My quest for the perfect barbecue is turning into something as detailed, historical — and speculative — as the quest for the historical Jesus (which I’ve blogged about, HERE and HERE). But it started out with a simple question — with charcoal-grilling season coming on, how can I cut down on the cholesterol and calories without grazing on lettuce and bean sprouts like a damn billy goat?
Just asking the question brought back memories of a barbecue joint in Knoxville called Brother Jack’s. (I’ve blogged about it HERE, too, along with another Knoxville legend named Cas Walker.) Jack’s was about a 10-minute drive from the University of Tennessee, and it was where you went after the off-campus bars closed on Cumberland Avenue. Brother Jack’s was famous for ribs and a ground pork sandwich on white store bread he called a pigburger, but I just about always ordered what he called a chicken sandwich.
If the word calls up images of a chicken salad sandwich or a dainty little scoop of pulled chicken on a bun, think again. Brother Jack’s chicken sandwich was a half chicken, smoked for hours over a hickory fire, basted with a vinegar-and-pepper sauce and served hot on a slice of white bread that sopped up the basting sauce.
It was wonderful. If they serve barbecued chicken in heaven (and I’m sure they do), I know it will taste like Brother Jack’s.
It came with a thin sauce, mostly vinegar and pepper by the taste of it, and it was set out in plastic squeeze bottles in case you wanted more heat. (Some did, but I thought the chicken was plenty hot right off the grill.) I’ve been trying to recreate the taste of Brother Jack’s off and on for 50 years, both before and after I moved up north.
I didn’t know anything about barbecue at the time. I was at the University of Tennessee Knoxville as a doctoral student in English, and I was a “TVA brat” — my family was Midwestern, and I grew up in a town that was full of transplanted Yankees who worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority or the nearby nuclear projects at Oak Ridge. Barbecue wasn’t in my DNA.
So Brother Jack’s was as much a part of my UT education as Shakespeare or Faulkner.
Vince Staten and I were both columnists for the UT Daily Beacon when I was in grad school, and in later years he wrote a book called Real Barbecue in which he and a co-author reviewed 700 barbecue joints nationwide. In it, Vince described the experience when he visited Knoxville while researching the book:
We ordered what we had ordered twenty years earlier on our first visit: a rib sandwich. “You want that hot, don’t ya?” Brother Jack grinned. He has been asking that question for forty years and the answer is always the same. “Yeah.” He chopped four ribs off a slab, plopped them on a pice of light bread, and then squeezed on a dabble of sauce. Brother Jack’s hot sauce is a sweet heat that perfectly complements his lean, pink ribs.
Sweet, yes, but not yucky sweet. I was told, probably sometime long ago after midnight waiting for my chicken sandwich, that Brother Jack used a Carolina-style vinegar sop. His barbecue wasn’t sweet and sticky and slathered with sauce like you see up north.
Not that you don’t get good barbecue here — I’m even willing to try snoots the next time I’m in in St. Louis. And I love Sweet Baby Ray’s, a BBQ that won legendary Chicago Sun-Times and Trib columnist Mike Royko’s equally legendary Rib-off in 1985. They’ve gone national since then, and their original sauce is wonderful. I’ve had a soft spot for Sweet Baby Ray’s ever since the late 1980s when they catered an uninhibited outdoor reception that then-Illinois State Senate President Phil Rock, D-Oak Park, would throw for the Statehouse press corps toward the end of the legislative session. But their basic sauce lists ingredients including:
High Fructose Corn Syrup, Distilled Vinegar, Tomato Paste, Modified Corn Starch, Contains Less Than 2% Of Salt, Pineapple Juice Concentrate, Natural Smoke Flavor, Spice, Caramel Color, Molasses, Sodium Benzoate (Preservative), Garlic,* Mustard Flour, Corn Syrup, Sugar, Tamarind, Natural Flavor, Celery Seed. *Dried.
As much as I like Sweet Baby Ray’s, that high-fructose corn syrup and molasses take it off my list. They do have a no-added-sugar version of the original sauce, with only 1 gram of sugar per serving (2 tablespoons) listed among the ingredients. So I’ll have to give that a try.
