BBQ Sauce & Hot Weather

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About a week or so after shipping my first samples, I called everyone on the phone: dad, Auntie Cleo and Uncle Joe. No texts or emails going back and forth here and definitely no face time to speed up our communication…not at all. Our method of communication is always on the phone, just one step away from pen paling each other! So pulling this project off is certainly going to take some time and patience, but I have to say, to hear their voice when we talk about their parents (my grandparents), and to hear how they try to jog their memory to go back 50 or 60 years, well, it’s captivating to watch this unfold.

One thing that I did not quite take into consideration was the fact that I began sending these samples out during the peak of summer. The 100% humidity out here on the east coast, and the blazing dry heat of the west and southwest would not be kind to the bbq sauce. So when dad and auntie told me they tried the sauce but it taste a bit ‘off’, I thought, “Damn, the heat!” The heat during transport was unforgiving as the sauce went from sitting in the mail facilities, to sitting in the postal truck, to sitting in their mail box. Why I didn’t think of this ahead of time who knows. Maybe I figured there would be enough preservatives from the sugar and salt content to keep it, but that certainly was not the case. So until we are released from the clutches of summer’s fury, I will definitely have to ship with dry ice or wait for cooler weather.

Grandma Irene and Grandaddy Joe had eight kids, three boys and five girls: Auntie Sam, Auntie MaryJo, Auntie Baybee, Uncle Joe, Auntie Bitsy, Uncle David, Auntie Cleo, and lastly my dad, Gene who is the youngest of all eight. There are only three who still remain with us and that’s dad, Auntie Cleo and Uncle Joe. Luckily, I have some older cousins who remember the cooking that went on in that house in Edgewater, Alabama, but I am relying heavily on my dad, and my last surviving auntie and uncle as we try to turn back the hands of time and rewalk paths already walked.

Uncle Joe’s height is towering…I think he is at least 6’5” and he has a sharp, witty sense of humor. For as long as I can remember, Uncle Joe has lived in Rancho Cucamunga, CA, about 40 miles east of Los Angeles, with my Auntie Zelda. Auntie Zelda who was born in Barbados, is known in the family and in the community for her cooking. Auntie Zelda has been around the family for years, so she definitely has memories of my grandparents cooking. She even used to go grocery shopping with granddaddy sometimes because Grandma Irene hated that he would always go to the grocery store and come home with the same items already in the pantry. So grandma would ask Auntie Zelda to go to the store. When I talked to Uncle Joe and Auntie Zelda about the bbq sauce, he seemed to remember Grandma Irene adding molasses to the sauce. He thinks she may have used it to cut through the acidity of the tomato sauce, while they both remember apple cider being used as well.

Now dad wasn’t sure what was missing, but he just knows as it stands right now, none of these testers are right! Two things he did mention: the first tester had too much margarine and #3 had a bit too much lemon.

And finally, Auntie Cleo, in her sweet Alabama accent said, “We got the sauuce, but I think it was a bit off, pro’ly from the heat from mailin’ it.“ She confirmed what I knew, that none of these testers were right, but she surprised me when she said she’s been meaning to get in the kitchen to play with the recipe too as she has wanted to figure it out over the years. She’s even pulling her grandson Josh in to help because he enjoys working his way around the kitchen too.

Since that first mailing of potentially sour barbeque sauce I’ve worked up a few more batches. As I stood there stirring the sauce I found myself saying, “Grandma, is this how y’all made this sauce?” “Was it molasses you used?” “Are we even close or are we all completely wrong and everybody’s memory is off?”

You know, I’ve always been more of a past person, than a future person. I’ve always wondered about the past, how people lived, what they did, what they ate. I often find myself wondering about my grandparents. Grandma Irene died when I was very little so I don’t remember her. But from all I’ve been told she was a very demure, southern bell. Delicate yet strong, she didn’t need to curse at all to get her point across. My granddad passed when I was 7, but since he lived in Alabama I didn’t have the opportunity to spend much time with him. So oddly enough, me working on this bbq sauce, brings me closer to them…well at least it feels that way in my mind. If I could just go back to that house on Belgium Avenue in Edgewater, Alabama, on a day when granddaddy is putting chicken on the grill and Grandma Irene is in the kitchen mixing up her sauce, I would be sitting there like a student in a class writing down her every movement and every ingredient she added. If only that were possible. For now, I will have to settle for the memories of their three living children: daddy, Uncle Joe and Auntie Cleo to help me recreate this sauce which is my way of keeping their memories alive.

