by Ray Leard
(Editorís Note: It is impossible here to list every regional barbecue sauce, so Ray has given as examples some of his personal favorites.)
Americans love to barbecue. They did it more than three billion times in 1999, according to the Barbecue Industry Association.
Thatís a lot of black pepper. And a lot of vinegar, tomato sauce, chiles, salt, molasses and many other ingredients that, blended together, put the zing in backyard cooking mostly during the warmer months but increasingly year-long.
Barbecued food fits right in with the way Americans live: Itís casual, easy to prepare and lends itself to the great outdoors. And barbecue sauces have all the diversity of the land that perfected the art and science of barbecuing.
The history of barbecue sauce goes back to the 1600s, the century that marked the founding of Americaís first colonies. Bob Garner, in his book, North Carolina Barbecue, says the art of slow-cooking game was taught to the colonists by Native Americans, who may have learned it from people of the Caribbean. During the early years of this country, barbecues were the foundation of many major political, social, and religious events. The original sauce used to tenderize and flavor barbecued meat was based on a very simple recipe: Carolina style, with vinegar, salt and a variety of black and hot peppers. Most Americans think of barbecue sauce as being tomato-based, but it was not until the early 1800s that people got over their misconception that tomatoes were a poisonous vegetable! Nationally known brands such as Kraft came into the barbecue sauce retailing picture in the mid-1900s and have dominated ever since.
Today, literally hundreds of different barbecue sauces are available commercially besides the national brands, and experts generally categorize them by the characteristics and ingredients that mark them as being from a specific region. Here is how they break down.
Carolina (Eastern). Found east of Raleigh, North Carolina, it is made with vinegar, salt, black pepper, crushed or ground cayenne, and other spices--and nothing else. This is a very thin, acidic sauce that penetrates deeply into the meat. Unlike with tomato/sugar-based sauces, this sauce does not "burn" on the meat. It can be applied throughout the cooking process for a tender, melt-in-your-mouth experience. Whole hog is the meat of choice with this sauce, and it is best when served with mayonnaise- or mustard-based coleslaw and hush puppies on the side. An example of this type of sauce is Scotts Barbecue Sauce, (800) 734-7282 or www.scottsbbqsauce.com .
Carolina (Western or Piedmont). This is the same basic recipe as Eastern Carolina, with the addition of small amounts of ketchup, molasses, or Worcestershire sauce and, perhaps, some spices. Found west of Raleigh, in the Piedmont belt, this vinegar-based sauce has great flavor, works extremely well as a marinade on chicken, shrimp, pork and beef, and has a nice afterburner kick. For this sauce, pork shoulders are the meat of choice Ė served with ketchup-based coleslaw and hush puppies on the side. Peterís Beach Barbeque Sauce is an excellent sauce from this region, if I do say so myself as the manufacturer of it. Call (800) 359-7873 or find it on the web at www.petersbeachsauces.com .
South Carolina. The region around Columbia is known for its unique yellow mustard style of barbecue sauce, served with a dish known as "barbecue hash." Pork is the meat of choice. An example is Mauriceís Carolina Gold, reachable at (800) 628-7423 or www.mauricesbbq.com .
Kentucky. The favored meat for this sauce is lamb or mutton. Kentucky barbecue is served with one of three sauces:a mild tomato-based sauce, a unique "black" sauce, or a peppery hot sauce. Fitting this category is Moonlite, (270) 684-8143 or www.moonlite.com .
Memphis. Memphis-style barbecue sauce embraces all three of the major ingredientsĖ vinegar, mustard, and tomato. Enjoy it at the cityís major barbecue event, Memphis in May. This style is represented by Corkyís, (800) 926-7597 or www.corkysbbq.com ; Willinghamís, (800) 737-9426 or www.willinghams.com ; and Rendezvous, (888) 464-7359 or www.hogsfly.com .
Kansas City. Considered by many to be the center of the barbecue universe, Kansas City even has its own Barbecue Society. KCís barbecue style is thick, with a tomato and sugar base. It is the basis for many of the well-known national brands, including Kraft, Heinz, Huntís, and K.C. Barbecue. Beef, pork and lamb are all the meats of choice. Examples include Arthur Bryantís, (816) 231-1123, and Gates, (800) 662-7427 or www.gatesbbq.com .
Texas. Sauces range from thick, spicy, tomato-based sauces to thin, hot-pepper-based sauces, to thick and dark sauces that have a south-of-the-border flair. Texans use beef brisket and beef ribs, with side dishes of beans and Texas toast. Examples include Sonny Bryanís, (214) 357-7120 and Stubbís, (800) 227-2283 or www.stubbs.com .
Like everything else, the field of barbecue sauce is always evolving, and today new styles are emerging, according to Paul Kirk, author of Championship Barbecue Sauces. These include Florida-style (based on citrus flavors), Hawaiian (sweet and sour) and California/Southwest (with a tomato and salsa base). Some of these new-wave sauces include Southern Rayís, (800) 972-8237 or www.southernrays.com ; Stonewall Kitchen: 800/207-5267 or www.stonewallkitchen.com ; and Crazy Jerryís, 800/347-2823.
What of the future? The sauce industry has become so large, and the lines of distinction among specific regional styles have become so blurred, that the American Royal Barbecue Association now defines the categories by flavor instead of by region.
And that is just a taste of whatís to come.
Ray Leard, of Norfolk, Virginia, owns two specialty food companies: Purely American, creator of more than 70 bean and pasta mixes, and Peterís Beach Sauces.