To Sauce or Not to Sauce

Is there a Chicago-Style of BBQ?

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By David Hammond

There are many regional styles of barbecue, but is there a distinctive Chicago-style of preparing meat  low and slow?

Barbecue requires meat and smoke. However, whether it requires sauce, and the kind of sauce it may require, depends upon where you and your barbecue are coming from. In Chicago, some of us think of barbecue as being basically meat with sweet and tangy tomato-based sauce, but that’s not the case everywhere. Many regional barbecue styles go commando, without a hint of the red stuff we Chicagoans have come to expect on our ribs, tips and hot links. Or they use another type of condiment entirely.

Grace Delcano lives in Galewood, just north of Oak Park. From her her Galewood Cookshack (a retrofitted motorhome) she serves up a style of Q that is very unlike what we Chicagoans grew up munching. According to Delcano, “I would say we’re closest to a North Carolina style because I do a vinegar-based barbecue sauce on the pulled pork. I start with a dry spice rub and then mop a few times and then of course serve it with sauce on the side. This vinegar-based sauce had to be modified because this is the Midwest, so I have sweetened it with both brown sugar and honey. “

At Smoque on Pulaski, Barry Sorkin gets culinary inspiration from the relatively sauce-free Lone Star State. He told me “Our brisket is very much a Texas style. By default we serve it with a little bit of sauce, which is a little bit different from some of the places in Texas. A lot of the places won’t even give you sauce. Chicago is kind of a sauce town.”

Because I usually prefer the taste of barbecued meat straight-up, I get mine sans sauce.  A place I’ve gone several times for good BBQ is Smokin’ M’s in Forest Park. My usual order: tips and links, hold the sauce (pictured). Sometimes I'll get sauce on the side for dipping, but if it's a good piece of meat, I'd just as soon taste that rather than red stuff it's so frequently drenched in.

My friend Gary Wiviott is the author of Low and Slow: Master the Art of Barbecue in Five Easy Dinners. Called the Doctor of Ribs and Professor of Brisket by John Kass of the Chicago Tribune, Wiviott does not like to sauce his meat either, and he contends that sauce can camouflage less-capable cooking. According to Wiviott, “Most people and most commercial establishments do not cook very good barbecue: they rush it or they don’t use smoke or they use too much smoke and it tastes like creosote or their fire isn’t clean and it becomes smoldering and it adds a tar-y like patina to the meat. The sweet, sticky, thick viscous type sauces that people use – it almost tastes like a candy bar – people are using that as Spackle, quite frankly, they’re painting over the barbecue, they’re masking the flavors.”

Wiviott's mantra is "Sauce on the side, always, implied, axiomatic; never a doubt, BBQ sauce without." You might say he feels strongly about this issue.

And yet, in Chicagoland, including Oak Park, despite imported regional variations, the saucy smoked stuff is preferred by recognized masters of their craft, accomplished pitmasters. I get some rib tips from Mack Sevier of the highly regarded Uncle John’s Barbecue on 69th,  who told me “I prefer to have the barbecue sauce on the meat. And in that way, you get the true taste of the sauce and the true taste of the meat. But then sometimes people want it on the side, for some unknown reason, they just want it on the side.”

In ’82, the first annual Royko Ribfest was the largest urban ‘cue contest ever held. A man who made his name at Royko’s seminal festival was, of course, Charley Robinson, who answered Royko’s challenge, beat the apron off him and founded Robinson’s Ribs, an empire built on sauce. Robinson told me “You know, the Midwest here has its own particular style of barbecue…Chicago to me is one of the barbecue capitals of the world, and sauce is key. There’s no question about it.”

Do you have a favorite local BBQ joint…and do you get your meat with our without sauce?

 

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