The Stories Behind Classic Southern BBQ Sauces
Barbecue fans used to have just one favorite sauce. It was typically whatever style they grewup eating at their local joint, and its color, texture, and flavor might vary from one part of the South to another.
Eastern North Carolina diners insisted that proper sauce was just tart vinegar with a strong dose of black and red pepper, and they'd almost come to blows with Tar Heels from farther west who dared to put a little ketchup in the bottle. In Kansas City, Missouri, the sauce was thick, brown, and sweet. Meanwhile, visitors to Alabama were baffled by the white mayo-based version they found there.
These days, the South's many sauces are shipped far across state lines and are no longer regional secrets. Restaurants line up half a dozen bottles on their tables and let diners choose from a rainbow of hues—red, orange, yellow, brown, white, and even green. (Yes, green!)
Some are old family recipes, while others are more recent inventions. But each has a story, and it's usually fairly sweet—and maybe a little spicy too.
Arthur Bryant's Barbeque
Kansas City, Missouri
The roots of Arthur Bryant's sauce go back to the earliest days of barbecue in Kansas City. Bryant's brother Charlie worked for the city's pioneering restaurateur Henry Perry and then branched out to open his own restaurant, which Arthur took over in 1946.
He immediately made a few changes, like replacing the wooden tabletops with Formica and putting tiles on the floor instead of sawdust. He adjusted the sauce recipe too. "Old Man Perry and my brother used to make it too hot," Arthur told The Kansas City Star in 1966. "I cut down on the pepper...I make it so you can put it on bread and eat it. Now it's a pleasure."
It's still a pleasure over a half century later, especially when slathered across smoky folds of fresh-sliced beef. Rusty orange in color with a strong vinegar tang, the thick sauce has a distinctive grainy texture from plenty of embedded spice. There are Rich & Spicy and Sweet Heat variants for those who like more pepper or sugar, but why mess with Mr. Bryant's original?
Where to buy: Order online at shop.arthurbryantsbbq.com
Lillie's of Charleston
Charleston, South Carolina
The yellow mustard-based sauces from Lillie's of Charleston are deeply rooted in a Lowcountry South Carolina family. Sisters Tracey Richardson and Kellye Wicker named their company after their Aunt Lillie, who hosted all the relatives for Sunday dinners when they were children. The recipe comes from their father, Hank Tisdale.
Back in the 1980s, Tisdale ran a restaurant called The Rib Shack on King Street. "Customers would always say, 'Hey, Hank, can you bag up some extra sauce?' and someone would dig up a container out of the back to put it in," Richardson remembers. "That was like money walking out the door."
The restaurant lasted just a few years, but the idea of selling the sauce lived on. "It was a family discussion every holiday," Richardson recalls. "Finally, in 2001, we said, 'Okay, let's just bite the bullet,' so we got organized and started doing label designs."
The mild Finger Leek-en and the hot Hab Mussy versions are named in tribute to Gullah culture. The mustard base is their father's recipe, while the pepper blend for the spicy sauce was concocted by Richardson's husband, a former research-and-development chemist with a fondness for heat.
These days, Lillie's products can be found in stores all around Charleston. And online sales have created fans all the way out in California, which is now the sisters' third-best market.
Where to buy: Order online at lilliesofcharleston.com
For years, the menu board at Kreuz Market, a classic Central Texas brisket joint, announced in bold letters: "No Barbecue Sauce. No Forks. No Kidding." The restaurant sold shirts and Koozies emblazoned with that pugnacious slogan too. So I was shocked in the summer of 2018 to sit down in a wooden booth in Kreuz's high-ceilinged dining room and find a clear squeeze bottle filled with dark, reddish-brown sauce.
After years of fielding complaints from the cranky out-of-towners demanding sauce, fifth-generation owner Keith Schmidt eventually relented. And it turns out his family had a long-kept secret. Decades before, unbeknownst to the rest of the condiment-averse clan, Schmidt's maternal grandmother, Betty Jean Yates Werme, had come up with her own barbecue sauce.
Shortly before passing away in 1973, Werme shared the recipe with her daughter, Evelyn Schmidt, who eventually revealed it to her son, Keith. A blend of vinegar, ketchup, and more, it has only a touch of sweetness, so it doesn't overwhelm the splendid flavor of Kreuz's slow-smoked brisket and pork chops. But it's certainly tasty enough to satisfy those sauce-demanding guests.
Where to buy: Available only in the restaurant.
Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q
Alabama barbecue fans might be surprised to learn that their state's signature white sauce has Carolina roots. Back in 1925, Robert "Big Bob" Gibson started cooking pork and chicken in his backyard in Decatur, Alabama, and selling it to friends. "He loved North Carolina-style barbecue sauces, so that's where his inspiration came from," says Chris Lilly (shown below), the fourth-generation pitmaster at Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q. He's married to Big Bob's great-granddaughter.
The family has no clue how Gibson first came across Carolina-style vinegar sauce, but that's what he mopped his pork shoulders with. For split chickens, he came up with his own twist. "He added mayo to the base to keep the chickens from drying out while he hung out in his backyard, waiting for his friends," Lilly says. "I think of white sauce as basically a vinegar-based sauce with mayonnaise."
White sauce was once unknown outside North Alabama, but in recent years, it's become a world traveler. "I've seen it in California in Napa Valley, in Australia, in Ireland—really anywhere there's barbecue," Lilly says. Pitmasters now use it to dress all sorts of barbecued poultry, from smoked turkey to chicken wings. I bet Big Bob would approve.
Where to buy: Order online at bigbobgibson.com
Scott's Barbecue Sauce
Goldsboro, North Carolina
It all started with a dream. In 1917, a minister named Adam Scott began selling barbecue at his house in Goldsboro, North Carolina, and soon he enclosed his back porch and converted it into a restaurant. After experimenting for years with sauce recipes, he told his family that the final ratio of ingredients had been revealed to him one night in a dream.
"It's basically an assortment of peppers, vinegar, and some water," says A. Martel Scott Jr., his grandson. "I won't go into detail on the peppers." Ruddy orange in color with tongue-tingling heat, it's a classic example of the eastern North Carolina vinegar-and-pepper sauce.
The Scott family helped spread that style far beyond Goldsboro. In 1942, Adam Scott's son, Alvin Martel Scott Sr., started packaging it in 6-ounce bottles. "Back then, there were little wholesale houses in each town and city selling to the mom-and-pop stores around the county,and that's who he sold his sauce to," A. Martel Scott Jr. recalls.
The Scotts landed their first chain store account with Winn-Dixie in the 1950s. Things really grew after A. Martel Scott Jr. earned a degree in accounting and took over the sauce operations from his father. Deals with Food Lion and Harris Teeter in the 1970s put the yellow-labeled bottles on supermarket shelves across the Carolinas, and in 2002, Walmart began stocking it as far off as New Jersey and California.
Scott is quick to point out that the now-famous sauce is still "fat free and calorie free with no sugar." Although the family closed their restaurant a few years ago, their bottling plant is still going strong, turning out more than half a million per year right there in Goldsboro.
Where to buy: Order online at scottsbarbecuesauce.com