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69 Things to Love About Alabama: The controversial white barbecue sauce



McCormick Grill Mates

There are two sorts of “two types” of people in this world: 1. Those who divide the world into two people, and those who do not. 2. And, those who like white barbecue sauce, and those who do not.

This may be the most controversial topic we explore all off-season.

White barbecue sauce isn’t just a Southern concoction, it’s a native-born North Alabama condiment; so much has it been identified with its home state, that it’s often called “Alabama barbecue” — much the same way Carolina mustard, KC molasses, and Memphis’ dry ribs have become their own sui generis classes.

If you’ve never had it before, then let’s get an obvious objection out of the way: mayonnaise is not the dominant flavor. Like most aiolis, the mayo is meant to be flavor delivery vehicle. Rather, the sauce is a complex vinegar-based one — tangy, cloyingly spicy, hints of mustard, horseradish, with mayo as an emulsifier holding the whole thing together — and don’t skimp on the black pepper.

Believed to have first appeared in the 1920s with Big Bob Gibson’s smoked chickens, oral history says that mayonnaise wasn’t originally a sopping sauce, it was used to prevent the chicken from drying out after spending hours smoking on the pit, when the fat had long-since cooked away. Almost a century later, it is still with chicken where Decatur’s iconic Big Bob Gibson’s recipe leaves its most indelible mark. And though it is not really a sopping sauce and not really a basting sauce, it can serve either purpose. Some could even call Gibson’s white barbecue sauce a countrified demi-glace.

The white sauce has gained increasing popularity too. There are many imitations and a hundred new variations on the theme — such as ones with white wine vinegar, with or without horseradish, etc. And, whether you enjoy the flavor or not, this may be the most enduring legacy of Big Bob Gibson’s sauce at the end of the day: a new gustatory paradigm that takes us away from the power trio of tomato/vinegar/molasses-based sauces.

Have we arrived at a fourth pillar of sauce? Probably not yet, but it really is just a matter of time. But, like most good ideas, its reach is spreading: Even in the traditionally snobby ‘cue country of Texas, I recently saw pit-smoked chicken with “Alabama white sauce” on one menu. When the white sauce makes the cover of Texas Monthly, then you will know that fourth column has arrived. For now, though, ‘cue gourmands around the world know what “Alabama Barbecue” means, what Bob Gibson’s is famous for, and know where a white sauce is located — and those associations are the first step.

So, whether you love it or hate it, white barbecue sauce is and will remain about as Alabama as it comes.

69 Days to Football Season.

Roll Tide.

Let’s poll the crowd, shall we? For my part, I dislike it — I’m not a huge fan of smoked chicken anyway, and my palate has an aversion to most white sauces. But, don’t let my (98.2% correct) opinions deter you from speaking out.


White Barbecue Sauce:

This poll is closed

  • 52%
    Love it/Like it.
    (283 votes)
  • 6%
    Hate it.
    (35 votes)
  • 13%
    I can live with or without it.
    (71 votes)
  • 6%
    I can tolerate it, but only on certain meats.
    (34 votes)
  • 21%
    I’ve never had it.
    (114 votes)
537 votes total Vote Now