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.