There’s a skeleton in my closet—or, more accurately, a recipe box that I’ve kept hidden and unopened in a cupboard since my mom passed away. I moved it from Michigan to DC to Virginia, shuffling it around, unable to sift through the recipes but unwilling to part with it. Earlier this month, emboldened by a chat with a friend (and a couple glasses of wine), I pulled the box down off the shelf. I’m not sure how many of you have lost parents when you were younger, or perhaps simply suddenly, but my still-raw experience—two years ago, as I write this—is that much of those two years has been some heartwrenching variation on: I wish that I had been able to ask what this was about. I wish I could understand. I wish I could talk to mom about this. When my mom died, I was just coming out of a college kid I-know-everything-and-am-more-worldly-than-you phase and beginning to appreciate my parents as people. We didn’t expect my mother to die.
I am full of questions for her, my mother the woman herself, not just in relation to me. What was that lily-scented perfume you only wore on special occasions? Where was this photo taken, the one of you in the red maillot swimsuit and big oversized sunglasses, the one where you’re standing in front of a car with a canoe strapped to the top? What’s so special about this barbecue sauce recipe? Everyday curiosity escalates quickly to something more desperate, for the mere fact that answers are unattainable.
It must have been my grandmother’s, my mom’s mom. One of the first recipes I encountered in the box, it was written in Grandma’s severely slanting, perfect cursive on one of those “From the kitchen of…” index cards. Then, a bit later on (past our family friend Joyce’s famous “salad” that includes Jell-o, pretzels, and Cool Whip, which I allowed to remain buried), the same recipe—again. This time, in pencil and on a torn scrap of wide rule paper, in my mother’s horribly messy printing. This made me smile, picturing my mother, perpetually disorganized, misplacing the original and calling my grandma for the recipe, jotting it down on a ripped page from one of the five spiral-bound notebooks she seemed to always have floating around. And then, a third time–again, my grandmother’s cursive. The recipe was short; the ingredients, pedestrian. Only one of the recipes came with instructions for using the sauce–“Mix with shredded meat”. All agreed, in one succinct line, about what you should do with this list of ingredients: “Combine and bring to boil.” I left the three near-identical recipes out on the table and shut the recipe box, annoyed with it for yielding up nothing but sad, dissatisfying half-stories.The mystery of the barbecue sauce rattled around in my head all week. I have no memory of “Grandma’s barbecue sauce” or “Mom’s special pulled pork sandwiches,” and honestly, the recipe seemed kind of insipid. Kind of not worth writing down more than once.
But I wanted it to be magic; I wanted so badly for it to be some legacy, some maternal thread stitching me to two women who are gone from my life and for whom I still have so many questions.
When I stopped by the farm down the road where I like to buy meat, I was distracted. The second anniversary of my mom’s death was in a couple days, and I was in a foul mood. I’d been seeking some constructive way to commemorate but was coming up empty-handed. I scowled at people and snarled at Ben, internalizing all kinds of toxic things. Maybe the lady at the farm saw the angry cloud over my head, or maybe she was just trying to move some meat, but she very nicely told me that baby back ribs were on sale.
I don’t really eat ribs. I don’t crave ribs. I have never in my life cooked a rack of ribs, but I’ll be damned if that lady wasn’t suddenly talking the best sense I’d heard all week. Heck, I had three barbecue sauce recipes at home. I bought the ribs. I made the barbecue sauce. We’ll have a special dinner, I thought, stirring together the pantry staples, bringing them to a boil. My mother loved good meat and she loved grilling. It would be perfect, a good way to mark the day, a nice way, a way to not wallow and a way to feel like some small question was answered.The sauce boiled, it cooled. It was funneled into jars. I tasted it, finally. Momentously.
It sucked. The still-raw minced onion was acrid-tasting, the canned tomato too tangy-sweet, the vinegar and worcestershire too funky and prominent. I took a small portion and doctored it. Fish sauce, maybe? Sugar? More salt? Nothing worked. I threw the jar into the fridge and sank into an even uglier mood. The day came and went, unmarked.
One night after a late meeting, Ben sat eating take-out at our dining room table. I puttered around, still in a funk, popping my head into the room every once in awhile to listen to the presidential debate he streamed on a laptop. An open jar sat next to him. “Your barbecue sauce is awesome,” he said distractedly. I stuck my finger in, pretty convinced he had found the nice homemade ketchup. But it was the barbecue sauce. And it was really good—the raw onion pickled down by the vinegar; the tomato tang tamed by the paprika and salt; the funk settled down to where it belonged, as a low base note to the rest.
It’s not terribly strange for a sauce to mellow and meld after a day or so in the fridge. I know this. But in my sad state, I looked at the jar like some sort of enigmatic hero, a Clark Kent of barbecue, the person you know but will never really know.
My mom would have laughed, most likely, if I could ask her—what’s so special about the barbecue sauce? Forcing meaning, imbuing it where it doesn’t need to be overwrought, is sometimes the most irreverent thing we can do. It’s just good, she might have told me. I just like it. Good enough that she borrowed it from her mom, called her up and asked her to read out the recipe to over the phone.
It’s just good, and now I have the recipe for it. Maybe that’s enough.
- 4 tablespoons minced onion
- 1 cup tomato puree
- 3/4 cup water
- 3 tablespoons vinegar
- 2 tablespoons worcestershire sauce
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper
- 1 teaspoon chili powder
- 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
- Dash ground cloves
- Combine all ingredients. Heat to boiling.
- Allow to cool and transfer to a sealed contained. Let rest, chilled, for at least 24 hours.