If I learned anything from the inaugural Smoke Signals Barbecue Sauce Recipe Contest — other than that one should never wear a light-colored shirt during testing — it was that barbecue sauce is the new apple pie.
Just scanning the ingredients of the 68 entries, with their tamarind concentrates and mango chutneys and ground espresso beans, led me to paraphrase a famous realization: Toto, we’re not in Kansas City anymore.
As barbecue has increasingly become a national phenomenon, barbecue sauce has changed. The condiment still generally conforms to our basic regional notions: Kansas City tomato-based, South Carolina mustard-based, North Carolina vinegar- and-pepper-based. But its flavors have expanded to reflect modern food trends in high-end, healthful and ethnic eating.
Barbecue sauce manufacturers boast that their products are gluten-free and contain honey instead of high-fructose corn syrup. They produce boutique batches. They select from a global pantry.
About one-quarter of our contest entries made the first cut. We tested those, and our panel of 11 tasters sampled them on their own and with toast. Afterward, I tried the top-five-ranked sauces on smoked ribs and pulled pork.
Ingredients were limited to 10 per recipe, yet they covered the gamut: grape jelly, bourbon, caraway seeds, sauerkraut, smoked beer, mango chutney, Liquid Smoke, tarragon vinegar, fresh oregano, guava paste, curry powder and rhubarb, among many others. Some contestants were particular about their tablespoons of hot sauce: “Louisiana-style, but not Tabasco.”
Some sauces were old family recipes, others developed through careful trial over time. What particularly appealed to me was their handcrafted nature. Choosing the top three was a fun challenge.
I loved the complexity of District native Christopher Gresham’s very thick sauce, which placed third. He smokes tomatoes and green bell peppers, roasts garlic, then purees those with other ingredients and cooks them for an hour. I particularly admired the fastidiousness of his adding rendered bacon fat a quarter-teaspoon at a time.
“I wanted to make everything from scratch,” says Gresham, who, single at 24, has either boundless patience or a lot of time on his hands. He learned to grill from his father, who even smokes the dressing for his Thanksgiving turkey.
Second place went to Keith Williams, 54, of Hollywood, Md., whose beautifully balanced version of a standard ketchup-based sauce is zippy with cayenne while sweet — but not cloying — with brown sugar. The kicker is the lemon zest, which adds a refreshing twist. Every time I thought I was finished “testing,” I pulled another piece of rib or shoulder and slid it through the bowl of sauce.
Married and a father of six, Williams grills and smokes on a Weber (“charcoal, no gas, with wood chips”) that his kids gave him for his birthday 10 years ago.
“I just mess around in the kitchen,” he says. “When I get aggravated, I like to get into the kitchen and mess around. It relaxes me.”
District resident Zora Margolis, 63, took first place with her simple but ever-so-marvelously tweaked version of a mustard-based sauce. Maybe it was the ancho chili powder or the fresh lime juice or the “few squirts” of Sriracha, but what she calls her Spicy S.C. Mustard Sauce yields just the right combination of savory purr and tangy attitude.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Margolis started cooking when she left home at 18 to become an actor. In the 1970s, she worked briefly in restaurants, then moved back to Los Angeles to continue her pursuit of acting. She took a cooking class from a little-known chef named Wolfgang Puck and a Beverly Hills pastry-shop owner named Michel Richard. “I still have the recipes from that class,” she says.
Margolis is married to bird artist Jonathan Adlerfer, who works at the National Geographic Society as an author and editor of bird books. The couple, who will celebrate their 40th anniversary next month, have a daughter who attends the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Margolis is a self-taught grill master. “I graduated not long ago,” she says, “from a series of Weber kettles to a Hasty-Bake.” She appreciates the versatility of the high-end smoking/grilling rig, revealing a depth of knowledge about brining, seasoning and cooking chicken, pork shoulder and ribs.
“I barbecue year-round,” says Margolis. “I do slow-smoking and hot grilling.”
That love and understanding of the smoking arts no doubt helped her develop her winning sauce. With its multicultural blend of white-bread American (prepared mustard), Southwest flavoring (ancho chili pepper) and Far East (Sriracha), it’s not your grandfather’s barbecue sauce. It is a thoroughly modern version of a classic.
All three winners will receive a collection of Pork Barrel BBQ and Rocklands Barbeque sauces, a copy of “Paul Kirk’s Championship Barbecue Sauces” and two tickets to Washington’s Safeway National Capital Barbecue Battle, June 25-26. The first- and second-place winners get a behind-the-scenes tour of Rocklands, Pork Barrel and Hill Country Barbecue Market with me.
In addition to those prizes, Margolis will receive a trophy at the Safeway Barbecue Battle, where her sauce will be entered in the national competition and she will serve as an honorary judge. Come out and cheer her on.