On the topic of pentimentos, this bbq sauce applied to chicken is another. The underlay came from my uncle Harmon Black who always barbecued chicken for family get togethers when we visited the New Mexico relatives in Albuquerque. He used the sauce recipe from the back of Wesson Oil bottles that first appeared circa the mid-1950s and became an American barbecue sauce standard. (Today, you can buy the company’s graphic art posters with the recipe on e-bay!)
Part of the patio was turned into a stage for an impromptu performance by the young set, my siblings, cousins and me. I remember one spectacular time when, recently returned from a stint in Hawaii, we mounted a hula show. But the real action was on the other side where the chicken was slowly grilling over a charcoal fire with Uncle Harmon, drink in hand, hovering over the cooking, consistently turning and basting the pieces every 10 minutes, until they were perfectly cooked, amber red and nicely charred on the outside, still moist inside. There was no way to rush the process, no matter how we pleaded, “is it done yet?” Besides the feeling of solidity that comes from happy extended family gatherings, the pleasure for me was the perfect barbecued chicken. The dish became part of sunny summer meals in our house wherever we traveled on military tour, thanks to my father who was also a barbecuer par excellence.
As the world has turned, I’ve changed my mind about the original sauce in many of its parts. In my latest favorite rendition the vegetable oil is swapped for extra virgin olive oil, the ballpark mustard for Dijon. Chili powder and cayenne add heat and ground coffee deepens the flavor and color. Like all pentimentos, it echos the past while adding a new patina to the present.
While you’re at it, you might as well make a lot: the sauce cooks up better in a large batch and it is excellent for that other summer favorite, bbq’d spare ribs. Also, it freezes beautifully for later in the year when you might want the taste of bbq done inside under the broiler. One cup suffices to coat and baste a whole, cut up chicken, with a little left to reheat and dab on at the table.
Makes 6 cups
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive or vegetable oil
1 medium yellow or white onion, finely chopped
6 cups ketchup
4 cups filtered water
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce (see blog)
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon ground coffee
2 teaspoons chili powder
1. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until wilted, about 5 minutes.
2. Stir in the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to maintain a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until thick and deep brown-red in color, 45 minutes. Remove from the heat and cool before using.