clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
An illustration of a person making barbecue sauce

Filed under:

Life, Death, and Barbecue Sauce

In an excerpt from “Black Smoke,” Black barbecue cooks take their secret sauce recipes to the grave 

If you buy something from an Eater link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics policy.

The book cover for “Black Smoke” depicting a pair of Black hands slicing barbecued meat
Buy “Black Smoke” at Amazon or Bookshop now.

For far too long, the narrative around barbecue has been white. Even as it became something akin to common knowledge that African Americans played a primary role in American barbecue’s origin story, contemporary African American barbecue cooks weren’t given the same due as their white counterparts. Adrian Miller’s Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue aims to remedy this by telling the stories of the Black pitmasters and restaurateurs who developed the Southern culinary tradition.

In his third book, published earlier this year, Miller also describes and defines the Black barbecue aesthetic, laying out the factors that distinguish it from barbecue by any other group. In this adapted excerpt from a chapter titled “Liquid Black Smoke: The Primacy of Sauce,” Miller declares sauce as important, if not more so, than the meat and explains why it’s an undeniable part of what makes Black barbecue Black barbecue. — Monica Burton

Willie Powe lived a full life. The one-time Harlem Renaissance-era “hoofer” (tap dancer) and renowned community barbecue man from the Carolinas and Mobile, Alabama, spent the last few months of his incredible life with family in Mobile. Though their marriage had dissolved years before, Willie’s former wife, Marcella, believed that it was important for a man to keep his dignity. She demonstrated that lesson to her children in many ways. Willie was welcomed to join her and their children for Sunday dinner, which he did regularly, often sitting at the head of the table.

Over the years, Willie “showed” Marcella and his children how to make his family’s century-old barbecue sauce. The exact recipe was known only to Willie and his brother Leo. The sauce was so famous that he regularly filled requests to mail the sauce in dry ice containers from Mobile to people around the country. He was often paid with high-quality cigars that he cherished. Eventually, that passion for cigars took a toll on his larynx, and he lost much of his ability to speak. Later in life, he taught others how to make his sauce by pointing and nodding. Yet these lessons always involved a “lesser-pe,” a recipe with a key ingredient that Willie left out. I’m sure you know the type. Those benefiting from Willie’s culinary knowledge knew two things: something was missing, and Willie was probably never going to tell them. Every once in a while, someone would ask what the missing ingredient was. Those who made the sauce speculated that the unicorn-type ingredient might be Worcestershire sauce or liquid smoke, but Willie would never confirm or deny when directly asked. He would just smile.

Now that Willie’s death was imminent, the family gathered. Not solely for Willie’s final arrangements but for one last attempt to coax the complete barbecue sauce recipe out of him. Marcella was a woman who took pride in her appearance — so much so that she never, ever, let Willie see her without makeup. At the appointed time, she dressed “to the nines” and set the scene for the final ask. “Now, Willie,” she said as she stroked his hair, “We want you to be comfortable.” Willie was now fading in and out of coherent consciousness. “Now that barbecue sauce. Tell me what that ingredient was that you and Leo used to put in it.” Willie couldn’t talk at all at this point, and he just looked at her and smiled. Marcella persisted, “C’mon, Willie. I’m going to get a pen and pad, and you can write down what it was. Even if you can’t spell it, I think I know it. Was it this or this?” She wrote something down on the pad. “Was it this?” As he had done years before, he just smiled in response to her queries and didn’t say a word. Marcella tried again, and before it was over, he smiled one last time, rolled over, and peacefully transitioned to the afterlife. One more heavenly barbecue sauce was added to the celestial cupboard.

Varion Walton, Willie Powe’s granddaughter and a successful, award-winning television news journalist who resides in Mobile, Alabama, told me that story in 2016. It brings so many aspects of barbecue culture together: secrecy, pride, deliciousness, family, church, commerce, and, ultimately, death. Death has a way of lingering around barbecue sauce lore. I don’t mean that eating the sauce will kill you. It’s more about stories like Willie Powe’s. How people, usually relatives, are always in pursuit of an honored barbecue sauce recipe before the soulful saucier dies. On the rare chance that one gains access to a recipe, it’s usually on pain of death and cannot be revealed until one knows that one’s own death is imminent. The latter circumstance presents quite the conundrum. For the highly regarded barbecue cook, the sauce is often as much a testament to a lifetime of good works as the meat he or she prepared.

