Herman Melville wrote in his classic novel Moby Dick “Also, that in Henry VIIIth's time, a certain cook of the court obtained a handsome reward for inventing an admirable sauce to be eaten with barbecued porpoises, which, you remember, are a species of whale.” If that account is true, and there is no reason to believe it isn’t, that has to be one of, if not the, oldest accounts of an award winning barbecue sauce.
First of all, the vinegar, salt, pepper mixture that we are so often told was the “typical” barbecue sauce of the 19th century wasn’t a barbecue sauce at all. It was actually a basting liquid. The barbecue cooks would baste the meat with the peppery liquid while the meat was cooking. It’s hard to say how many actually served the basting liquid with the meat. However, knowing how barbecue cooks do things today, I bet that if the meat was on the dry side some of that “sauce” made it to the table.
But, that’s not the whole story about 19th century barbecue and the sauce that was served on it. Mary Randolph often served spicy and otherwise richly seasoned foods. She routinely calls for garlic and at least sixteen other herbs in the recipes listed in her book. She has a curry powder recipe that calls for turmeric, coriander, cumin, nutmeg, mace, and cayenne pepper. Her book includes recipes for tarragon vinegar, for mushroom catsup, and tomato marmalade calling for black pepper, and garlic that she claimed is excellent for seasoning gravies. It is clearly documented that Virginia foods in the 18th and 19th centuries, at least among the wealthier classes, was richly seasoned.
Besides the spices and herbs used in 18th and 19th century cooking, the upper classes also used sugar. It was a way to show off their wealth. Mary Randolph’s barbecued pork recipe calls for “browned” sugar. The Kentucky Housewife has a barbecued beef recipe that calls for rubbing the meat with molasses before barbecuing it. That book was published in 1839. I’m sure the recipe is much older. The same book also has a recipe for cooking barbecued venison after rubbing it with brown sugar and another for barbecuing rabbit that included vinegar, mustard, and currant jelly or brown sugar. Sounds a lot like what’s going on nowadays, doesn’t it? The poorer classes and slaves couldn’t afford sugar or expensive spices and herbs. Therefore, we read so much about the vinegar and pepper mixture. But, it’s clear from the recipes in the cookbooks written by the three women mentioned above, all from relatively wealthy Virginia families, that sugar and barbecue have been companions for a lot longer than we have been told by historians. In Housekeeping in Old Virginia there is a recipe for a “meat-flavoring” that consists of vinegar, salt, pepper, red pepper, mustard, turmeric, celery seed, and brown sugar. Isn’t that interesting? Sounds like a modern barbecue sauce.
There are also some other references to sweet barbecue “sauces” in the 19th century. For example, in an 1863 edition of the Holmes County Farmer there is an account of a barbecue held in South Carolina where it says “a barbecue consisting of twelve roasted oxen and numerous barrels of molasses” was served. Notice that beef, not pork, was served at a South Carolina barbecue. However, what’s most interesting is the reference to molasses. By the same token, at the wedding of Abraham Lincoln’s parents, it is recorded that there was “syrup in big gourds; peach-and-honey; a sheep that the two families barbecued whole over coals of wood burned in a pit.” Now, the writers of those accounts never come right out and say that the molasses, peach syrup, and honey were served with the meat to be eaten like a sauce. But, is that really necessary? In my family every year at Thanksgiving we always have cranberry sauce. But, you know what we end up doing with it? We put it on the turkey! We don’t call it turkey sauce. But, that’s where we put it when we eat it. I am convinced that those sweet syrups were served to go on the meats at those barbecues.