But my first love was Brother Jack’s back home in Knoxville.
And that’s what got me started on my latest quest. I’m under doctor’s orders now to follow what is euphemistically known as a heart-healthy eating plan. I doubt my doc had barbecue in mind when he said that, but it made me think of Brother Jack’s chicken sandwiches. No red meat. Check. No carbs. Check, if you forego that little slice of store bread. No sugar? Hmm, maybe I’d better double-check — is it possible to even do barbecue without sugar?
So I fired up the Google machine and started looking for Carolina barbecue recipes. Hence my historical quest.
Spoiler alert: At the end of the quest, I found that something very much like the vinegar sop I remember from Brother Jack’s is the oldest of America’s regional barbecue recipes. Any sugar was added to barbecue later and farther west. I even found an account from the South Carolina up-country of an ex-slave named Wesley Jones who in the 1850s used a basting sauce of vinegar, black and red pepper, salt, butter, a little sage, coriander, basil, onion, and garlic.
“Some folks,” he added when interviewed in 1937 at the age of 97, “drop a little sugar in it.”
Jones’ barbecue sauce looks so good I’ve made up my mind to clean out my grill and try it. John Shelton Reed, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill who ought to know because he and his wife wrote a book titled Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue for UNC Press, says it’s “basically an Eastern [Carolina] sauce, with a few spices that wouldn’t be grounds for disqualification […].”
But I’ll try it without the the little drop of sugar.
If Wesley Jones lived to be 97, I’ll bet he didn’t drop much sugar in his barbecue sauce, either.
Vince Staten has a theory. “About 27,000 years ago, according to paleontologists, man discovered fire,” he says. “Later that same day, along about suppertime, it’s very likely that he invented barbecue.” Vince’s theory aside, most people who study foodways, as the “intersection of food in culture, traditions, and history” is known, believe it is a blending of Caribbean Indian, European and African cultural traditions (a blend marinated, I’m sure, in vinegar).
Natasha Geilng, who wrote a fine history of barbecue in Smithsonian Magazine in 2013, defines it as “the culinary tradition of cooking meat low and slow over indirect flame.” (She adds, “imposters who grill, take note”; barbecue, to purists, is not firing up hamburgers or rare steaks on a gas grill.) She traces the tradition back to the Caribbean, where Spanish conquistadors adapted an indigenous style of cooking meat over an indirect flame “using green wood to keep the food (and wood) from burning” and called it barbacoa.
Eventually English colonists in America would find out about barbacoa, and it would evolve into today’s distinctive regional barbecue traditions — Geiling identifies them as Carolina, Texas, Memphis and Kansas City — but we’re mostly concerned here with the Carolina tradition. No. Let’s make that Carolina traditions. With an -s. There are more than one.
It all began early, like Brunswick stew and so many other good things, in Jamestown and the Carolina back country. When the English encountered an indigenous cooking practice similar to baracoa, they adapted it to their own foodways and the first style of American barbecue was born. In an introduction to oral histories documenting the “Southern BBQ Trail” on the University of Mississippi’s Southern Foodways Alliance website, Jake Adam York, “a poet, bbq-lover, and dear friend of the SFA,” weaves a lovely — and I believe quite accurate — tale of how the Carolina style came about:
Though the word barbecue devolves from Taino, a pre-Columbian Caribbean language, the native method described by the word — the slow drying of sliced, spiced meat, over a low, smoky fire — seems to have been fairly widespread in the eastern Caribbean at the time of European contact, being practiced in what would become Brazil as well as in what would become Virginia. But it was in Virginia and in the Carolinas that barbecue as we know it would begin to evolve. In Virginia, British colonists observed the Native American method of drying meat on a grill of green sticks over a smoking fire and soon married this method to their own interest in spit-cooking hogs and other small animals.
