Thursday, 25 October 2012 | 55 comments

Mama’s homemade barbecue sauce

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.

Barbecue sauce

  1. 4 tablespoons minced onion
  2. 1 cup tomato puree
  3. 3/4 cup water
  4. 3 tablespoons vinegar
  5. 2 tablespoons worcestershire sauce
  6. 1 teaspoon salt
  7. 1 teaspoon paprika
  8. 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  9. 1 teaspoon chili powder
  10. 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  11. Dash ground cloves

  1. Combine all ingredients. Heat to boiling.
  2. Allow to cool and transfer to a sealed contained. Let rest, chilled, for at least 24 hours.

§ 55 responses to Mama’s homemade barbecue sauce

  • Amy

    Hi, Sarah. I rarely comment here, though I do follow your blog regularly. Just wanted to say that this was a really, really powerful post. It has me thinking and re-thinking my own relationship with my mother and grandmother, so thank you (so much) for that.

  • Beth

    I’m sorry that you’ve lost your mom at such a young age. Three years ago this Thanksgiving we found out my mom has non-Hodgkins’ lymphoma. She’s now had this for what feels like eternity but the day I found out that there is no cure for it, was as gut-wrenching as when we first heard she had it. I think I might be about 10 years older than you and the thought that she won’t be here for as long as I need her is overwhelming. I won’t say, “Time will make it easier” because who knows if that’s true? Take care — and know your writing is a lovely tribute.

  • Thank you for sharing this. Those memories of recipes called in by phone and scribbled on scraps of paper resonate so strongly…

  • Jean McAllister

    Your writing is heartwarming &beautiful. Thank you.

  • I have chills. This was a beautiful story and you hit on so many true things. Thank you for sharing this.

  • Hi Sarah – so many things to love here. My mom has been gone almost four years, and my maternal grandma too – I find so much in your story that feels bone-deep familiar. One of the things I find most comforting in missing my mom (and I still miss her every day) is knowing that if I am really quiet and listen I can hear her voice, know what she would most likely say. It sounds like you have also found that – I hope that it can bring you some measure of peace and even joy, as you think about her and her life. I’m sending you a big warm hug and holding a little thought for you and your Mama. I hope having the sauce in the fridge turns out to be just the commemoration that you need.

    And hey, a rack of ribs can only make things better. Just ask my husband :)

  • I loved this post. I feel a special kind of connection with writers who let me into the ugly parts of themselves. Thank you :-).

  • Gosh, I was tearing up when I read this because I remember my mother going through the same thing when my Nana passed away. She couldn’t bring herself to look at the treasured little box of recipes she had, a fixture of the kitchen counter of my mom’s youth. The hand writing, the notes and the food memories were all so overwhelming.

    We finally got to the point where we could open it and run our fingers through. the cards Same little findings: the salads with marshmallows and other quirks. The whole thing culminated in making her favorite cucumber salad (a legit salad though–this seems worthy of mention) for a cool summer lunch. The simplicity of it was scrawled on 5 short lines and was very easily just something we liked without fuss or needing reason, just as you say.

    Thank you for this, Sarah :)

  • We were lucky to have my mother with us into her late 80’s, but still she died leaving us with a culinary mystery — her tartar sauce. We’ve tried and tried, and no one has replicated it. I’m glad you have your mom’s BBQ sauce — three times — and that it turned out good!

  • It will be 22 years next month since my Dad passed away, when I was an all-too-young 23. I can say that the anniversary of his death has been less painful; less confusing and anger-inducing. Sometimes, shockingly, it even slips by without my noticing, without calling my Mom to see how she is handling it.

    But his birthday: his birthday has become the day that I celebrate his life, that I take a day to pause and reflect, to do something special, to muse on what he would think of this grown-up daughter of his and the life she leads. For me, it was a gradual thing, but it has helped, this tradition of celebrating his life rather than commemorating his death. I’m sure you will find your own ways of honoring your mother’s memory, of celebrating her life; her barbecue sauce sounds like a great start.

