Saturday, September 18, 2010

Results: BBQ History Quiz #3

So, I got a little behind and didn't give out the answer for BBQ Quiz Question #3 on time.  Here it is  . . . finally.

This one was rather undramatic, since right out of the gate pretty much everyone got the answer right:

Question: Which regional barbecue sauce style is most like the sauce used at 19th century barbecues?

A. Midlands S.C. (mustard-base): 11%
B. Eastern N.C. (vinegar-based): 66%
C: East Texas (tomato-based) 0%
D: Memphis (tomato & molasses): 11%

The answer, as most respondents knew, is B: Eastern North Carolina.  Perhaps it's because Eastern North Carolina sauce is so simple that it seems old, or perhaps it's just common knowledge, but the thin, spicy, and vinegar-based does appear to be the closest thing to the original American barbecue sauce.

One of the great differentiators in regional barbecue styles today is the sauce. In Eastern North Carolina it’s thin, spicy, and vinegar-based while in Texas it’s sweet, thick, and tomato-based. Some variations—like the white mayonnaise-based sauced from Alabama and the yellow mustard-based sauce from my home state of South Carolina—are specific to only a narrow region and not widely known in other places.  These famed  regional sauce variations are relatively recent developments. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the sauces used for barbecue followed a consistent formula throughout the colonies and then the early United States. 

Perhaps the earliest instructions for pit-cooking barbecue appears in Lettice Bryan’s The Kentucky Housewife (1839).  For sauce, Bryan called for “nothing but a little salt-water and pepper, merely to season and moisten it a little.” Once the meat was done, Bryan advised cooks to “squeeze over it a little lemon juice, and accompany it with melted butter.” Three decades later, Mrs. Annabella Hill, from La Grange, GA, published similar directions in Mrs. Hill’s New Cook Book (1872), though her recipe incorporated butter and a little mustard into the basting liquid: "Melt half a pound of butter; stir into it a large tablespoon of mustard, half a teaspoonful of red pepper, one of black, salt to taste; add vinegar until the sauce has a strong acid taste.” At the end of cooking, “pour over the meat any sauce that remains.”

This basic combination of butter or some other fat, vinegar, and pepper was the standard sauce for the rest of the 19th Century. An 1860 account of a Virginia event described iron vessels positioned along the side of the pit, ”some filled with salt, and water; others with melted butter, lard, etc. into which the attendants dipped linen cloths affixed to the ends of long, flexible wands, and delicately applied them with a certain air of dainty precision to different portions on the roasting meat.”  A Harper’s Weekly 1896 account of a Georgia barbecue noted that the meat was cooked for twelve hours and “basted with salt water . . . then, just before it is eaten, plentifully bedabbled with ‘dipney’—a compound of sweet country lard and the strongest vinegar, made thick and hot with red and black pepper.”

Texas today has not one but at least four separate barbecue styles, but before the 20th century it was pretty much the same as its Eastern cousins.   On a Mexican Mustang Through Texas, an 1883 travelogue, described a barbecue outside San Antonio with a sauce almost identical to that used in Virginia and Georgia: “Butter, with a mixture of pepper, salt, and vinegar, is poured on the meat as it is being cooked.”

The regional variations in barbecue sauces developed in the 20th century, driven largely by the rise of barbecue restaurants and the specialization they fostered.  Of all the modern variations, the simple Eastern North Carolina style of vinegar and red pepper sauce seems most like what was used in the earliest barbecues in this country.

For more results from past questions, see Barbecue History Quiz Question #2

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