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Smoke Signals: Necessity, mother of sauce

Jim Shahin's Kansas City-style sauce recipe appears in tomorrow's Food section. For three more unconventional sauces, read on. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Sometimes you get a life-changing epiphany from the most unexpected circumstance.

It was summertime, 1990. I was driving a rented convertible, top-down, under a ferocious Mississippi sun, passing through endless farmland on my way from Memphis to a business meeting in Oxford when I noticed a faint but unmistakable smell in the air.
Tangy. Sweet. Glorious.

Yep, that’s barbecue sauce, all right. No doubt about it.

How could this be? How can that aroma be way out here, not a barbecue joint in sight?

There’s so much barbecue in these parts, I concluded, its scent probably seeps into the landscape. Some kind of barbecue osmosis. Memphis, after all, a city where you can’t swing a dead whole hog without hitting a ‘cue joint, was only about an hour behind me. I was probably still within its sphere of fragrance.

I had started the trip there, popping into a barbecue restaurant to purchase one of my favorite hot sauces, which a friend had turned me onto back in the '70s.

“Try this,” he said, a gleam in his eye, adding: “Don’t be stupid.”

Examining the sauce, I instantly understood what he meant. A gritty blood-red lava glistening with an oily orange sheen, it moved as slow as a true bad-ass crossing the street. This stuff was demonic.

Recipe Included

Cautiously, I dipped the back-end of a teaspoon into the plastic jug of sauce, brought it to my tongue, and sipped it. Hot, yeah, but not so bad. I poured some on the spoon itself. Slurped it. You know the brain freeze? The fierce headache you get when you eat something cold too fast? Well, I suffered what might be called a brain melt. From my eyes bugging out to the catch in my throat, my face felt blown back, like that guy’s hair in the ad for stereo speakers.

What did I think about it?

I loved it.

The sauce wasn’t commercially available, so I would order it from its maker, Brady and Lil’s, a legendary Memphis joint reputed to have invented barbecued spaghetti. When it would arrive in the mail, I’d react like a kid on Christmas morning, or maybe an addict getting a long-awaited fix. I’d knife open the dented cardboard box, pull out the newspaper stuffing, yank the plastic gallon jug out from its depths, unscrew the cap, stick a forefinger into the sauce, and bask in the glow of that loving scorch as it rolled down my throat.

Brady and Lil’s was sold in the early 1980s to a guy who changed the name to the Bar-B-Q Shop. The new owner marketed the sauce (and a mild version) under the name Dancing Pigs, but wisely kept the recipe intact. Or so they say. Although I think it is still one of the best sauces out there, I also think it is less hot, less flavorful, and less gritty than it used to be. But maybe I think that because the sauce is now commercially bottled, which takes away the mystique.

Whatever the case, this particular trip being after the sale of Brady and Lil’s but before the commercial bottling of the sauce, I figured I would save myself the shipping cost, buy a gallon and carry it back home on the plane.

I set my prize in the car trunk and headed to Oxford. The harsh sun beat down mercilessly, but I didn’t mind. I had my sauce and I had my newly purchased lightweight tan linen jacket, which I bought specially for the meeting. It seemed somehow “Southern” to me. Laid neatly in the trunk to make sure it wouldn’t wrinkle, I was excited to wear it.
Everything was right with the world. There was even the scent of barbecue sauce in the air. Things couldn’t get any better.

The meeting was happening in someone’s house on a shady Oxford street. I pulled to the curb in front of the house. As I walked around the car to the trunk to retrieve my jacket, the smell of sauce became stronger.

As I lifted the trunk, my eyes fell, horrified, upon what seemed like an outtake from "Goodfellas." The trunk was a spattered blood-red, including all over my new tan line jacket.

I stood there, in the shady Oxford street, staring into the trunk of the car, paralyzed with grief and comprehension. So, this is why I smelled barbecue sauce in the Mississippi air. The relentless rays of the scorching Southern sun heated up the vicious, demonic, fantastic sauce, causing the jug to explode.

I paced in tiny circles, my chest heaving.

You idiot, you idiot, you idiot, I wanted to scream. Don’t blame yourself, another side of me consoled, how could you have foreseen this would happen? This went on for awhile, till my head locked up as surely as a brain freeze or a head melt, take your pick.

After awhile, I calmed down enough to deal with the situation. I pulled the sauce-slimed jacket from the trunk, dashed over to the yard of someone who didn’t seem to be home, turned on his garden hose, and washed down my jacket. Maybe it could be saved.