York is too much of a poet to use academic words like this, but I see it as an early example of creolization, a form of acculturation blending European, indigenous and African elements — or, more broadly, practices and traditions from separate cultures (I’ve blogged about that, too, perhaps most notably HERE and HERE, and it’s been a major research interest of mine.) After a puzzling non sequitur, York continues:
The British introduced their own native practices, including basting — either with butter or with vinegar — to keep the meat from drying while cooking. Slaves of African descent, imported from the Caribbean, brought a taste (developed in the islands) for New-World peppers, especially red pepper. Along the Atlantic seaboard, then, when the vinegar and butter combined with the spices and peppers, barbecue sauce arrived on the Southerner’s and the Briton’s favorite hog. Even today in eastern North Carolina, you can find whole-hog barbecue, lightly seasoned with vinegar and black and red peppers, colonial style.
Sometime during the 1800s and early 1900s, German settlers in the North Carolina piedmont — the gently rolling foothill country between Raleigh and the east slope of the Appalachian mountains — took the East Carolina style and added condiments like mustard, sugar and ketchup to the basic mix of peppers boiled in vinegar. Mustard-based sauces became especially popular across the state line in South Carolina, and entrepreneurs around Lexington, N.C., in the Piedmont south of Winston-Salem, developed a tomatoey vinegar sauce with a touch of sugar added.
And so it came to pass that in 20th-century North Carolina, there would be two favored types of barbecue — the original East Carolina vinegar-and-pepper style and Lexington barbecue. In a book called Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue, published by the University of North Carolina Press, John Shelton Reed of UNC Chapel Hill (who prefers his barbecue East Carolina style) and his wife, Dale Volberg Reed (who preferred hers Lexington style) pick up the story to the present:
By the time of World War II, the distinctions between Eastern and Piedmont-style barbecue were well established and widely understood within the state. The defenders of Eastern orthodoxy took pride in doing it the old way, Piedmont folks were equally proud of their new and improved product, and each region claimed its ’cue was better.
They’re still at it today.
In the meantime, settlers moved west from the eastern seaboard into Alabama, Mississippi and ultimately into Texas. And, as Geiling puts it for Smithsonian Magazine, “it wasn’t long before Texans were applying Carolina techniques to a different sort of animal [beef] entirely.” Around 1900 or thereabouts, barbecuers in Memphis added molasses for a “regionally unique sweet, tomato-based barbecue sauce,” and in Kansas City they used a Memphis-style “sweet and spicy barbecue sauce”; they “did not, however, adhere to the stringent requirements that called for a pork-only barbecue style, and allowed beef and other meats to be sold as well.”
I’m not 100% sure pork was always the only allowable meat east of Kansas City. I had too many barbecued chicken sandwiches at Brother Jack’s to buy into the idea. But that’s Geiling’s story, and I’m letting her stick to it. Besides, it’s the received wisdom, the generally accepted account of how barbecue came to be a regional and then a national delicacy.
Where do Knoxville and Brother Jack’s fit into this narrative? The best, and most honest, answer: I don’t know. But it’s fun to speculate. Local historian Jack Neely gives some of the back story:
Brother Jack’s opened on University Avenue around 1946, but its origins go back much farther. The original Brother Jack was Charles Jackson, who learned the barbecue trade while working as a “shoo-fly boy” for pork butchers on [downtown] Market Square before World War I. He opened his own butcher shop in 1922, but soon got a reputation for his barbecue, a secret recipe he said he learned from a German butcher.
I can only speculate. But here goes: According to Tim Glazner, who got to know the Jackson family before Brother Jack’s closed in 1989, Charles Jackson came to Knoxville (at the age of 6) in 1900 from Harriman, a nascent industrial town just east of the Cumberland Plateau. His father was “a wrought iron worker who traveled to various cities with ‘rolling mills’ in search of work,” so I’m intrigued by that German butcher the original Brother Jack learned his recipe from. Was he one of those Germans from around Lexington, N.C., before they started mucking up the sauce with ketchup? Your guess is as good as mine.
Technically speaking, we’re not dealing with the kind of ketchupy barbecue sauce you pour out of a bottle up north. We’re talking about a basting sauce. And here’s where things get real speculative — based on my half-remembered recollection that Brother Jack’s used an East Carolina-style vinegar sop, I’m guessing it didn’t have many other ingredients.
