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All We Can Eat
Posted at 05:45 PM ET, 07/20/2011

The mysteries of mumbo sauce

As Post colleague Theresa Vargas wrote this past weekend, “Debate remains about where mumbo sauce was born — some believe in the District, others link it to a barbecue sauce in Chicago — but there’s no question that it has been adopted and customized to become Washington’s own.”

For reasons that aren’t exactly clear, I recently understood the appeal of that classic Washington combo of wings and mumbo sauce. It came to me late at night, when most of my best thoughts occur (apologies to all former daytime editors), after I stopped for a 10 p.m. snack at Yum’s Carry-Out on Kennedy Street NW. My wing trio was fried golden, hot and crisp. The coating was so crispy, in fact, that it reminded me of egg rolls.

My wings even faintly tasted of egg rolls. Which is when the idea hit me: The Chinese immigrants who opened carryouts in predominantly African American neighborhoods realized that wings share a crispy coating with egg rolls, so they spiked their sweet-and-sour sauce with a little heat and created a whole new kind of dipping sauce for the bird parts. The theory rang so true for me as I was eating those wings with mumbo sauce: Every bite smacked of egg rolls dipped in sweet and sour sauce.

But today, someone during our Free Range chat said contemporary mumbo sauces taste nothing like the ones he remembered from years ago. Wrote the chatter:

As an old fogey Washingtonian, the mumbo sauces I remember tasted quite differently from the ones offered around here over the last 30 years or so. I think it’s the sweet and sour component brought in when Chinese takeouts and restaurants began to expand their menus and other asian-owned carryouts proliferated around the area. That’s not to say today’s sauce is bad; it’s just vastly different from my childhood memory of it. It used to be some variation of ketchup, hot sauce and some sweetening agent, not thick or gooey at all, and, of course, finger-licking good. Maybe someday Tim could do a story about D.C.’s old time eateries like Eddie Leonard’s, Little Tavern and Miles Long carryouts. They were great places for good, cheap, greasy food.

This was the first time I had heard of (or at least processed the idea of) the mumbo sauce evolution theory. Most Mumbo Theorists have suggested that each carryout merely creates its own version of the sauce. This chatter is proposing, I believe, that there may have been a mumbo sauce that predates Asian-run carryouts; that the sweet-and-sour version is a later interpretation of a sauce that already had an identity.

This doesn’t necessarily disprove my theory, but adds complexity to it. Could it be that mumbo sauce has developed on two separate tracks — one based on an older African American mumbo sauce and another based on the sweet-and-sour version that followed later on? This Chowhound forum seems to confirm this.

Chime in with your thoughts below.

By  |  05:45 PM ET, 07/20/2011

Categories:  Comfort Food | Tags:  Tim Carman

 
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