    • Kim Gross

      This is such a lovely tribute to your dad. I lost my sister on September 6th after spending the summer being tested trying to donate a kidney. She had a heart attack and didn’t recover. Her birthday this year is on Thanksgiving Day. I keep trying to think of ways to celebrate her life on this day of giving thanks. It’s hard. I’m hoping next year will be a little easier. I’d like to celebrate her life … it is so worth celebrating! Thanks for sharing.

  • my mother lives in a different country from me. first college and then marriage has kept that distance but somehow are relationship is even more bound for the distance. my happiest memories are from her kitchen and i’ve really sought to preserve those moments, some through writing myself and others in a fast growing folder on my gmail. it’s less personal than written word. i’ve always wanted to have hand written scraps to turn too. your vignette reminds me to not take for granted what i have. it takes strength to share such personal thoughts so thank you for writing and sharing with us. m x

  • your posts are always lovely, but this one especially resonates with me. I lost my dad six years ago (very, very suddenly & I was 23) and much of my time since has been spent figuring out how to honor and evoke him, which most often happens through food. grief is tricky and strange, so I hope you will continue to be gentle and patient with yourself. I won’t say that it gets better, but it does get different.

    I don’t know if this essay about grief may be helpful or the last thing you want to read, but I thought I would share some of my writing in return for your lovely words:

  • Oh, Sarah–this is so true and heartfelt. I grew up never knowing my father and have SO MANY questions. But to lose someone who was there and then gone is much harder, I know.
    Recipes are funny things. They carry so much with them. There are some we love not because they are the best, but because they are what we grew up with and fold in memories and ritual with them. A sauce doesn’t have to be the best sauce if it reminds you of summer.
    I love that you have this recipe box. It’s like a box of clues to the mystery of what came before. xox

  • Your writing has given me goose bumps. Thank you for sharing this- so thoughtful and raw. I traveled home for a visit recently and my sister and I sat with our grandmother going through her recipe box. We laughed and reminisced and asked her lots of questions. Her health is failing and I knew there wouldn’t be much more time to hear her stories. I can’t understand what it’s like to lose your mom, but my heart goes out to you.

  • This post made me teary-my mother died when I was 11. Sixteen years later, I often find myself looking for her, in the family cookbook . In the mints she made every year at Christmas, the chocolate chip cookies she always kept around the house, the Peruvian recipes she tried to introduce to her family. It’s never enough, but it’s what I have.

  • Oh Sarah, you made me cry.
    I lost my beloved Dad in 2001, and after he died I spent months trying to re-create his favorite recipes. It was hot as Hades that year, and I found myself standing in the kitchen, making Holsteiner Schnitzel — deep fried veal schnitzel topped with a fried egg and anchovies; not exactly summer food — because it was the most special thing ever. It wasn’t, really; it was just his favorite thing and by making it, I had a little bit of him back, if only for dinner.
    You are some writer, my friend.

  • This is just so damned beautiful.

    It’s amazing. Recipes are so much more than words on a page. Every few years, I have this huge existential crisis about the place of words. Why do I write? What does it matter? (I’m having another right now.) But then something, like this piece, reminds me why: words are a finger pointing, a guide to the real experience. I might just have to make this barbecue sauce now. Thank you.

  • What a beautiful piece. Funny how these anniversaries of grief sneak up on us in ways it can take a while to recognize. Love how the onions pickled, how it became a Clark Kent of a barb sauce. Lovely. And I might just give that sauce a whirl!

  • I lost my dad when I was about the age you were when you lost your mom…that kind of loss leaves so many unanswered questions that linger throughout your life. I didn’t have a recipe, from him but if I did, I would surely make it, good or not. It’s a link and it just demonstrates how we connect through food and recipes.

