Saturday, April 24, 2021

Wesley Jones' Barbecue and Antebellum Sauce

Federal Project Number 1. The moniker for a government program that employed upwards of 40,000 writers, musicians, artists and actors during the Great Depression.  The Federal government hired all of these individuals because, as the then-Secretary of Commerce Harry Hopkins bluntly put it, "Hell, they've got to eat too." However, there was two important principles underying Federal One, as the project became known: (1) in the time of need, the artist - no less than the manual worker - is entitled to employment as an artist, even at the public expense; and (2) the arts - no less than business, agriculture, and labor - are the immediate concern of the country. 

One of the initiatives of Federal One was the Federal Writers Project. This project within a project employed thousands of writers, historians, researchers, editors and others to do what they do best: preserve the American experience. They did what was asked of them; and, in the process, demonstrated the important contributions that they could make to our country. 

Most notably, the Federal Writers Project produced, Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from interviews with Former Slaves.  This work is a literary opus, bringing together 2,300 individual interviews of former slaves and 500 original pictures that span nearly 10,000 pages. My introduction to this literary composition placed me squarely in its middle. It was Volume XIV (of thirty-three parts).  This volume is entitled, South Carolina Narratives, Part 3. It includes the interviews of approximately 75 former slaves.

One of those slaves was Wesley Jones, who was interviewed on June 21, 1937. 

Wesley was born in 1840 on a plantation somewhere in Union County, South Carolina. During his interview, Wesley talked about what he would do for the plantation owner, such as driving him to church or goiong to a store in Sardis, South Carolina to pick up papers (or letters).  Today, the town of Sardis appears to be little more than a crossroads just south of an exit on Interstate 95. However, back in the 1850s, a lot more was apparently going on in that little town, especially at that store. According to Wesley, there were "big barbecues" at the Sardis store. 

As it turns out, Wesley had a role at those barbecues. He worked as the pitmaster.  Wesley recounted that, "on his 'karpets' (pit stakes), ... I had whole goats, whole hogs, sheep and de side of a cow." He also discussed how he prepared these meats:

Night befo' dem barbecues, I used to stay up all night a-cooking and basting de meats wid barbecue sass (sauce). It made of vinegar, black and red pepper, salt, butter, a little sage, coriander, basil, onion and garlic. Some folks drop a little sugar in it.  On a long pronged stick, I wraps a soft rag or cotton fer a swab, and I swabs dat meat 'till it drip into de fire. Dem drippings change de smoke into seasoned fumes dat smoke de meat.  We turn de meat over and swab it da way all night long 'till it ooze seasoning and bake all through.

This excerpt from the Slave Narrativees provides a first hand account of how African-American slaves prepared barbecue.  However, let's be honest, it is an account of how those slaves prepared barbecue for the white plantation class. Slaves would not have had access to whole goats, whole hogs, sheep and a side of a cow to prepare their own meals or meals for their families. They often only had the discarded cuts, the tough portions of an animal that required a slow cook over low temperatures in order to make them tender enough to eat.  

Yet, the story of Wesley Jones remains important.  It provides a starting point on an educational journey to explore the true roots of barbecue. Those roots originated with the enslaved and persecuted.  The problem is that much of the history of barbecue is not written by those who did the work. 

The picture shown above is a good metaphor for this point. It shows a person working the pit, mopping the meat as it smokes. You can see who is doing the work, except for his face. Countless African Americans and Native Americans, whose identities have been ignored or forgotten by history, contributed to what we all enjoy today when we eat some pulled pork or sliced brisket. It was their cooking traditions, along with those of the Native Americans, that constitute the origin story of American barbecue.

I want to learn more about their work. That is my goal with this post. I decided to recreate what Wesley Jones would prepare for the barbecues in Sardis. Thanks to the Federal Writers Project, and one of the Project's editors named Elmer Turnage, I have the words of Wesley Jones for a starting point.  

Wesley said that he spent the night "basting de meats wid barbecue sass" and "all night long I swabs dat meat...." These passages suggest that he used something that modern pitmasters could refer to as mop sauce.  It is basically a thin liquid - usually vinegar (if you are trying to tenderize the meat) or beer (if you want to add flavor) - with spices.  Wesley basically provided the ingredients for this sauce: vinegar, black pepper, red pepper, salt, butter, a little sage, coriander, basil, onion and garlic.  He also provided one additional tidbit of information.  Wesley noted that some people added sugar, which suggests that what he was describing was a fairly typical barbecue sauce for the time period. 

