The sauce is alright! (After panic, negotiation and phoning a friend in Memphis)

I shouldn’t be sitting down: there’s still mac and cheese, coleslaw and red velvet cupcakes to make. But I just experienced all the highs and the lows that come along with cooking in a strange kitchen in a foreign land and also cooking new-to-me food (Memphis BBQ sauce). It seems a bloggable moment.

As much as I think of myself as an inveterate traveler always up for new experiences and an instant-assimilater, I have to admit that I’m as susceptible as the next person to culture shock, which is a syndrome psychologists say affects people living in foreign cultures in four phases, (but since I’m still in number two I’ll stop there): After a honeymoon period where cultural differences seem novel and charming, what’s called the “negotiation” period sets in, where what’s different starts to be annoying and even distressing.

That’s what happened to me this morning as I was about to make the batch of Memphis BBQ sauce and I realized that the “tomato sauce” I wrote on the grocery list had come back in the bags as jugs of ketchup, because that’s what ketchup is called in Australia.

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Carrie Miller’s Memphis BBQ Sauce

I was already a little nervous about my untried base recipe, though it came from Serious Eats, and I usually like their take. I was worried because it had LOTS of ingredients and the sauce I considered the very best of all those I ate in the general vicinity of Memphis, from Helen’s BBQ in Brownsville, TN didn’t seem all that fussy to me. I started to get a paralyzing dread feeling. But then I asked myself, what would Helen do? That’s Helen Miller, the United States’ only female African American BBQ pitmaster, whose wood smoked pork shoulder lures diners from not only surrounding states, but other countries, as her guest book attests.

Helen lived through the Jim Crow era in the Deep South. “Do you think she’d get all panicky because she had to work with ketchup instead of tomato sauce?” I asked myself. Then I asked myself what time it was in Memphis and decided to give Helen a call. It was 3 pm and though they had customers she remembered me and came to the phone. I asked her if she might possibly share her BBQ sauce recipe with me if I promised to never ever tell anyone what it was or to put it on my blog.

“Oh, you’d have to kill me first,” she said, “and it seems like you’re a little far away at the moment.” Oh my God, that laugh was just what I needed. I told Helen about my doubts about the long list of ingredients in my recipe and the ketchup-tomato sauce problem. She made me feel so much better when she said her recipe has a long list of ingredients too, and takes a while to make. She also told me that her recipe is based on ketchup not tomato sauce so “you did alright there,” she said. “You’ll be fine.”

Forty five minutes later I WAS fine, and while the sauce I made wasn’t exactly as I remember hers being, it was damn good and pretty close. So thank you Serious Eats, and especially thank you Helen Miller, for the phone-a-friend assist! Time to make the mac and chee.

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