Ask Rufus: The evolution of barbecue

July 2, 2011 10:02:00 PM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


During the summer and especially over the Independence Day weekend, it is hard not to think of barbecues and picnics. Be it with pork, chicken, beef or lamb, everyone has their favorite barbecue sauce. The early history of that sauce is as cloudy as the sauce itself. 


When examining the history of barbecue sauces, one finds regional prejudices as strong as any opinion of Ole Miss, MSU or Alabama football. I recently came across a nationally published article claiming that Memphis barbecue sauce was just a higher-vinegar content variation of the classic Kansas City sauce. I know an awful lot of people who firmly believe that the Kansas City sauce is just a sweet, high-tomato content imitation of Memphis sauce. As for my opinion, just give me a slab of the dry rub ribs from the Memphis, Tenn., restaurant, the Rendezvous. 


A major problem with tracing the early history of barbecue sauce is that until the early 1900s, few cookbooks included any recipes for it. Also, although now most people think of pork when they think of summertime barbecue, that was not always the case. Barbecue sauce, as we know it, has not been around that long. 


Years ago many people considered pork to be an undesirable meat. In "Practical Cooking and Dinner Giving," which was published in 1888, the author said, "I confess to having a decided prejudice against this meat (pork), considering it unwholesome and dangerous." The 1849 "Modern Housewife" listed 62 sauces but not one of them was what we would consider a barbecue sauce. 


When an early sauce is found, it is generally what we would use as a basting sauce. In the 1800s, barbecued meat usually referred simply to meat roasted over coals and seasoned only with salt, pepper and its own juices. The earliest date that I have found for a true commercial barbecue sauce was 1909. It was probably the 1940s before commercial sauces were common. 


The old regional differences in barbecue sauces still exist but are fast loosing their regional context. Commercial marketing has given people a wide selection of sauces to choose from. What were once regional sauces can now be found almost anywhere. Since everyone is entitled to and has their own opinion about barbecue and sauces, here is my view of what the regional sauces are. 


Carolina sauces are mustard-based. Deep South sauces are vinegar-based with some tomato paste or sauce. In north Alabama and south Tennessee, there is a unique white sauce that is often used on chicken. It is mayonnaise-based with some vinegar and is said to have been developed at Bob Gibson''s Barbecue in Decatur, Ala. Northern and Midwestern barbecue sauce is tomato-based and is sweet with some vinegar. Southwestern sauce adds chili peppers, cumin or both to the Midwestern sauce. 


The best way to trace the barbecue sauces used in our area is by the recipes that were used in Columbus. The earliest I have seen is in an 1825 cookbook from the Billups family in Columbus. It is more of a baste than a sauce and calls for a pint of water, two cloves of garlic, pepper, salt, two gills of red wine and two gills of mushroom catsup. It may be thickened with butter and brown flour. 


Sally Govan Billups'' cookbook, dated Sept. 16, 1867, has a sauce recipe that calls for "very strong seasoning of vinegar, salt, red and black pepper, and three quarters of a pound of lard or butter. Baste the pig using a mop." 


Probably the most noted barbecue in the Columbus area is served at the 100-year-old Magowah Gun Club. This is the club''s 1940 recipe, which serves 100: 


Ingredients: A pound of chopped onion; four pounds of fat, bacon or ham, melted; two quarts of vinegar; a quart of water; a pint of mustard, prepared; 1 1/2 quarts catsup; four ounces of brown sugar; salt; red pepper; chili powder (optional); and two ounces of Worcestershire sauce, (optional). 


Directions: Fry onions in melted fat until tender and slightly brown. Add remaining ingredients; mix thoroughly. 


What are my favorite sauces? Nothing compares with the old Bob''s Place vinegar-based sauce and baste. Totally different but almost as good were Kenneth Keller''s and Roosevelt Pernell''s sauces. They were closer to Kansas City sauces but were still mighty good. Keller''s was a little more tart and Pernell''s was a little sweeter.  


Barbecue sauce recipes are sort of like opinions: Everybody has their own and that''s one of the things that makes barbecue not only tasty, but interesting.

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]