Barbecue sauce is a popular condiment used widely across the United States and beyond. There are countless variations of barbecue sauce recipes, with different regions and cultures having their own unique takes. But who first created this tasty, tangy, and sometimes spicy sauce? Let’s take a look at the origins and history of barbecue sauce to find out.
The Early History of Barbecue Sauces
The roots of barbecue sauce can be traced back hundreds of years. In the Colonial era, barbecue was a method of slow-cooking meat over indirect heat. This cooking technique originated with Indigenous cultures and was adopted by Europeans settlers in the Americas.
Early barbecue did not rely on sauces for flavor. The meat was seasoned with basic ingredients like salt and pepper. But cooks soon began experimenting with sauces and glazes to add more complexity to the flavor. These early sauces drew inspiration from British, French, Spanish, German, Caribbean, and West African culinary traditions brought to the New World.
The main ingredients in early barbecue sauces were vinegar, mustard, and pepper. Vinegar-based sauces can be traced back to the 1700s in North Carolina and other parts of the South. Mustard-based sauces were likely developed in South Carolina. These sauces added tang and spice to complement the smoked meat.
The Rise of Tomato-Based Barbecue Sauces
Tomatoes were brought to Europe from the Americas in the 16th century. But they were initially viewed with suspicion and not widely adopted in cuisine. It took a few hundred years for tomatoes to become a common ingredient. By the mid-1800s, tomato-based sauces emerged as a new style of barbecue sauce.
There are a few different claims about who first used tomatoes in barbecue sauce:
- Some credit a doctor in Halifax County, Virginia named Francis P. Fisher who supposedly mixed tomatoes into barbecue sauce in the 1820s.
- Others point to a recipe for “Tomato Catchup” published in an 1829 Virginia cookbook that included spices like mustard, cinnamon, and cloves.
- There is also a story that a slave owner named Howard Connerly asked a slave cook named Uncle Nearest to improve his barbecue sauce. Nearest added tomatoes and created the first tomato-based barbecue sauce sometime before the Civil War.
These stories are hard to verify definitively. But it’s clear that tomato-based barbecue sauces grew in popularity throughout the 1800s. By the early 1900s, tomato sauce had become the most common base for barbecue sauces across the country.
The Rise of Commercial Barbecue Sauces
As barbecue grew in popularity nationwide, the first commercial barbecue sauces began hitting the market in the early 1900s. Some key early bottled barbecue sauce brands included:
- In 1909, the Georgia Barbecue Sauce Company was founded by Howard S. Stavely in Macon, Georgia. It marketed a tomato-based sauce called Georgia Barbecue Sauce.
- In 1917, the barbecue restaurant Adam’s Rib opened in Kansas City, Missouri. The owner, Charles Perry, began bottling his signature barbecue sauce to sell locally.
- In the 1920s, the Lee & Perrins brand, maker of Worcestershire sauce, introduced a tomato-based barbecue sauce.
- In 1949, KC Masterpiece was founded by Dr. Rich Davis in Kansas City. It became one of the leading commercial barbecue sauce brands.
As you can see in this timeline, many of the early commercial barbecue sauce companies were based in the Midwest and South – key regions for American barbecue culture.
The Spread of Regional Barbecue Styles
By the 1950s, distinct regional barbecue styles had developed across the United States, each with their own preferences for sauce:
- Memphis: Focus on slow-cooked pork ribs with a tomato or vinegar-based sauce on the sweeter side.
- Texas: Beef brisket is king. Sauces tend to be tomato-based with chili pepper flavor.
- Kansas City: Emphasis on slow-smoked meats with a thick, tomato or molasses-based sauce.
- North Carolina: Uses pork shoulder or whole hog. Sauces are usually vinegar- or mustard-based.
- South Carolina: Specializes in slow-cooked pulled pork with a signature mustard-based sauce.
While tomato continued to be the most popular base, other regional styles like mustard sauces in the Carolinas kept barbecue sauce traditions alive.
The Growing Popularity of Barbecue Sauce
By the late 20th century, barbecue sauce had become a mainstream condiment across the United States. More brands emerged to meet demand:
- Kraft Foods launched its Bull’s-Eye barbecue sauce in 1985.
- Sweet Baby Ray’s was founded in Chicago by Joe McMenamin in 1984 and quickly spread nationally.
- Jack Daniel’s launched its own branded barbecue sauce in 1993 capitalizing on bourbon flavor.