A mop sauce is applied during the cook.  The question remained what happens before the cook.  Wesley did not say how the meat was initially prepared. He made no mention of applying salt or spices to the meat in advance of cooking it. I gave it a lot of thought and I came up with two options. First, I could do a simple salt and pepper seasoning. Second, I could prepare a rub, using the ingredients for the barbecue sauce as a guide. I chose the second option. I used the dry ingredients and substituted onion powder and garlic powder for onions and garlic.  

As for the meat itself, I don't have access to whole goats, hogs, sheep or even a side of beef.  I did have a pork butt.  I applied the rub to the meat and let it rest for a while, as I got the smoker going.  Once the cook began, I used the mop sauce basically every hour. I decided to wrap the pork about half way through the cook to help maintain the moisture. I applied a lot of the mop sauce before I wrapped it to help keep the meat moist during the final hours of the cook.  


Adapted from the Slave Narratives, Vol. XIV, pg. 73 (1937)

Serves many

Ingredients (for the meat):

  • 1 pork butt (between 6 to 9 pounds)
  • 2 tablespoon of kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon onion powder
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon of black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon of red pepper flakes
  • 1 teaspoon dried rubbed sage
  • 1 teaspoon of dried basil leaves
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed coriander seed
Ingredients (for the mop sauce):
  • 1 cup of apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 cup of unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoon of kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon onion powder
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon of black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon of red pepper flakes
  • 1 teaspoon dried rubbed sage
  • 1 teaspoon of dried basil leaves
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed coriander seed
  • 1 tablespoon sugar (optional)

1. Prepare the pork.  Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl. Season the pork butt with the rub on all sides until well covered. Cover the pork and allow it to rest for at least a few hours, if not overnight. 

2. Prepare the smoker.  Prepare a fire in the smoker, and, allow it to burn until the temperature reaches approximately 275 degrees Fahrenheit. Soak wood chunks (preferably hickory or oak) in water for at least an hour before smoking the pork. 

3. Smoke the pork.  Once the smoker is ready, oil the grates and place the pork in the smoker. Add a few chunks of wood, such as hickory or apple wood to the fire to create the smoke.  You may want to wrap the pork about halfway through the cook to help retain the moisture. 

4. Prepare the mop sauce. Combine all of the ingredients for the mop sauce and stir well.  With a barbecue mop, apply the mop sauce at least every hour to the pork. Smoke until the pork reaches an internal temperature of at least 185 degrees Fahrenheit. 

One caveat: the foregoing recipe is experimental.  After all, this was the first time that I tried to make this recipe.  It needs some refinement, especially with respect to the rub. I hope to be able to cook it again and make some improvements.  When I do, I will update this post. 

Finally, a reknown writer, culinary historian and educator -- Michael Twitty -- recreates a barbecue sauce that is based upon Wesley Jones' mop sauce. Twitty recommends applying this sauce toward the end of the cook as a light mop sauce or glaze.  I used it as a barbecue sauce that could be mixed in with the pork once it was chopped or pulled.   


Recipe from Afroculinaria


  • 1/2 stick of unsalted butter
  • 1 large yellow or white onion, well chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 cup of apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 cup of water
  • 2 tablespoon of kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon of black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon of red pepper flakes
  • 1 teaspoon dried rubbed sage
  • 1 teaspoon of dried basil leaves
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed coriander seed
  • 1/4 cup dark brown sugar or 4 tablespoons of molasses

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium high heat. Add the onion and garlic until translucent.  Turn the heat down slightly and add vinegar, water, optional ingredients (sugar or molasses), salt and spices.  Stir and allow the mixture to cook gently for about 30 minutes to an hour.  Use this sauce as a light mop sauce or glaze during the last 15 to 30 minutes over the pit of coals and as a dip for the cooked meat. 

Michael also offers to options for this sauce.  The first option is to add 1/2 up of brown mustard and a bit more sugar to create a Carolina Mustard Sauce. The second option is to create a "red sauce" by adding two cans of tomato paste or 4 very ripe red or purple heirloom tomatoes (Large Red, Cherokee Purple, Brandywine or Amish Paste), and then cook it down for several hours on low heat to a comparable consistency, adding two tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce. 

