce that usually packs a spicy punch. It’s probably not what most people think of when they think barbecue sauce. There’s no ketchup in the mix, and any sweetness is overshadowed by tangy vinegar. The only red element here is cayenne, Tabasco, or some other equally zingy kick. Brush this sauce onto meat as it
smokes, with the ultimate goal of cleansing the palate of the rich, fatty feel of most barbecue cuts.
A typical Texas reply might be, our barbecue is so good, the sauce simply isn’t necessary. But like most things in this large, proud, and diverse state, the answers you get regarding sauce vary from region to region. Texans generally go in for a basting sauce called Texas mop, named so because it’s applied to the meat using a mini mop or brush. Mop sauce can be ketchup-based or thin and buttery, it can include elements of dry-rub spices, or it can be flavored with mustard and chiles. Clearly, it’s as eclectic as the state from which it hails.
Now for something completely different: white barbecue sauce. Alabamans are proud of their unique contribution to the pantheon of barbecue sauce. Theirs is a mayonnaise-based finishing and dipping sauce that’s zinged up with mustard, horseradish, and vinegar. It may look a little strange, but it’s the perfect complement to smoky, earthy meat.
In this state, it’s all about the mustard. German settlers certainly had their influence on this sauce, and it’s tailor made for slathering on the pork barbecue so popular in the region. Be sure to use common yellow mustard when making this one—that’s how the Carolinians intended it.