White out: North Alabama style bbq sauce

White out: North Alabama style bbq sauce

Originally published August 27, 2009

On a single trip from one end of Indiana to the other you could, if so inclined, feast on lake perch in “da' region” for lunch and then a brain sandwich in Evansville for dinner. These are truly regional dishes because you would be hard presses to find one in the geographic home of the other.

There are lots of factors that contribute to how food traditions develop. One reason has to do with what happened to be available at the time these dishes were first eaten. It doesn't take a degree in food anthropology to figure out that perch showed up on dinner tables in Northwest Indiana because of that giant body of water we call Lake Michigan. Similarly, Southern Indiana's history of hog farming resulted in creative uses for the entire pig, brains and all.

Of course these sorts of regional patterns aren't found only in Indiana. Head to the southeastern United States and you'll find wide variety in the way BBQ is prepared. Much of the difference comes in the style of sauce used. Certain parts of South Carolina are known for a mustard-based sauce. Golden in color and tangy sweet, this sauce finds its way onto pulled pork and chicken. A place called Maurice’s Gourmet BBQ put this mustard sauce on the map.

Travel east a bit to the coastal areas of both Carolinas and the taste is for a thin-spiced vinegar sauce. This is one my favorites. Its sourness will make you pucker when slurped up on its own but compliments the fatty richness of pulled pork beautifully. Other parts of the Southeast, like Georgia and Tennessee, do a fine job with BBQ and enthusiasts seem to enjoy the tomato-based sauces with which the rest of the country is familiar. I lived for several years in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which is, nestled right against both the Alabama and Georgia borders. Drive an hour or two in nearly any direction and you’ll discover distinctive interpretations of BBQ.

I recently discovered yet another sauce that is entirely different than all the others found down South. What makes this style of BBQ even more fascinating is the small geography in which it is found. The epicenter of this BBQ is Decatur, Alabama about 20 miles outside Huntsville. The original white sauce was first served by Big Bob Gibson in 1925. Four generations later the Gibson family is still going strong and their white sauce is more popular than ever. At Gibson’s the white sauce is served with pork, but it is most popular on chicken. At the restaurant, chicken halves are slow-smoked over hardwoods and then dipped in the sauce just before serving. Gibson’s creamy, tangy, peppery sauce is available for purchase by the bottle at the store and can also be ordered online here.

I recently tried my hand at making some myself and thought the results were pretty spectacular. I served it on smoked chicken breasts but it work well on grilled chicken or even turkey. Here’s my recipe.

North Alabama-Style White BBQ Sauce

  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 3/4 cup cider vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1-1/2 tablespoons smoked black pepper*
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne

Whisk together all ingredients, cover, and refrigerate for at least eight hours before using. Smoke or grill chicken halves or pieces. When chicken is ready, pour half the sauce in a shallow dish and place the chicken in the dish, turning to coat. Serve the other half of the sauce so your guests can add more if they desire. 

* this smoked black pepper is one of my all-time favorite specialty ingredient. It can be ordered online from a variety of proprietors. You can certainly make this with regular pepper, I just love the extra smokiness added by this product.

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