    I had an apple cake recipe I always thought came from my grandmother, and after years and years, I discovered through photographs, an old recipe box, and a conversation with my mom that is was actually passed down from my great grandmother and probably goes back further than that. It’s not that fancy, but I make it every year. It keeps the conversation going when there are no words to exchange with those people in the here and now.

  • This may sound strange, but as I’ve read your blog, I’ve always assumed you were older than me (I’m 29), because you have a wisdom and maturity about your writing that I assumed came with age. Perhaps it is, instead, the wisdom and maturity that come with suffering and loss. In my experience, those things are accompanied by a deeper joy, as well. I hope this is true for you. Thanks for sharing this part of yourself.

  • This is some really fine writing. So glad I found your blog and I’m looking forward to reading much more. Ken

  • Laura

    Thank you for sharing this story.
    My mother passed almost ten years ago without leaving any of my favorite childhood recipes written down. I have been trying every summer to recreate her potato salad with not much success. I’m glad you get to see your moms handwriting and make something (special or not) the same way she did!

  • So beautifully written. Your site is special.

  • Not everyone can relate to the grief at the loss of a parent, but all of us who read your blog can appreciate the honesty of the emotions you share with us. You are a good daughter, your Mother would be proud. Thank you for your beautiful writing.

  • Susie

    I lost both of my parents at 18, many years ago. This post is a wonderful tribute to your mother…thank you for sharing.

  • Deb

    What a lyrical and brave tribute to your Mom! I lost my Dad six years ago and just last week I had a question for him. When I remembered the question would remain unanswered, a tightness in my chest returned. I remind myself that there is no way I could have anticipated his passing or the conversations I wish we would have had. I am awe of your ability to put your feeling into words. Even after six years I find myself unable to transcribe my feelings.

  • My heart broke for you reading this, it must have been just wrenching to read your mom’s recipes. I love those old-fashioned recipes, sometimes we get a little too complicated with things and need to just let that go!

  • Sarah – this was lovely. I laughed and choked up. I love that the sauce turned out ok – good even. I so relate to the angst or pain or emptiness of not being able to ask the questions. Even 20 plus years on after my mum’s death, I still want to call her and ask her things and some days I still miss her so much I ache. But I too have a recipe box with mystery recipes or just plain mysteries. Why is the word “relax” printed on the back of a cookie recipe? But having her recipes and some of my gram’s recipes means that when I cook or bake with them, they are with me in my kitchen. Not that I don’t stay away from some of the recipes – especially the ones calling for lots of lard or liver for example – just not me….

  • You are such a bright light in this world, Sarah.

  • regina

    longtime lurker, beautiful post.
    i lost my father at age 9, 24 long years ago. while i know it is not the same as losing a mother, i still find myself in the same position, lots of unanswered questions…
    thank you for sharing…

  • Jacquie

    Familiar story,i have no idea why or where the anger comes from?it gets better and it doesn’ will just be a sucky day for a while.
    p.s-wine does not help;)

  • I’ve spent 18 years without my Mom; and I hate saying to any motherless child that it never gets better, but it gets less dark, less sour and dulls within the heart over time. But it will never go away. And for that, I’m always sorry to say to any member of this painful club.

    I too carry my mothers recipe box to every place I will ever live. It holds little I could ever repeat in modern times, but it hold droves of my mothers life; her handwriting, neat and perfect, her inspiration and a million questions of ‘why’ that, like you, echo permanently in my head. The notes she jotted in the corners, the time worn, tissue thin recipes that I grew up with, faded with time, care-worn and beloved. I try them in my adult kitchen, and often they fall flat. Just what did we love about this? And the answer is always a mystery, but because it came from her hands, made with her sweet love for us, it was perfect, even when it wasn’t.

    I’m glad you unlocked the secret of that sauce, deep with the alchemy that takes over when a covered pot is plunked in the fridge. Somewhere in the cold, the ingredients marry beautifully, creating an entirely new dish. And thankfully, an answer to one of those questions we all wish we could ask.

