The Saucier's Apprentice

The Saucier's Apprentice

Originally published on April 17, 2012 in fine newspapers everywhere.

If you checked your fridge, you would likely find more sauces than any other type of food. My own includes two different steak sauces, ketchup, mayo, three different mustards, soy sauce, Hoisin sauce, Worcestershire, three salsas (salsa is Mexican for sauce, by the way) and a few others. We are a sauce-loving people.

Of course, we didn’t always like sauces. When early man roasted a wildebeest over an open flame, he certainly didn’t think, “Hmm, this would be better with a nice béarnaise.” There are a few allusions to sauce-like foods found in ancient Greek and Roman writings; the closest culinary ancestors of our modern-day sauces come from France.

Before the nineteenth century, the greatest French cooking took place in the homes of the wealthy. When the French Revolution displaced the aristocracy, a great many chefs found themselves out of work. The new middle-class created the demand for what the wealthy once had, and the French restaurant was born, with unemployed chefs landing the restaurant jobs. This is when classic French cooking, along with its many sauces, went mainstream. Chefs chose former aristocratic bosses to name their sauces.

Sauces became such an important part of French cooking, that some chefs-in-training would specialize in them. These “sauciers” were held in high regard in the brigade kitchen and were third in command behind the head chef and sous chef. Sauciers can still be found in top restaurant kitchens, but their duties have expanded not only to include sauce making, but usually sautéing as well.

For the modern family, most of the sauces consumed come prepared in a jar, because making our own mayonnaise, mustard, or tomato sauce seems like a great inconvenience. In the world of BBQ, there are literally thousands of bottled sauces on the market from both giant corporations and small boutique producers.

Some BBQ lovers, however, put as much passion and time into developing sauces as they do the BBQ. These made-from-scratch sauces vary greatly and are often as distinct in character as the people who make them. There are some regional commonalities and the BBQ capitals — Kansas City, Memphis, Texas, and the Carolinas — all have their own traditions when it comes to sauces.

For my money, the Carolinas have as rich a BBQ heritage as any other place in the U.S., and their contribution to the world of BBQ sauces includes two versions unlike any others. In this region, BBQ means pulled pork, and its sweet and tangy mustard-based sauce is popular in many areas of South Carolina. Perhaps the most famous version of this sauce is made by Maurice’s Piggy Park with about 16 locations across South Carolina. His golden sauce can be purchased online at www.mauricesbbq.com.

My all-time favorite sauce is the North Carolina Vinegar sauce. Thin and peppery, this is the perfect accompaniment to pulled pork. It is what I dream about at night. Some men dream of rendezvous with Hollywood starlets; I dream of pulled pork with vinegar sauce and sometimes of Hollywood starlets eating sandwiches made with pulled pork dripping with vinegar sauce. I’ve provided a recipe of my version of this sauce, but eat it at your own risk. Your dreams may never be the same again.

North Carolina-Style Vinegar Sauce

  • 2 cups cider vinegar

  • 3 tablespoons ketchup

  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar

  • 4 teaspoons kosher salt

  • 1 tablespoon hot sauce (like Frank’s Red Hot)

  • 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes

  • 2 teaspoons black pepper

Combine all these ingredients and whisk until the salt and brown sugar dissolves. You can store this covered in the refrigerator for several weeks. Use on pulled pork.

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