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Monday, January 21, 2013

Virginia Barbecue Sauce Through the Centuries

Virginia barbecue sauce evolved throughout the centuries in a way that reflected the prosperity of the times.

Old School Virginia Vinegar
Based Barbecue Sauce
Soon after the English arrived, Native Americans taught them their techniques used to smoke meat. When enslaved people from Africa arrived starting at around 1619, they refined the smoking/cooking process into the barbecue cooking technique we are familiar with nowadays that calls for a bed of coals with the meat suspended above it.

While chili peppers originated in the New World, they had to go around the world and back to end up in the colonies. The first chili peppers to enter the English colonies were sent to Virginia in 1621 from England by the governor of the Bermuda Islands. At that point, the foundation was laid for the development of the classic vinegar, butter, salt, pepper, cayenne based barbecue sauce. As a result, it was in Virginia during the 17th century that "American Southern Barbecue" was born. The four influences for the recipe and the cooking technique, the English, Native Americans, Africans, and people who were brought to the colony from the Caribbean all converged in 17th century Virginia and from it America's unique cuisine was born.

As prosperity increased, wealthy people in Virginia began to use more spices and even sugar when cooking barbecue. Poor people and enslaved people didn't have that luxury and continued to use the vinegar, butter, salt, pepper, cayenne sauce. In fact, that sauce remained as a main component in just about all barbecue cooking by African Americans and poorer white people in Virginia until at least around the 1920's. That recipe was passed down from generation to generation and that was just the way people cooked barbecue.

As enslaved people moved around the colonies in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries because of inheritances, sales, trades, etc., the barbecue cooking technique and the vinegar based sauce was spread all over the South. Another factor that helped spread Virginia barbecue was the fact that the only way to get into North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, etc. during colonial times was from either Virginia or Pennsylvania using Indian hunting/trading paths that led from Pennsylvania, through Virginia, all the way down to about Augusta, Georgia. As settlers in Virginia set out to find new lands to settle, they took their barbecue recipes with them. These facts are some of the reasons that the vinegar, butter, salt, pepper, cayenne sauce is so universal throughout the South. And, keep in mind that a nickname for Virginia is "the Mother of states". West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and, even a part of Minnesota were all a part of the original Virginia territory.

Here is some further information you may find helpful regarding the sauces and flavors used in Virginia barbecue -

From the 1600's onward - Butter or lard, vinegar, salt, pepper, cayenne.

Early 19th century - vinegar, mustard, sugar, salt, pepper, butter, mushroom ketchup, walnut ketchup, garlic, honey, peach syrup, molasses, and, starting around the 1830's, tomato ketchup.

Late 19th century - Worcestershire sauce was added in some recipes.

Here is a recipe for an early to mid 19th century Virginia meat flavoring sauce -

2 chopped onions
3 pods of red (cayenne) pepper chopped
2 TBS brown sugar
1 TBS celery seed
1 TBS ground mustard
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp salt

Add 1 quart of cider vinegar and mix well.

In closing and on behalf of all Virginians, I'd like to say to our Eastern North Carolina friends who enjoy vinegar based barbecue sauce, "You are welcome. We are delighted that you like our barbecue sauce."


  1. As the head of the historic foodways program at the Virginia Museum of the Civil War, I'd be interested in corresponding with you about your research into early Virginia BBQ sauces. Please contact me at nadeausr@vmi.edu.

    1. I'm glad to help! Thanks for the inquiry. I hope you found the information I provided helpful.


  2. Thank you so much for this! It's very hard to find information on the Virginia barbecue tradition. This helps a lot.

  3. Any recipes utilizing catsups?

  4. More specifically the walnut/mushroom catsups. I see you mentioned them as ingredients in the early 1800's, but the mid 19th century recipe posted doesn't include such.