Such enlightenment — better than the bad old days, to be sure — has its own problems. It was tough sometimes to determine whether something could be considered a barbecue sauce, per se, or a different kind of sauce entirely.
The sauces seem to exemplify a paradoxical trend in contemporary barbecue. On the one hand, the craft sauce makers create flavors for niche tastes. On the other, taken as a whole, the anything-goes sauces speak to the homogenizing of this once fiercely regional cuisine.
This year, we changed up things. Rather than awarding the top three vote-getters from among all entries, we selected a tomato-based sauce winner, a mustard-based sauce winner and an alternative sauce winner.
It is argued that you cannot taste a barbecue sauce without barbecue. Fair enough. But which barbecue? The sauce takes on a different flavor depending on the meat it accompanies. We looked, first and foremost, for a good-tasting sauce. We’ll figure the meat part out later. It was my call to use plastic spoons for judging.
The readers responsible for the winning recipes are a varied lot. They bring their experiences to their cooking, which is reflected in their sauces.
The winner of the tomato-based category is Betty L. Newell, a Washington-born retiree “in my seventies” who lives with her husband of 55 years in the Shenandoah Valley town of Massanutten, Va.
Her zingy, thinnish red sauce, which she says goes especially well with ribs, owes its origin to the pepper-vinegar sauce she tasted during summertime visits to Ayden, N.C., home of one of America’s barbecue temples. “I kind of grew up with barbecue,” says Newell, who worked various health-related jobs in the nonprofit sector, “because my cousin, Pete Jones, ran the Skylight Inn.”
She remembers not just the flavor but even the sound of that hallowed barbecue shack that opened in 1947 and traces founder Jones’s family history in commercial barbecue back to the 1800s. Southern Living magazine recently named the Skylight Inn one of the of the South’s 10 best barbecue restaurants in its 2012 ’Cue Awards, the latest in a long line of accolades.
“A sound I will always associate with being a kid on summer vacation is the chop, chop, chop, chop, chop of that meat cleaver on the wooden chopping block,” she says.
She developed her sauce shortly after moving to the Northern Virginia suburbs with her husband 55 years ago. In a nod to the Skylight Inn, she begins with fresh peppers, which are finely chopped and submerged in vinegar for a week. Drawing upon the sweeter, thicker style favored in the Washington area, she adds ketchup, molasses, soy sauce, Worcestershire and (gulp) Liquid Smoke.