*        *        *

As I noted above, this post is a starting point on a journey to explore the original roots of barbecue in America. I plan on doing more research on this subject and, over time, to continue posting what I have learned.  Thank you for taking the time to research this post; and, as always,


Saturday, April 10, 2021

Steamed Cockles in White Wine

Naku te rourou nau te rourou ka ora ai te iwi

The words -- translated from Maori, "with your basket and my basket the people will live" -- float through your mind as you stand with a basket in your hand. You are with your family, looking out at a wide body of water during low tide. Perhaps you at the water's edge of Okoromai Bay on Te Ika a Maui. Maybe you are standing on the shoreline on the Otago Peninsula on Te Wai Pounamu. Either way, you are looking for tuangi or tuaki, the small bivalve that hides just beneath the muddy, sandy surface that stretches out before you. 

The words continue to echo through your mind. Naku te rourou nau te rourrou ka ora ai te iwi.  Your basket.  My basket.  The people will live. Working together, you and your family will gather the tuangi or tuaki. Those cockles or clams, as well as other shellfish, have been an important food source for the Maori diet. That importance means that you have to exercise care in terms of how many you collect. You have to ensure that enough tuangi or tuaki remain so that this food source continues to thrive. 

Maori children collecting tuangi near Paibia
(source: Teara)
This image is one that has been repeated for decades or centuries by the Maori across Aotearoa. As the tide goes out, families venture into the shallows in search of cockles. The bivalves prefer shallow waters, meaning they can be easy to dind. They also bury themselves just below the surface, which makes it relatively easy to dig them out. 

There are certain rules that need to be followed. For example, no shellfish are opened while there are still people in the water. In addition, only one kind of shellfish will be taken during an outing. There may be paua (edible sea snails). There may be kina (sea urchins). There may even be pipi (another bivalve).  It does not matter. If you are out there looking for tuangi or tuaki, that is all you will collect during that outing. The paua, kina and pipi are out of bounds. 

(source: Oregon Dept. of Fish & Wildlife)
As you walk into the shallows, your eyes are focused on the mottled brown surface. You are looking for their "shows," a tell-tale sign that a cockle or clam is hiding beneath the surface. The "show" consists of two pencil sized holes near each other. Those holes tell you that a cockle lies just beneath the surface.  You dig with your hands, moving the sand and earth until you reach the bivalve. You wipe off some of the dirt and take a closer look at what you just found. 

In the waters around New Zealand, you are more than likely going to find Austrovenus Stutchburyl, or the New Zealand Cockle. This little saltwater clam is usually found in estuaries or harbors, where the sand is not very fine.  (As it turns out, fine sand could suffocate these clams.) They bury themselves about an inch under the surface. 

Unfortunately, I have not been able to have the experience of collecting bivalves in the estuaries or bays around New Zealand.  However, I was able to find some very good clams, which were perfect for this recipe.  Most steamed clam recipes are very simple, consisting of only a few ingredients.  The reason is simple: one wants the flavor of the clams to shine through, with the broth playing a supporting or complementary role. This recipe is particularly good, as the wine combines with the liquid released from the clams to produce very good broth. 


Recipe from Scrumpdillyicious

Serves 4


  • 1/4 cup white wine or fish stock
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 30 cockles (or clams)
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely sliced
  • 1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon butter or olive oil
  • 1 lemon, juiced and zested

1. Prepare the cockles.  Let the cockles soak in cold water for about 30-60 minutes so that they release any sand trapped inside. 

2.  Steam the cockles.  In a large pot, hear the butter or olive oil and sliced garlic over high heat while stirring constantly, cooking for one minute.  Add the cockles, wine and half the parsley, then cover, shaking the pan occasionally until all of the shells have opened. 

3.  Finish the dish.  To serve, pour the cockles and sauce in to a high rimmed serving platter and drizzle with lemon juice and the remaining parsley for garnish. 


Thursday, April 1, 2021

Torshe Kebab

Food provides a way to travel at any place around the world, without having to go anywhere. If you have a recipe, you have a passport. That piece of paper can take you just about anywhere if you have an open mind and a desire to learn, can take you just about anywhere. This has been especially important for me during this time of COVID, because of the inability to travel and the lack of desire to waste time watching television or tablets. 

