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  • The History Of Barbecue Sauce

  • The idea of putting sauces on food goes back pretty far. In the days before refrigeration and written history, somebody discovered that smoking meat helped preserve it. Somebody else discovered that soaking it in salty seawater helped preserve it. Somebody else discovered that packing it in dried salt helped preserve it. Somebody else discovered that leaving it in the hot sun or near the fire so it dried out helped preserve it. We now know that smoke and salt have anti-microbial properties, and that dehydrating foods also delays spoilage.

    These prehistoric iron chefs discovered that they could also improve flavor and mouthfeel with smoke, salt, seeds, and leaves, as well as basting meat with wine, vinegar, and oils. Especially if the meat was on its way towards funky.

    Preserved meats, especially dried meats, were often soaked in liquids to bring them back to life as stews, swimming in sauce based on such as water, oil, juices, dairy, and even blood. In fact the word sauce is said to come from an ancient word for salt.

    According to Harold McGee’s superb book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, in 239 BCE Chinese Chef I Yin, in “Master LÙ’s Spring and Autumn Annals” discusses the harmonious blending of sweet, sour, bitter, pungent, and salty, and the importance of balancing them harmoniously in sauces. “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 Yin and Yang of mixing sweet and sour is, of course, a Chinese specialty, and at the heart of most barbecue sauces.

    McGee also quotes a Latin poem from 25 CE. It describes a farmer pounding herbs, cheese, oil, and vinegar, and adding it to a flatbread. The paste sounds quite a bit like pesto genovese, and the flatbread sounds like a pesto pizza or calzone.

    Apicius, the famous Roman cookbook written in the 4th or 5th century, had about 500 recipes, more than 100 of them for sauces. Fermented fish sauce, called garum, was big in those days. Look at the ingredients list of Worcestershire sauce and you will find anchovies right near the top. Anchovies are a great source of the savory flavor component known as umami. Look carefully at the ingredients lists of modern barbecue sauces and you will often find Worcestershire. In fact Worcestershire is the backbone of the most obscure of our regional barbecue sauces, Kentucky Black Barbecue Sauce. Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce was introduced in England in 1837, and appeared in the US around 1849.

    French, Italians, Spanish, and Portugese chefs became masters of sauces and gravies, and in a French kitchen the title of saucier is hard earned. In the Middle Ages, Europeans often used sweet grape juice in sauces, then wine, which is grape juice that has been fermented by yeast, and then vinegar, which is wine that has undergone a further fermentation by bacteria. Today, vinegar is in practically every barbecue sauce on the market.

    One myth needs busting here. Contrary to what you may have read, sauces were not invented to cover the smell and taste of spoiled meat. Spoiled meat tends to make people sick or dead, so, although covering it with a sauce might make it more palatable, people who used this strategy probably tried it only once.

    Sauces no doubt had roots in marinades and bastes. Marinades were employed to soak foods and moisturize it, or rehydrate dried foods, and as well as to flavor them. Bastes were employed to cool meat when cooking and replace moisture that evaporated or dripped off.

    In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and as the Spanish explored the New World, they discovered the natives had a wooden device for smoking fish, lizards, and small animals which to them sounded like “barbacoa”. Smoked meats were common in Europe long before Columbus, both for the flavor and because smoke helped preserve food, but the barbacoa technique was different and it quickly became popular with explorers.

    In 1539 Hernando de Soto landed near Tampa, FL bringing with him nine ships and more than 600 men, far more than the 102 aboard the Mayflower that landed in 1620. But de Soto wasn’t interested in settling down. He was looking for gold and silver. He also brought hogs and vinegar with him. He made friends and feasted with some of the natives, and slaughtered others. The natives liked pork so much they often stole hogs from the palefaces.

    Wine, malt, cider vinegar, salt, herbs, and smoke were common in Spain and probably traveled with Columbus and de Soto. They were used to flavor and preserve. Meat was often salted, dried, and then soaked before being cooked in stews. Sugar cane and molasses were plentiful in the Caribbean, chile peppers were native to Central America, and tomatoes probably originated in South America. Where there are tomatoes, there will eventually be tomato sauce, so it is highly likely that the first tomato sauce was made well before Spanish explorers first tasted it.

    It is possible that sometime during de Soto’s alternating wars and parties with the natives, a confluence of smoke, pork, vinegar, chiles, and molasses all came together. There is some evidence that vinegar and peppers may have been at a feast with de Soto and the natives near Tupelo, Mississippi, and some evidence it happened a bit later in Virginia.

    The Spanish colonized heavily in Florida and Mexico, the Dutch piled into New Amsterdam (now New York), the French set up shop in Canada and New Orleans, and Germans found the port of Charleston, SC hospitable. Each brought their culinary traditions with them and the sauces that they applied to the grilled and smoked barbecue meats of the New World reflected their preferences.

    The first barbecue sauces were mostly butter. In “Nouveaux Voyages aux Isles d’Amerique” by Frenchman Jean B. Labot in 1693, there is a description of a barbecued whole hog that is stuffed with aromatic herbs and spices, roasted belly up, and basted with a sauce of melted butter, cayenne pepper, and sage, a popular technique from back home that probably came to the new world via the French West Indies by slaves and Creoles. The French are incapable of making anything without butter. The French also were big on meat juices in their sauces, an ingredient still found in some homebrewed Texas barbecue sauces and more recently in Adam Perry Lang’s Board Sauces.

    The German fondness of pork with mustard resulted in the wonderful yellow barbecue sauces still popular in a band of South Carolina from Charleston to Columbia.

    In 1867, just after the end of the Civil War, after all the slave cooks were freed, the Georgia widow Mrs. A.P. Hill published Mrs. Hill’s New Cook Book dedicated “to young and inexperienced Southern housekeepers… in this peculiar crisis of our domestic as well as national affairs”. It contains the first reference I have found for a sauce for barbecue. It is mostly butter and vinegar: “Sauce for Barbecues. – Melt half a pound of butter; stir into it a large tablespoon of mustard, half a teaspoon of red pepper, one of black, salt to taste; add vinegar until the sauce has a strong acid taste. The quantity of vinegar will depend upon the strength of it. As soon as the meat becomes hot, begin to baste, and continue basting frequently until it is done; pour over the meat any sauce that remains.” Interestingly, Mrs. Hill shares many “catsup” recipes, among them two for tomato catsup that are pretty close to what we know today. Originally ketchup was probably made from fermented fish.

    The first mention of “barbecue sauce” I have found was in the Bolivar Bulletin from Hardeman County, TN in 1871. The author of an article thanks a Dr. J.H. Larwill for “a fine lot of Barbecue Sauce, of his own invention. For fresh meats of all kinds it cannot be excelled.”

    According to an article in Eatocracy, several newspaper articles from the 1880s described barbecue sauces like Mrs. Hills: Mostly butter and vinegar seasoned with salt and black pepper, not unlike the sauces still popular on the coast of the Carolinas today.

    The oldest recipes

    The first recipe I have found labeled “Barbecue Sauce” was in a handwritten cookbook by Edith Lockwood Danielson Howard of Providence, RI. I found it in the library of the Johnson & Wales College of Culinary Arts in Providence. The archivists there believe it was written about 1900, but the tomato sauce recipe mentions Crisco, which was introduced by Procter & Gamble in 1911 and, although it became very popular very quickly, this means the actual date is probably after 1912. As with other early sauces, it has a lot of oil. Interestingly, Mrs. Howard, a woman of means, did not cook. She had help to perform domestic labor.