Johnnie Brown, an African American barbecuer from Willis Point, Texas, grappled with the weighty questions of life, death, and sauce when a legendary barbecue man named Lank Robinson bequeathed to him a “devil’s sauce recipe.” Described as “cheerful” by famed Texas folkorist Frank Tolbert, Brown felt “heavily burdened.” He told Tolbert, “About fifteen years ago, Lank Robinson give me the receipt for his barbecue sauce, and it is the best devil’s sauce they is. Lank Robinson was a real barbecuing man. He could cook sweeter over red oak than anyone else can over hickory. He made me swear not to tell what’s in that sauce until I’m just about to die. What worries me is how am I going to know when I’m just about to die?”

Sauce is sharpening the dividing line between Black and white barbecue aesthetics. I use the word “sharpening” because, for centuries, sauce was a commonly accepted part of mainstream barbecue for Blacks and whites. As barbecue has changed, notions for the proper role of sauce have changed as well. Now the emerging conventional wisdom is that proper barbecue should not be sauced so that the diner may experience the true taste of the meat. Otherwise, the cook is hiding something. I must admit, I bought into this thinking myself because I was seduced by the skyrocketing popularity of central Texas–style barbecue. Yet, my love for barbecue sauce was always there. It’s why I nod in agreement when legendary Memphis barbecue restaurateur Jim Neeley said: “When I was a kid, the barbecue sauce was so good that you didn’t need meat.”

For many Black people, in life and death, barbecue isn’t the real deal unless it has sauce, and it’s long been that way. As historian Ophelia Pinkard quipped, “The bar-b-q sauce for the meat is a ‘work of art.’ Each Juneteenth an effort is made to foster the bar-b-q sauce as the talk of the day. When word is passed on about so-and-so’s bar-b-q sauce, people come from ‘miles around’ just to taste that sauce. Tradition has it that no maker of a good bar-b-q sauce will give a family recipe to outsiders. It has been noted that marriages are arranged so that the recipe can be passed on to a family seeking it.” Barbecue sauce also inspired love marriages. In a memorable 2010 interview, Reggie Turner discussed why he married Helen Turner, the dynamo running Helen’s Bar-B-Que, a whole hog restaurant, in Brownsville, Tennessee: “‘That’s why I married her, for the sauce,’ Helen’s husband Reggie smiles. ‘I thought it was for love?,’ Helen shy fully [sic] smiles. Reggie: ‘Well yeah, but the sauce comes with that!’ They both shake their heads in laughter.”

African American barbecuers have long valued variety when it comes to barbecue sauce. A newspaper account of a 1909 Juneteenth celebration in Brazos County, Texas reported: “Well done barbecued meats, breads, pickles, and all kinds of barbecue sauces constituted the menu and no one could doubt that the large crowd enjoyed the feast.” However, it’s not all ketchup, chiles, vinegar, and sugar in the Black barbecue tradition. Mustard-based sauces show up in a lot of places. In my experience, mustard hot spots are northern Florida (especially the Jacksonville area) and South Carolina. The most memorable mustard sauce in my experience is the golden elixir sold at Jenkins Quality Barbecue in Jacksonville, Florida. When you order a full rack of ribs, they come laid on several pieces of white bread underneath and a generous serving of their orangish addictive sauce on top.

Sometimes that “long-held secret family recipe” for barbecue sauce is no secret at all. It’s just a commercial sauce doctored up by a Black barbecue cook. I’ve fond memories of seeing my late mother putting spices and halved lemons in a pot filled with Open Pit barbecue sauce. For a long time, I thought “legit” barbecue sauce must have lemon seeds floating in it. Anecdotally, many of the home cooks I know tweak K.C. Masterpiece, Kraft, or Sweet Baby Ray’s, some of the nation’s top-selling barbecue sauces. In the times that I’ve had a chance to tour the kitchen of a barbecue joint, I’ve seen more jugs of commercial barbecue sauces than I thought I ever would. You may be curious about what places and what sauces, but I ain’t no snitch.

Barbecue sauce etiquette, so to speak, exists for those who continually pose nosy questions to the cook. The first rule of engagement is that one should never, ever ask for a barbecue sauce recipe. As one observer in 1930s Harlem noted:

Requesting a recipe for barbecue sauce is one of the unpardonable breaches of Harlem etiquette that the uninitiated may commit. The restaurant keepers are as generous in giving information on most points of the cuisine as they are with portions of the food itself, but the secret of barbecue sauce is something else. The only certain way of obtaining such a recipe is to wheedle it from a private cook untroubled by thoughts of it reaching a competitor’s kitchen. . . . For the Negro cook has an understandable distrust of recipes which reduce the rights of the kitchen to a scientific formula. Cooking is an art, mysterious and undefinable, that the white man may discuss in terms of half-cups and other fractions just as he speaks of strange things like calories in vitamins.

