GOOD BARBECUE sauce is like a fine perfume: It should be applied with a gentle touch; it should highlight the goods, not overpower them.
So said Ardie A. Davis, a savant of sauces. He is founder of the American Royal International Barbecue Sauce Rub & Baste contest, an annual event that draws more than 400 entries from around the nation.
I was surprised when I heard Davis and a number of other poobahs of barbecue discuss the fine points of their craft during a meeting last week of the Association of Food Journalists in Kansas City. Davis, a man who could be swimming in sauce, preached moderation, not indulgence. Go easy on the sauce, he said.
Davis is an engaging man. On weekdays he works in an office at the Kansas Department on Aging where he is a commissioner. On weekends, he puts a bowler on his head, dons an apron decorated with three polished rib bones and makes the rounds of the barbecue circuit, judging events and dispensing soft-spoken wisdom.
One common mistake backyard cooks make, he said, is applying too much sauce too soon in the cooking process.
For instance, Davis said that when he fires up his cooker, he often starts by putting "naked" or unsauced meat on the grill. Later, he might dab a vinegar-based "mop sauce" on the meat, to keep it moist, he said.
However, if he is using a tomato-based sauce, America's favorite, he waits until the meat is almost finished cooking before coating it.
"When you're using tomato-based, you should hold off until the last half hour before applying it," Davis said. "Otherwise what you will end up with is meat covered with burned sauce."
He also said when he eats barbecue at a restaurant, he requests that the sauce is served "on the side," not slathered on the meat.
He does this for two reasons. First, he said, when the meat is free of sauce it is easier to evaluate how good a job the cook has done.
"I buy barbecue for the meat, I don't want it to be dominated by the flavor of the sauce. The sauce should complement, not cover up, the meat. If barbecue comes out smothered ... I am suspicious," he said.
Secondly, when the sauce is served on the side, you control the amount of sauce that ends up on the meat, he said.
Finally, he said that when you work in the field of barbecue sauce appreciation, it is crucial to keep an open mind, especially about color.
Most of us grow up thinking all barbecue sauce comes in one color, namely the hue of the sauce served at our neighborhood joint. But as we mature, we discover that sauce comes in many colors -- yellow in South Carolina, reddish-brown in Kansas City and Texas, and white in Alabama. Even though they "look wrong," we sample these sauces and often they taste pretty good.
Once you have broken the color barrier, Davis said, the next thing you know, you are sprinkling sauce in unconventional places, like on a piece of cantaloupe.
He said one morning when he was feeling rambunctious, he picked up a bottle of McClard's Barbecue Sauce, a Hot Springs, Ark., concoction with tomatoes, lemon juice and vinegar and pointed it in the direction of a cantaloupe.
Ever since, Davis likes to begin his day with a slice of ripe cantaloupe and a few shakes of the lemony barbecue sauce.