Imagine working on a plantation in Arkansas a hundred years ago. The twinge in your lower back as you’ve bent over for the ten thousandth time to pick a potato. Heavy wooden ladders coarsening your palms as you ascend to gather splitting green pecan nuts. The sweltering Southern heat bearing down relentlessly upon you, made immeasurably worse by humidity so thick you could practically swim through it.

You would at the very least expect something good for dinner every now and then under such circumstances. If you worked for Carry Ashford, you would get it. In addition to his other duties on the farm, the plantation foreman took it upon himself to make a giant batch of his signature barbecue sauce and slather it on a heap of ribs and quartered chickens to reward his men after a big crop had been harvested or some other important milestone had been achieved. Barbecue is the finest tool at a manager’s disposal to keep up morale. The plantation prospered.

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A committed saucier, Carry would also whip up big batches of the stuff for his 11 children, as well as anyone else in the neighborhood who would be drawn in by the smell of his barbecue. One of his children, Bill, took special note of his father’s sauce’s immense power to bring people together. That power would become his key inheritance from his father.

“The sauce would go on just about everything back when I was growing up,” recalled Bill of BilyRay’s Old Style Barbecue Sauce. “Sometimes we would just warm up a pot on the stove — we didn’t have a microwave back then — and we would all sop it up with pieces of bread. It was good on every kind of meat, it was good on salads, it was good even just on its own. That’s why its taste always brings me back to childhood, because we put it on almost everything back then.”

“When the recipe was handed down to me,” Bill continued, “I wasn’t sure that I could improve on such a good thing. My father had already more or less perfected the combination of tomato, sugar, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, vinegar, and lemon juice. What I’ve mainly focused on for the past 30 years are the spices. Cayenne is the most important one. It gives the sauce a one-two punch, first with its sweetness and then a delicate spiciness. It also lowers your blood pressure, so it’s as good for your whole body as it is for your taste buds. You enjoy good food more when you’re feeling healthy.” (Bill notes that barbecue sauce alone is not sufficient to maintain a healthy lifestyle, and that exercise is important too.)

“I call my sauce’s style Midwestern hotness. People in Minnesota where I live, they don’t like to be hit over the head with spiciness that blocks out the taste of everything else. I don’t respect sauces that boast about being the spiciest, as if being spicy for its own sake makes it the best. To me, flavor is everything.”

Bill makes all of his sauce by himself in the kitchen of his church. There for six hours a day, four days a week he labors over an enormous 14 gallon pot, stirring it meticulously as he adds each ingredient in order. He measures his sauce’s acidity throughout the process, judging which ingredients its wanting for by the readout from his little pH meter. Once it has simmered for the magic amount of time, he lets it sit overnight to cool off, as no sink in his church’s kitchen could accommodate the size of his pot. Bill then pumps his sauce into bottles, seals them, and loads them into his car for delivery to grocery stores around the Twin Cities.

“It’s a blessing to be able to give what I do to people,” said Bill. “A lot of people haven’t even had real barbecue sauce. I call that other stuff ‘doctored up ketchup.’ My authentic sauce is so good, all I need to make a customer for life is just to have them taste it. I’m not trying to brag. My sauce is just that good.”

Would you accept Bill’s challenge? You haven’t anything to lose. Just visit and order a bottle of his original or hot barbecue sauce. As Bill so succinctly puts it: “You’ll like the taste!” You’ll seldom receive a more genuine guarantee.


David Scheller