Growing up, the only barbecue sauce I knew was the super-sweet, ketchup-heavy kind that we’re used to tasting on our local Montgomery Inn Ribs. It’s thick, gelatinous sauce, and in my current opinion, unsophisticated, compared to the deep and spicy varieties of the South. Our Cincinnati barbecue sauce is a Midwestern hybrid, almost like the grape jelly based sauce 70’s housewives were putting in their ‘Swedish Meatball’ hor d’oeuvres for cocktail parties. It’s not natural for pectin to be a component of a barbecue sauce!
As I tasted the variety of barbecue sauces out there, I realized a world of wonderful tangy flavors from the mustard sauces of the Carolinas, to the savory, vinegary, spicy varieties of the south. I thought the spectrum of barbecue sauce ranged only from brick red to mahogany, and maybe to caramel. And I thought had come in contact with all breeds of barbecue sauce – That is, until I heard about the white barbecue sauce on the Arby’s new Smokehouse Turkey sandwich.
White barbecue sauce, I thought? Who the hell ever heard of a white barbecue sauce – clearly this was something Arby’s invented to be unique among a par-for-par lineup of fast food barbecue sandwiches in this country.
But what I realized was that there was a legit white barbecue sauce. And it was southern – the region known for the best barbecue. Maybe Arby’s was on to something. Apparently white barbecue sauce is a Northern Alabama tradition, started in 1925 in Decatur, Alabama, by Bob Gibson at his Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q Restaurant. The current heir to Bob Gibson’s restaurant, Chris Lily, is a world barbecue champion, and owner of the secret white sauce recipe, so he’s got some street cred attached with his sauce.
White barbecue sauce is a mayonnaise-based sauce used to dress chicken and pork, which includes vinegar, coarsely-ground black pepper and salt. Some add garlic, paprika, or cayenne pepper, or even herbs to mix it up. In northern Alabama it’s used to marinate, baste, and as an all-purpose table sauce for dipping potato chips, pretzels, and fries. It’s even good on grilled fish, say some users.
Like its tomato and mustard based country cousins, white barbecue sauce comes in differing shades – ranging from porcelain to putty. There are also differences in viscosity – some versions flow like fat-free milk, while others flow more like ranch dressing.
When grilled the mayonnaise reduces into sort of an opaque glaze on the meat. To the first timer, it looks a little alarming, kind of turning the chicken into a bubbly glazed doughnut.
Coming back to the Arby’s version. It’s certainly introducing a new taste profile to the North and Midwest, and even the south. Their version is a bit sweet, and has a mild horseradish taste with a hint of mustard. You might even wish it were their signature horsey sauce, with the spicy horseradish burn-your-nose feel, rather than a hybrid of the white barbecue sauce.