WHAT COLOR IS your barbecue sauce? For years, my answer to that all-important question was basic brown. I was partial to vinegar-based sauces flavored with paprika, salt and a sprinkling of peppers.
Occasionally, I would wander to the realm of the reds, - tomato-based sauces, some flavored with brown sugar or honey.
But, until recently, I never considered the yellow sauces. They are mustard-based, and as far as I was concerned, bright yellow mustard was something you might squirt on a hot dog or maybe paint on grilled chicken breasts, but it should never sully that most treasured piece of barbecue cookery, the rack of ribs.
My view changed recently. I now have entered the fold of the yellow-saucers. Given my profession, I guess that makes me a card-carrying proponent of yellow journalism.
Necessity, the big mama of invention, pushed me into the camp of the mustard basters. One night I found myself with ribs on the fire and none of my usual sauces in the pantry. I had no Wicker's, a vinegary marinade made in Hornersville, Mo. My usual supply of brownish Kansas City sauces - Arthur Bryant's, KC Masterpiece, Gates & Sons - was tapped out. And the bottle of Maryland-made sauce my kids crave, Rick's Ragin' BBQ & Broilin' Baste, was also history.
So I reached for a bottle of the unfamiliar and, up to then, forbidden yellow sauce - Maurice's Carolina Gold Original. The label told me this bright bottle of yellow stuff came here from Piggie Park Enterprises Inc. in West Columbia, S.C.
That figured. South Carolina is the mecca of mustard. Scholars of barbecue sauce, like Rich Davis, founder of KC Masterpiece sauce company, discuss the "mustard line," a boundary running along the western edge of South Carolina, where the color of the sauces changes. East of the line, the sauce is yellow; west of the line, it starts off pink, then turns red.
Having grown up in the Kansas City area, well west of the mustard line, I was suspicious of yellow sauce. So when someone gave me a bottle of Maurice's Gold, it sat, unopened, in my pantry for several years.
Even the other night, when it was the only sauce I could lay my hands on, I felt uneasy using it. I waited until the ribs had cooked over an indirect charcoal fire for about an hour before introducing them to the yellow sauce. Standing in my back yard, I looked over my shoulder to see if anyone was watching.
"I hope no one from Kansas City sees me do this," I thought as I brushed the yellow sauce on. After I finished, I closed the lid of my cooker and hurried back inside.
I checked the ribs about an hour later and was pleased to see the ribs were ready - the meat pulled away easily from the bone - and there was no visible evidence of yellow mustard on the meat. During the last portion of the cooking process, the once-garish-looking yellow slab had turned a luscious brown.
I served the ribs to members of my family, who devoured them. These ribs, they said, tasted as good as the ones I make using the usual brown-sauce treatment. I had to agree.
The mustard sauce somehow was able to give the ribs both the essential "tang" of a good pork sauce and also was able to finish with a hint, just a hint, of sweetness. No other rib sauce I had tasted had pulled off that sweet-and-sour combination so successfully. It must have been the mustard.
I called the South Carolina outfit that makes the sauce. I learned that there really is a guy named Maurice running the show. Maurice Bessinger has been selling the sauce commercially since 1953.
Sadly, Maurice does not a have a retail outlet for his sauce in Baltimore. But he will ship it in bulk, by UPS, United Parcel Service, to Baltimore. A four-pack of 18-ounce bottles costs about $16, and four 1-gallon jugs run about $77. I ordered a mess of sauce, even if it is the wrong color.