No doubt he added spices. Jack Neely, a local historian in Knoxville, mentions rumors of moonshine and maybe (although the reference is ambiguous) a vague hint of cloves in the sauce. The flavor, as I remember it, came more from the hickory smoke and the vinegar than any gooped-on sauce, anyway.
My memory jibes with Vince Staten’s. A thin pepper-and-vinegar sauce was available for those who wanted it. But I don’t remember ever wanting it. What we’re talking about here is what the Dictionary of American Regional English calls it a “mop sauce” and defines as a “basting sauce for barbecuing meat.” Explains James Roller, who has a blog devoted to barbecue:
A mop sauce is a thin vinegar-based barbecue sauce that is spiced with salt and black and/or red pepper. This sauce is used to baste meat on the grill and on a larger scale, to provide flavor and moisture at the end of cooking a whole hog, as is the tradition in South Carolina.”
The mop sauce is applied while the meat is cooking — sometimes with an actual mop at big events — and keeps it from drying out while the flavors soak into the meat. While whole-hog cooking is traditional along the eastern seaboard, the technique can be applied to more specialized cuts of meat. Even to brisket, as in Texas. And, of course, to chicken.
Anyway, after I had that come-to-Jesus-and-red-meats-are-an-abomination-unto-the-Lord conversation with my cardiologist, I went online and looked for barbecued chicken recipes. Almost every one of them called for what seemed like an awful lot of brown sugar, but a few had more potential.
I figured the Southern barbecue trail was leading me somewhere good when I dived into Roller’s blog Destination BBQ. In a post about Rodney King’s award-winning barbecue in Charleston, S.C., Roller notes that South Carolinians in the Pee Dee River low country, which borders eastern North Carolina, traditionally use a similar vinegar-based mop sauce. He doesn’t give away the recipes — people who are serious about barbecue rarely do — but he does say:
When it comes down to it, a vinegar-based mop sauce is comprised primarily of vinegar, salt, and various peppers including black, cayenne, crushed red.
From there it can diverge, but the purists stop right there. Others add sweeteners like sugar or molasses.
Aha! “Others add …” That means most folks don’t. Even more promising were a couple of articles by Joshua Bousel of Durham, N.C. He’s a little west of the fall line that separates East Carolina from Lexington BBQ, but he wrote one for Serious Eats titled “Old-Time Eastern North Carolina Barbecue Sauce Recipe.” He’s serious about the subject — he’s won several prizes — but he gives this recipe:
- 1 gallon cider vinegar
- 1 1/3 cups crushed red pepper
- 2 tablespoons black pepper
- 1/4 cup salt
If that seems like a lot, it is. Bousel says it serves 128 people. He has another recipe, on his Meatwave website, that calls for added brown sugar and ketchup — basically Lexington style, I think — as well as Texas Pete hot sauce. (Don’t let the name fool you: It’s bottled in Winston-Salem.) I’ll pass on the sugar and ketchup, but I’ll definitely go with the Texas Pete. It’s available in these parts, too, in Schucks, Meijers and Hy-Vee.
One other thing about Bousel’s recipes. I’d say both of them! In the Lexington-style article, he says to mix up the ingredients, boil the sauce and let it set in the refrigerator for a day:
I believe this step ended up being pretty crucial, since the sauces that got the heat treatment ended up tasting a little more vibrant and cohesive in the end.
Finally, the vinegar sauce really needs a nice rest to finish it off. After cooling to room temperature, sauces that were refrigerated at least one day ended up having a stronger flavor that was more distinguishable when doused onto to meat.
The same is true for the pepper — and any other spices — in an East Carolina-style mop sauce. Boil it first, and let the pepper and spices steep into the vinegar.
