A SHORT HISTORY OF BARBECUE SAUCE
The ancients preserved meat by smoking it, soaking it in salty seawater, packing it in dried salt or leaving it out in the hot sun to dry. We now know that smoke and salt have anti-microbial properties that aid preservation and that dehydrating delays spoilage.
Smoke and salt also can improve flavor, and basting or marinating meat in wine, vinegar and oils can give flavor a further boost. Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, quotes I Yin, a Chinese chef from 239 BCE, on the harmonious blending of sweet, salty, sour, bitter and pungent tastes: “The transformation which occurs in the cauldron is quintessential and wondrous, subtle and delicate. The mouth cannot express in words. The mind cannot fix upon an analogy. It is like the subtlety of archery and horsemanship, the transformation of yin and yang, or the revolution of the four seasons.”
The famous 1st century Roman cookbook, De re Culinaria, includes a recipe for garum, a fermented fish sauce popular in Rome at the time. A quick scan of the ingredients in Worcestershire sauce, a standard modern barbecue sauce addition, puts anchovies near the top of the list. (Worcestershire sauce was first introduced in England in 1837, and arrived in the United States around 1848.)
By the Middle Ages, Europeans used sweet grape juice in sauces, then wine (grape juice fermented by yeast), then vinegar (wine fermented by bacteria). Vinegar is the backbone of many a contemporary barbecue sauce. European voyages of discovery brought Christopher Columbus to the New World in 1492, and Hernando de Soto in 1539. Upon arrival they saw natives using a wooden frame for smoking and roasting fish, lizards and small animals. The native Arawak word for this device became, in Spanish, barbacoa.
The Spanish brought hogs (so popular with the natives that they often were stolen), wine, malt, cider vinegar, salt and herbs. Sugar cane and molasses were plentiful in the Caribbean, and chile peppers and tomatoes were both New World plants. Thus a familiar confluence of smoke, pork, vinegar, chiles, tomatoes and molasses evolved.
The Spanish colonized Florida and Mexico, the Dutch founded New Amsterdam (now New York), the French were in Canada and New Orleans and Germans settled in the South Carolina near Charleston Bay. Each brought their own culinary traditions and sauces.
The Georgia Barbecue Sauce Company, one of the first commercial distributors, placed an advertisement in a 1909 issue of the Atlanta Constitution that exclaimed “Georgia Barbecue Sauce is the finest dressing known to culinary science for beef, pork, mutton, fish, oysters and game of every kind, fried or broiled. It is unequaled for perfecting Brunswick stew and as a dressing for vegetables.” In 1917 Adam Scott opened a barbecue restaurant in Goldsboro, North Carolina which featured a vinegar based sauce recipe that he claimed came to him in a dream. Scott’s Family Barbecue Sauce remains an East Carolina classic today. Abe’s Bar-B-Q Sauce, first made in 1924 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, is another time honored classic, and many other local barbecue joints created sauces that wound up on local grocery shelves. H.J. Heintz promoted his tomato ketchup based barbecue sauce in Pittsburgh in 1948, and it may have been the first to receive broad national distribution. He advertised it as “the most delicious barbecue sauce you’ve ever served with poultry, seafood, hamburgers, frankfurters and other meats.”
Commercial claims notwithstanding, many contemporary pit masters swear by their own concoctions, which may range from plain vinegar accented only with salt and pepper to potions with thirty ingredients or more. Some take shortcuts by doctoring their favorite store bought variety. And, as discussed above, sauce preferences vary by geography. Eastern North Carolina favors a light vinegar-based sauce on its pulled pork barbecue, and tomato is anathema. Western North Carolina dresses pork barbecue with a tomato-based sauce strongly flavored with vinegar. In Texas, beef brisket is slow cooked over mesquite with a ketchup-based sauce laced with chile and cumin. Kansas City spareribs are doused with a pungent, assertive tomato and vinegar-based sauce. In Memphis, which specializes in dry rubs, ribs may be served with no sauce at all.