The sauce? I scooped it up as best I could. Maybe it, too, could be saved.

Jacket-less, I walked up the sidewalk to the house, where I tried unsuccessfully to forget what happened, excusing myself every now and then to go into the bathroom, shut the door, and gently bang my head against the wall.

A few weeks later, I received in the mail a little something from Memphis: a bill from the rental car company for the cleaning of the trunk.

And that is when I had my epiphany: It was time I learned how to make my own barbecue sauce.

As I write in my latest column, which appears in tomorrow's section, you can do it, too. I provide recipes for three basic sauces there; three more adventurous ones follow after the jump.

-- Jim Shahin
(Follow me on Twitter.)

Peach-Habanero Barbecue Sauce
Makes about 2 cups

Fruity and mildly hot, this sauce goes particularly well with pork ribs and pork loin. Brush it on in the final 10 or so minutes of cooking. From Smoke Signals columnist Jim Shahin. MAKE AHEAD: This sauce can be refrigerated for a week.

1 pound fresh peaches, skinned, pitted, and chopped
3 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
3/4 cup chopped onion
1 medium clove garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon habanero, minced (for a hotter sauce, add more, but in small amounts)
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup cider vinegar
1/4 cup bourbon
2 1/2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
3/4 teaspoon light brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

In a saucepan, warm oil over medium heat. Cook onion, stirring occasionally until softened, about 4 minutes. Add garlic, habanero and salt, until soft, about 2 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients, bring to a boil, then simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until peaches are tender, 20 to 30 minutes.

Let cool. Puree in a blender.

Refrigerate the sauce in an airtight container for up to one week.

Per tablespoon: 30 calories, 0g protein, 3g carbohydrates, 2g fat, 0g saturated fat, 0mg cholesterol, 40mg sodium, 0g dietary fiber, 3g sugar

Big Bob Gibson's White Sauce
Makes about 1 cup

In northern Alabama, pitmen use a tangy white barbecue sauce. The sauce was created in the 1920s by a legendary barbecue man named Big Bob Gibson, whose competition team and namesake Decatur, Ala., restaurants have won numerous awards. The sauce mates especially well with grilled or smoked chicken. Baste it on in the final minutes of cooking and serve some in a bowl at the table. Adapted from Paula Deen.
MAKE AHEAD: This sauce can be refrigerated for a week.

1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1/2 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon prepared horseradish
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon sugar

Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and mix well.

Refrigerate the sauce in an airtight container for up to one week.

Per tablespoon: 50 calories, 0g protein, 0g carbohydrates, 5g fat, 1g saturated fat, 0mg cholesterol, 110mg sodium, 0g dietary fiber, 0g sugar

Coffee-Smoky Chili BBQ Sauce
Makes about 2 cups

This deeply flavored sauce mates well with pork ribs, Cornish hens and meaty fish, such as salmon. Brush on in the final minutes of cooking. From Smoke Signals columnist Jim Shahin.
MAKE AHEAD: This sauce can be refrigerated for a week.

1 cup tomato puree
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 chipotle pepper in adobo, chopped
1 cup strong coffee, brewed
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Mix all ingredients in a saucepan. Bring to a boil. Simmer until thick, about 20 minutes.

Refrigerate the sauce in an airtight container for up to one week.

Per tablespoon: 5 calories, 0g protein, 2g carbohydrates, 0g fat, 0g saturated fat, 0mg cholesterol, 40mg sodium, 0g dietary fiber, 1g sugar

By The Food Section  |  August 24, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Recipes , Smoke Signals  | Tags: Jim Shahin, barbecue  
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Great sauces need to be made with love and time. Over the weekend I grilled up some short ribs and chicken over hickory coals/fire. I should have cooked the meat slower and higher over the coals however time was limited due to bad weather. Once everything was cooked and we ate the BBQ I noticed that the hickory flavor was not as strong as I would have liked. I then took all the meat off the bones and created a wonderful stew with potatoes, onions and peppers. I added salt and a tomato paste base to the mix. It simmered for hours and then rested in my refrigerator for 3 days. Wham...... Hickory flavor was intense and no BBQ sauce required. Try to beat that with gourmet or any fancy food. I will say that the short ribs came from Wagyu beef I purchased on Happy eating everyone.

Posted by: Huntspoint | August 25, 2010 4:46 PM | Report abuse

Wow. Sounds amazing.

Posted by: jimshahin | August 25, 2010 5:05 PM | Report abuse

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