But the best recipe of all — more a list of ingredients than a recipe — appears in John and Dale Reed’s Holy Smoke. Among other evidence, they cite an oral history interview in the 1930s with a 97-year-old Black man in Union County, S.C., east of Spartanburg and Greenville, who recalled barbecues there in the 1850s. It’s worth quoting in detail, along with the Reeds’ conclusion about it:
A rare nineteenth-century view from pit-side was provided in 1937 by Wesley Jones, then over ninety years old. Mr. Jones had grown up in South Carolina, not North, but the plantation in Union County where he was a slave was less than fifty miles due south of Shelby, North Carolina, in the heart of the part of South Carolina that today cooks “Lexington-style.” In the 1850s, Mr. Jones was the youthful pitmaster for big barbecues that were held regularly at Sardis Store, with fiddling and political speeches. He cooked “whole goats, whole hogs, sheep and de side of a cow.” He mopped the meat all night with a “sass” of vinegar, black and red pepper, salt, butter, a little sage, coriander, basil, onion, and garlic—a process he called “anointing” it. “Some folks drop a little sugar in it,” he said, implying that this was a common sauce recipe for that time and place.
This is basically an Eastern sauce, with a few spices that wouldn’t be grounds for disqualification in Goldsboro or Wilson. Certainly it had no tomato in it. There’s no reason to suppose that barbecue in nineteenth-century Shelby or Salisbury or Lexington was any different.
See? No tomato, that goes without saying. No ketchup. (The Reeds, by the way, have an interesting aside on what goes into “commercially bottled ketchup […] this red goop” and how it came to be marketed to the unwary in the 1800s.) But, most of all, no sugar. Here’s a screen grab from Wesley Jones’ original interview, available on the Library of Congress website. The interviewer’s attempt at capturing dialect is irritating to a 21st-century reader, but the information is priceless:
I’ll turn 80 in September, and Welsey Jones’ recipe is what I want to boil up and baste the chicken with in my back yard this summer.
A footnote and a reading list
You can take the boy out of the graduate English department, I guess, but you can’t take the graduate English department out of the boy. So I’ll close with an old-fashioned:
Bibliography on East Carolina-style BBQ
Joshua Bousel, “North Carolina Vinegar Sauce,” The Meatwave, Aug. 3, 2010 https://meatwave.com/recipes/barbecue-sauce-recipe-north-carolina-vinegar-sauce.
__________. “Old-Time Eastern North Carolina Barbecue Sauce Recipe,” Serious Eats, July 16, 2020 https://www.seriouseats.com/north-carolina-barbecue-vinegar-sauce.
Pete Ellertsen, “Random thoughts on the Cas Walker song; some Zen moments at Don Pedi’s “Tao of Dulcimer” retreat in Little Switzerland, N.C.; Carolina-style barbecue, Brother Jack’s and other East Tennessee nostalgia,” Hogfiddle [on Blogspot], Oct. 21, 2013, https://hogfiddle.blogspot.com/2013/10/cas-walker-tao-dulcimer.html.
Natasha Geiling, “The Evolution of American Barbecue,” Smithsonian Magazine, July 18, 2013 https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-evolution-of-american-barbecue-13770775/.
Tim Glazner, “The Swank Pad’s ‘Best of Knoxville’,” Swank Pad, n.d. https://www.swankpad.org/best/.
Greg Johnson and Vince Staten. Real Barbecue. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. 4, 89-90.
Wesley Jones, “Stories from Ex-Slaves,” interview by Caldwell Sims, Union, S.C., May 16, 1937, Slave Narratives: Typewritten Records Prepared by the Federal Writers Project, 1936-1938, Vol.14, South Carolina Narratives, Part 3, pp. 72-73 https://memory.loc.gov/mss/mesn/143/143.pdf.
“Mop sauce,” Dictionary of Regional English https://dare.wisc.edu/words/quarterly-updates/quarterly-update-1/mop-sauce/.
James Roller. “Rodney Scott’s BBQ Sauce Recipe,” Destination BBQ, Aug. 31, 2020 https://destination-bbq.com/rodney-scotts-bbq-sauce-recipe/.
Chris Wohlwend, “Boxed Possum and Brother Jack’s,” Knoxville Mercury, Aug.. 7, 2017 https://www.knoxmercury.com/2017/08/07/boxed-possum-brother-jacks/.
Jake Adam York, “Southern BBQ Trail,” Southern Foodways Alliance, Feb. 22, 2011, Center for the Study of Southern Culture, University of Mississippi https://www.southernfoodways.org/oral-history/southern-bbq-trail/
[Published June 8, 2022]