The Barbeque Sauce Seed is Planted

July 10, 2012

One day I casually mentioned to my dad that I wanted to start documenting family stories, especially the stories relating to food, and every since I mentioned that to him, he would occasionally tell me, “Your auntie’s and everybody won’t be around forever.” “Just start gathering information so you have it.”

I remember being in a bad mood the day he was telling me this. He called a couple hours before and asked what I fixed for dinner. Simple dinner that night, American style tacos…not my favorite but the quickest meal for the family considering I did not want to be in the kitchen anyway. He told me he would probably come by for a bite to eat. Well, while he was eating he was wondering how far I had come on my family research and whether or not I was getting all the information written down. Like I said before, I wasn’t in a good mood and pretty much on the verge of tears when he asked me about the research. It just seemed frivolous to be focused on this research when I have no job and no income. My husband was even in between jobs, so my dad asking me about this side project was the last thing I wanted to talk about it. But I listened as I usually do. My dad has a way of talking, so that even though he knows you are having a tough time he acts as though he doesn’t see it. But I believe this is intentional. Possibly as a way to keep people, or me in this case, focused, and by keeping me focused on the conversation, I couldn’t dwell on my feelings. It usually works. It’s kind of hard to break down in front of someone who in a strange way doesn’t acknowledge that they know something is bothering you.

Anyway, he was going on and on about gathering this info from the family and making sure I record our conversations whenever possible.

As he’s eating his tacos, he begins to tell me about my grandparents, Granddaddy Joe and Grandma Irene (his parents) and this barbeque sauce she used to make. Now my dad has grilled as long as I can remember and makes some of the best ribs, but he never in all these years told me about this barbeque sauce. He tells me how he wished he had the written recipe. He talked to some of his sisters, my Auntie Cleo, Auntie Baybee and Auntie MaryJo, but he says none of their recipes are exactly how momma used to make it. Although he did say Auntie Cleo’s was the closest.  You see, that’s my dad’s style. Instead of him just saying, “I wish I had written the recipe and now I will never have it” he says it in a round about way to give me incentive to get started on my own research.

 Since that conversation with my dad seven years ago, I lost my Auntie Baybee, Auntie MaryJo and Uncle David – all brothers and sisters of my dad. Yes, he was right…everybody won’t be around forever.

Now, here is the interesting bit. I’ve never had this barbeque sauce. Well, maybe when I was little, but I have no idea what it taste like. I asked dad, “If I get this recipe right, will you know it? I mean, will you remember the taste after all of these years… grandma passed when I was a baby and grandad at least 30 years ago?” His reply, “Oh, I will remember.” Another twist in this project, none of my family lives in the Washington, DC area…no one! This means as I test batch after batch, I have to bottle up the samples and ship the barbeque sauce testers to my uncle in Riverside, CA, dad’s last surviving brother, my cousin in Los Angeles, CA, my mom and dad in Las Cruces, NM and my aunt in Birmingham, AL, dad’s last surviving sister. Believe me, I tried to think of other options but I can’t wait for everyone to be together…time waits for no one, so between phone calls, FaceTime, emails, texts and good old fashion snail mail I will figure out this sauce recipe or at the very least have a hell of a time doing it…sometimes it’s just about the journey.

So follow me as I dive into the lives of Joe and Irene Johnson, Sr. and as I trace the beginnings of this infamous barbeque sauce from Birmingham, Alabama, it’s quiet retreat with the passing of my grandparents, and hopefully, hopefully its rebirth with tons of help from family and my sheer determination to recreate the sauce that brought my family so much joy.