From the 1960s through today, barbecue sauce exploded from a regional/niche product into a mass-market condiment found in most American refrigerators. It became an expected condiment for backyard grilling. Traditions like slathering barbecue sauce on chicken wings became encoded into American food culture.
The growing popularity sparked continued innovation, blending barbecue sauce with new flavors like bourbon, chipotle, coffee, fruit, and more.
The Origins of Barbecue Sauce: A Summary
Tracing the exact first creator of barbecue sauce is difficult given its origins in oral traditions. But we can summarize a few key points about the origins of this quintessentially American condiment:
- Early barbecue in the Colonial era relied only on salt, pepper and other basic ingredients to flavor meat.
- Sauces drawing from European, African, and Caribbean traditions using vinegar, mustard, and pepper emerged in the 1700s.
- Tomato-based barbecue sauces grew in popularity in the 1800s and came to dominate barbecue sauce styles.
- Commercial production of barbecue sauce began in the early 1900s, with brands like Georgia Barbecue Sauce and KC Masterpiece leading the way.
- Distinct regional barbecue sauce styles developed across the U.S. in the 1950s.
- Mass market bottled barbecue sauce surged in popularity from the 1960s through today, making it a ubiquitous American condiment.
While we may never know exactly who “invented” the first barbecue sauce, it’s clear it evolved from diverse culinary traditions into an distinctly American condiment embraced nationwide as a flavorful addition to grilled and smoked meats.
Popular Modern Barbecue Sauce Brands
Today there are countless bottled barbecue sauce options on the market. But a few major brands stand out as the most popular, widely available choices.
|Dr. Rich Davis
|Tomato-based, sweet and tangy
|Sweet Baby Ray’s
|Classic sweet tomato-based
|Designed to complement many meats
|Whiskey and molasses flavored
|Texas-style, spicy and tangy
Beyond these major brands, there is a world of small-batch and artisanal barbecue sauces available regionally and online. Many restaurants also bottle their signature sauces for retail sales. There are endless options for every barbecue sauce lover.
Barbecue Sauce Goes Global
Barbecue sauce has spread well beyond its American roots, becoming popular worldwide. International food brands have created their own twists:
- Heinz released tomato and chili based barbecue sauces tailored to UK and European tastes.
- Japanese companies like Bulldog Sauce developed their own styles of barbecue sauce to complement meats like yakitori chicken.
- Korean barbecue restaurants often serve fresh kiwi or apple based barbecue sauces alongside meat.
- In Russia, homemade barbecue sauces often mix mayonnaise, ketchup, and spices into unique creamy sauces.
- In Australia and New Zealand, tomato-based barbecue sauces are common with the addition of unique flavors like wattamelon and beetroot.
The global reach of barbecue sauce shows how a uniquely American food has inspired taste buds worldwide. Food cultures across the world have embraced barbecue sauce and made it their own.
The Future of Barbecue Sauce
Barbecue sauce shows no signs of slowing down. If anything, the possibilities for innovative flavors, fusions with other cuisines, and specialty artisanal sauces are endless. Some trends shaping the future of barbecue sauce include:
- Global flavors – More blending of international ingredients like gochujang, jalapeños, chimichurri, and harissa with barbecue sauce.
- Adventurous ingredients – Using unexpected foods like miso, kimchi, mushrooms, andHum ingredients like miso, kimchi, mushrooms, and peppers to create unique flavor profiles.
- Natural/healthy focus – More low-sugar, low-sodium, or paleo sauces without artificial ingredients.
- Regional twists – Continued innovation of regional styles like Alabama white sauce.
- Gourmet flair – Higher end sauce makers emphasizing quality, artisanal ingredients.
In a cultural landscape hungry for new flavors, barbecue sauce is poised to continue evolving in exciting ways while holding onto its retro appeal.
Barbecue sauce has taken quite a journey from obscure regional origins to beloved American staple. Its popularity is a testament to the allure of smoky, sweet, spicy flavors enlivening backyard grilled foods. While we may never pinpoint the first person to mix up tomatoes, vinegar, and peppers into the initial sauce, it undoubtedly arose from diverse people aiming to share the communal joy of barbecue. More than just a condiment, barbecue sauce is now encoded into American identity, bringing smiles at the promise of summer days filled with meat sizzling on the grill. Its journey from colonial America to around the globe proves food can bring people together in all corners of the world.