You’ve probably noticed that when you ask a barbecuer for tips on the cooking process, he or she is somewhat forthcoming. It’s when you ask for recipes that everyone becomes tight-lipped. Why? Because a barbecue sauce recipe is easy to replicate, but when it comes to cooking, a pitmaster counts on you being too lazy to actually prepare traditional barbecue.

A barbecue restaurant’s entire reputation and fortunes may hinge on its sauce. One Harlem barbecue joint in 1944 touted its barbecue sauce maker as a French restaurant would tout its saucier: “J. R. Hinch, proprietor of the new barbecue heaven known as Jerry’s Barbecue, 151st St. and Amsterdam Ave., made a personal research to find the right sauce chef. Sauce being the final touch to barbecue and its fans. Milford Daniels answers to the title of ‘Perfect Sauce Chef.’ ” Before the rise of sweet sauces, many restaurateurs made a spicy sauce their calling card. Look at the firsthand accounts of sauces made by barbecue greats like Henry Perry of Kansas City, Missouri, and Adam Scott of Goldsboro, North Carolina, and you hear the same thing: the sauce was much too hot.

This is one distinction of the Black barbecue tradition that has lost its punch because American palates have warmed overall. Now one can get an incendiary sauce at any restaurant. In fact, it’s quite expected. A number of barbecue sauce makers are hell-bent on creating the hottest sauce on the market. It’s an interesting trend, but I wonder how much things are out of whack when people sign a legal release, have lots of dairy products on hand (to quench the fire), and wear gloves and goggles before eating. Annoyingly, a lot of barbecue restaurants urge you to “customize” your barbecue experience by pouring on your meat any one of various regional sauces assembled on your table.

Barbecue sauce followed a similar arc as barbecue: variety, coalescence, then fragmentation. Yet in all its forms, barbecue sauce is still beloved in African American barbecue circles. It’s why Freda De Knight spilled a lot of ink on the subject in her groundbreaking cookbook, A Date with a Dish, the first comprehensive, nationwide collection of African American recipes. In her preface to the recipes, she wrote:

In my travels about the country, I have come across many tasty seasoning tricks for preparing meats. . . . Each person I met insisted that his or her barbecue sauce was the perfect recipe. But the variations were almost endless. After weeks of testing barbecue sauces, each one a little different, I was at a loss as to know how to select the best of them for your approval. I developed barbecue jitters. Out of the dozens of barbecue sauces I tested, all good, I was finally able to choose a few which you will want to try many times over. . . . The spicy, pungent sauce will literally make your mouth water and the aroma will fascinate you. You will never forget the flavor of good barbecue, a dish you will repeat for any occasion to treat your friends as well as show off your culinary talents. Of course, you can serve barbecue sauce with any of your favorite meat, or as a dressing for cool, crisp summer salad, or as a sauce for spaghetti. And don’t forget the crunchy garlic bread that gets the last bit of savory sauce from your plate.

De Knight not only argues for barbecue sauce as an essential aspect of Black barbecue culture but shows its versatility for other unexpected culinary application. I’m definitely an advocate for barbecue spaghetti. I first had an attitude about using barbecue sauce as a salad dressing, but couldn’t a North Carolina sauce be reinterpreted as a vinaigrette?

So, the sauce flows in home kitchens and restaurants, and in most cases, it’s very good. I’ve been to restaurants where the barbecue plate presented to me was a sea of sauce with islands of smoked meat poking through. The sauce is so good at some places, like Dreamland Barbecue in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, that they’ll sell you a bowl all by itself with some white bread to sop it up. Many restaurants also sell private label bottles to customers. The love of sauce is widespread among Black people, but I can’t say it’s universal. I’m sure there are some “Black unicorns” out there who request their sauce “on the side,” but I have yet to witness this.

Adapted from BLACK SMOKE: AFRICAN AMERICANS AND THE UNITED STATES OF BARBECUE by Adrian Miller. A Ferris & Ferris Book. Copyright © 2021 by Adrian Miller. Used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press. Hélène Baum-Owoyele is an Afropean illustrator and graphic designer based in Berlin.


Swedish Candy Is Suddenly Inescapable


The Land Back Movement Isn’t Just Focused on Ancestral Grounds — It’s Fighting to Preserve and Restore Foodways Too

Eater Explains

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Girl Scout Cookies