  • Hi all—so many wonderful comments here, and so many personal stories, I wasn’t sure how to respond via comment. I’ve sent quite a few of you personal responses, but wanted to thank all of you for the commiseration and even advice. Cheers—S

  • Hello Sarah,
    I have been enjoying your blog for a while now and then today I read this post and a few minutes later found that Luisa had linked us together (so to speak) and so here I am saying hello and that you write beautifuly and brilliantly. I just like it. -I like that. Oh and the eggs and the pear pie I like them too.

  • Sarah, this is so simple, so beautiful, so perfect. Thank you for your words.

  • I’m so sorry for your loss. I have heard of so much heartbreak lately, but it comforts me to read the comments of others here and see the kindness and love in the world.

  • Jennifer

    Thank you for this post it was absolutely beautiful, but more than that it resonates with me so deeply that I felt I should share. Almost three years ago (in March) my mother died, and I too had just begun to unfold out of that college-student mindset you spoke of, and begin to bond with her. Though I knew to expect her health to worsen at stages as a result of the multiple sclerosis. Death, though we were never disillusioned about it’s proximity, we still thought it a concern of a more distant future. It wasn’t until a year later that I went to pick up the phone and call her that I realized all of the questions that were left unanswered. Even now, having moved abroad there are times I have that “I should call home thought” that is followed by a gasp of realization. Not asking those questions, even the simple, non-probing ones, such as those about outfits, perfumes, favorite earrings, and recipes has been one of the hardest parts of her death. I am in awe of your articulation of something that though we all experience at some point, is so deeply personal. Thank you for sharing and allowing us readers to be apart of this.

  • meg

    Recipe boxes are powerful things. My great-grandmother has one that I covet because it contains memories of years of Sunday dinners, her incredible layer cakes, the chicken and dumplings she makes when the weather’s dreary, and her famous fried apple pies that she taught me how to make. It’s a portal into her world. The love with which she has fed her family all these years (she turned 94 this year!) is palpable in the recipe box’s greasy, smudged index cards.

  • I lost my father suddenly when I was 19, almost 24 years ago. He had a small repertoire of recipes = tacos, a ten thing salad and his spaghetti sauce, which is about as authentic Italian as it gets, despite his hillbilly Irish heritage (his description). My mother wrote the recipe down, but forgot some key ingredients such as tomato paste and the most important step of starting it on Thursday for Saturday’s dinner. I’m so thankful I remembered the answer to that question, but I still have so many more.

  • love love love to you.
    for sharing your heart.
    for sharing the journey.
    for sharing your mother.

  • Bobby

    What a wonderful, compelling post. You have a gift.

  • Sarah — I just found your blog tonight (via some lovely picture on Pinterest), and wonder how I never found it sooner. This post, in particular, went right to my heart. I so treasure the recipes I have in my mom’s handwriting, and in her mother’s and my dad’s mothers. I wrote about one of those recipes a few months back:

    Blessings to you for sharing your beautiful gift with food and words.

    I will be a frequent visitor.

  • I, too, lost my mom unexpectedly and much too young (I was 26). I absolutely TREASURE her recipe boxes and do sometimes have to sift through the sweet ache of making my way through them. It brings me closer and also hurts so badly simultaneously. Keep cooking…keep remembering…there is sweet in the ache.

  • Christina A.

    Hi Sarah,

    I too have a similar story..I lost my mum 6 months ago..all so very suddenly…I’m 36. She was 58. Her collection of recipes in her notebooks, magazine clippings all arranged nicely in a folder, old recipe books were the first things I put in a safe place. This is my treasure. I read the recipes and the smell of food comes to me, bringing her somewhat closer…I too have so many questions..oh so many!! Beautiful post…

  • Kia

    I’ve just read this and will tell you ” ask your uncles about g’ma’s bar-b-que sauce”

  • danise

    I miss my mom so much…

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