There’s a mantra in my house. I mess it up and Brian, my better half, cleans it up.
It’s a pretty good arrangement considering I was raised in a traditional southern household where the roles were reversed. Women did the cooking and the cleaning. Women were sequestered indoors; men got fresh air, sunshine and got to play with fire.
I’d spend hours as a child watching my mother and Granny put together feasts for entertaining friends and family at the house on Lake Murray. The rules were set in stone, the men-folk manned the smoker and the grill and the women concocted marinades and sauces, prepared all the side dishes and plenty of ice-cold sweet tea. Occasionally I’d pop outside and catch a glimpse of Gramps poking a charcoal fire, a pair of tongs in one hand and Miller Genuine Draft in the other. He kept a couple stashed in an old refrigerator in the garage, well out of Granny’s sight.
Those years of my youth I was taught the proper way to do lots of things by both my grandparents. Gramps taught me how to take a fish off a hook, pull weeds and hide things in the refrigerator so far in the back no one would notice. Granny taught me holding a broom, washing dishes, changing linens, and doctoring the barbecue sauce to make it “right.” Those were her words, not mine. There was only one kind of barbecue allowed in the house: pulled pork or grilled chicken with a pucker-your-mouth, apple cider vinegar based South Carolina mustard sauce. She took the recipe to her grave. The closest thing I’ve found to Granny’s sauce is Maurice’s from off store shelves. But close my eyes and take a bite of a pulled-pork barbecue sandwich from Zingerman’s Roadhouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan and I’m a kid all over again. The tender pork and sweet-sour bite of Alex Young’s Carolina sauce transports me right back to Granny’s kitchen in 1970s rural South Carolina. I can almost feel the olive-green shag carpeting between my toes.
Times have certainly changed. Southern barbecue mastered by a Yankee. Granny’s rolling over in her grave, I’m sure.
While honoring family tradition is the respectful thing to do, there comes a time when a generation has to question the why of tradition. Are you doing it because it’s always been done that way? Or choosing something because it’s really a preference?
Thus, my obsession with barbecue sauces. Going against tradition has been a smart move. No disrespect to Granny, but I learned a long time ago that telling a Texan that the “right way” to make barbecue is a quick way to lose a friend. Best keep my trap shut. People take pride in their sauces. And a barbecue sauce is as individual as a signature. If you want to know a place, eat the barbecue. Shop the stores and farmers’ markets. Talk to the locals. As a result of this philosophy, I’ve been turned on to such oddities as Sansonetti’s Michigan Cherry barbecue sauce. Sansonetti’s is lip-smacking good on its own, but absolutely sinful over smoked turkey; I’ve even used this sauce for breakfast to marry French toast and scrambled eggs. Something about the combination of tomato, cherry and cayenne makes it work.
Not to be outdone, Chef Ciaran Duffy’s Chocolate Barbecue sauce has a dark, bitter-sweet bite akin to mole. I have yet to try the sauce as part of Mexican fare, but my curiosity is piqued for future culinary adventures. Thus far, it’s been best served, in my opinion, over grilled lamb chops. Pour a glass of Zinfandel and I’m in heaven. Since Duffy’s claim to fame is the Charleston restaurant, Tristan, I feel partially forgiven since the sauce does come from South Carolina, my family’s state of origin.
The more I travel, the more my stash of barbecue sauces keeps on growing. Each new sauce puts me back in the kitchen, by the grill and making a heck of a mess as I get creative. Breaking further with tradition, I’ve ditched the charcoal for gas and the Miller Genuine Draft for Sam Adams Light (when watching my girlish figure). A man may clean up after me, but in my heart I’m still stoking the fires of a long-held tradition: eating barbecue and all the fixins with people I love.
In the big picture, that’s what it’s all about.