Recipes can come from anywhere.  A couple of years ago, my parents bought me a copy of Naomi Duguid's Taste of Persia.  They knew of my love for Persian food, especially kabobs.  (For those who read this blog, you may have seen my posts about Kubideh, Chenjeh and, for my Around the World in 80 Dishes personal culinary challenge, Jojeh Kebabs.)  I thought that the Taste of Persia cookbook would not only enable me to learn more about those kebabs, but to explore more about Persian cooking.  As an added bonus, the cookbook also explores the cuisines of neighboring countries, such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, as well as particular ethnic groups, such as the Kurds.  

There was one recipe in that book that I have wanted to try for a while.  It was a recipe for Torshe Kebab. (The word "torsh" means sour, so the recipe is actually for Persian sour kebabs.) This recipe would take me to the northern Iranian provinces of Gilan and Mazandaran, which lie along the Caspian Sea. From what I could ascertain, the recipe originated in Gilan.  The marinade used in the recipe -- with its walnut paste and pomegranate sauce -- is used not just for these kebabs, but also as the basis for Fesejan or Fesejoon, which is a stew of chicken, duck or lamb. 

Torshe kebabs are typically prepared with beef, usually from the sirloin or tenderloin cut.  As beef can be expensive, cooks may make the kebab with chicken, goat or lamb. While the particular protein can change, the walnut paste and pomegranate sauce remains the same. It serves two important purposes as a marinade.  The combination of walnuts and pomegranate not only tenderizes the meat, but it also adds a lot of flavor to the meat of the kebab. For that reason, while the recipe contemplates a short marinade time of 1 to 2 hours, I would marinate the meat overnight.  

The recipe also provides a way to broil the kebabs, but the best way to prepare them is to grill them.  Once the kebabs are finished, they should be served with rice and/or a salad. If you are looking for a drink, consider making some doogh.

Recipe from Naomi Daguid, Taste of Persia at 165
Serves 4

1 cup walnuts or walnut pieces
1/2 cup pomegranate molasses
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 garlic cloves, mashed or minced
2 tablespoons sunflower or extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup minced fresh flat leaf parsley (optional)
2 pounds boneless lamb or goat shoulder, or 
     boneless beef top round or hanger steak, cut into 1 inch cubes
Sugar (optional)
Fresh tarragon leaves (optional)

1.  Prepare the marinade.  To make the marinade, place the walnuts in a food processor and pulse to drop them to smaller than raisin size.  Add the remaining ingredients and pulse to blend.  Transfer to a large bowl.  (Alternatively, very finely chop the walnuts and pound to a coarse powder in a large mortar.  Transfer to a large bowl, add the remaining ingredients, and stir to blend thoroughly.

2.  Continue the marinade.  Add the meat to the bowl and stir, turning to make sure all surface are coated with the marinade.  Cover and set aside to marinate for at least 1 hour or as long as overnight; refrigerate if the marinating time is more than 2 hours.  

3.  Preheat the grill.  Bring the meat to room temperature. Preheat a charcoal or gas grill. 

4.  Prepare the kebabs.  Brush off the most of the marinade that is clinging to the meat and reserve the marinade.  Thread the meat onto metal skewers so that the piece are barely touching each other, not crowded together, this helps the meat to cook evenly.  

5.  Cook the kebabs. Place the skewers 4 to 5 inches from the coals or fame and grill, turning occasionally for 7 to 12 minutes, depending upon the heat of your fire and the desired degree of doneness.  Alternatively, you can broil the meat.  Preheat the broiler with a rack about 5 inches below it.  Line a baking sheet with parchment or lightly oil it.  Place the pieces of meat on the sheet and cook for 8 to 10 minutes turning the meat at the halfway point and checking it for doneness after 7 minutes.

6.  Prepare the sauce.  When the meat is grilling, or once it comes off the grill, pour the marinade into a small saucepan, add about 1/2 cup of water, and bring to a boil over medium heat.  Cook for a few minutes, stirring occasionally.  Taste it and season it with salt if you wish; if it is too tart for your taste, add a teaspoon of sugar or more to taste.  You might want to stir in some tarragon leaves once it comes off the heat.  Pour into  a small serving bowl. 

7.  Finish the dish.  Remove the meat from the skewers, put out a platter of herbs, rice and the sauce.