A Proper Shack Barbecue Sandwich

In the 1940s, my family, and many of yours, often piled into the car on Saturday evening and drove to downtown Little Rock, Arkansas, for a special treat. At 1600 West Seventh, between Bishop and Marshall streets (Marshall is now Children's Way in that area), right next to the Arkansas State Capitol building, was The Shack barbecue restaurant. We pulled into the gravel parking lot and parked the car. The restaurant was always too full to find a seat, so my dad went inside and bought the sandwiches (we preceded carhops, at least in Little Rock) and we, as did dozens of others, sat in the parking lot and ate dinner.

In the 1950s, the state of Arkansas cleared all the businesses off of the land abreast of the Capitol grounds to make way for the drive which now connects the Capitol Mall Circle to West Seventh, so The Shack closed. Many of you think you remember eating at The Shack in the mid-1950s, but you didn't. The Shack is not listed in any Little Rock telephone directory from 1954 to 1958. It eventually re-appeared at Third and Victory, where the aromas coming from the outdoor smoker easily overwhelmed the smell of spent diesel fuel coming from the Missouri Pacific Depot a block to the north. The building was new, but the food was the same, so Little Rockians filled the now paved parking lot as they had once done.

If you have ever tried to recreate a famous dish, especially using the Internet, you have found that there is always a great disparity among recipes. Some cases in point: The Caesar Salad, The Reuben Sandwich, Green Goddess Dressing, Buffalo Wings, and Cobb Salad. People often come to blows in discussions about the origin of these dishes or the exact ingredients or the method of preparation. As often happens in cases where someone is claiming absolute validity, one version will almost always claim “got it from a waiter” (or cook, or assistant manager, or irate former employee, or etc.). Even the venerable Julia Child got into the act, claiming to have eaten a Caesar’s Salad at the original restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico, and her version differed from that of James Beard, who also had claims of authenticity. (Julia's recipe contains no anchovies, Beard's does.)

Add The Shack’s Barbecue Sauce to the list. After The Shack was sold and subsequently closed, recipes began to appear in the Arkansas Gazette and the Democrat-Gazette, handed out at high school reunions and discussed at backyard barbecues. Then the Internet came along and spawned several more. These recipes are all different, yet all claim to be the original. We have two completely different recipes from two "long time former employees." Some of these recipes will be discussed later, but first the issues of cooking, scaling, ketchup, chili powder, and vinegar must be cleared up.

COOKING. Later on you will find ingredients listed for several sauce recipes. The cooking instructions are all the same. (1) Mix all the wet ingredients together in a non-reactive pot (all the recipes contain vinegar), (2) whisk in all the dry ingredients, (3) bring the mixture to a boil, (4) reduce to a very slow simmer, (5) simmer, uncovered, whisking frequently, usually 30 minutes to an hour. Use a whisk, not a spoon. You will produce a smoother sauce. You are looking for a mixture that has darkened considerably and has a smooth texture, and you can get that in an hour or less. I have sauce recipes that call for a two-hour cooking time, and some that specify a 40 to 50 percent reduction, which might take several hours, but I've cooked these recipes and found that the long cooking time produces a thicker sauce but offers no real advantage in taste, and sometimes results in a sauce that is too strong.

During cooking, the sauce will reduce in volume, so the rule of reductions applies: when liquids are reduced, spices remain the same. In the cooking instructions above, liquids will reduce by about 10 percent per 30 minutes of cooking time. Begin with 100 ounces of liquid and a half-cup of salt and reduce the mixture by 20 percent and you now have 80 ounces of liquid, but you still have a half-cup of salt. So a recipe that tastes just right when first mixed might very well be too spicy when the liquid has reduced.

SCALING. Restaurants do not make batches of barbecue sauce using recipes that begin with "four cups" of anything. Such a batch of barbecue sauce would not have lasted through the lunch hour at The Shack. Restaurants make sauces using recipes that begin with "one gallon" or even more. But in the case of family restaurants like The Shack, recipes don't start out that way. Instead, an old family recipe (which might very well begin with "four cups" of something) is scaled up to restaurant proportions. Later, some enterprising employee might scale the recipe back down to use at home.

In calculating ingredient proportions, the rule of scaling applies: spices do not scale at the same proportions as other ingredients. Depending on the other ingredients, if a recipe that contains one gallon of liquid and one cup of salt is scaled to one quart liquid and a quarter cup of salt, the result will probably be too salty. When scaling a recipe down, scale spices below the proportion of the other ingredients and then adjust to taste. Individual spice proportions might also change. A teaspoon of salt or pepper, scaled down from a half cup, might still be pretty potent, while a teaspoon of chili powder might be too weak. Scaling recipes is not an exact science. Some culinary skills and experimentation are required. Companies exist whose only business is scaling recipes for restaurants, and even they experiment until they get it right.

KETCHUP (Catsup). If you read enough Shack barbecue sauce recipes, you will no doubt find a few that specify either Hunt or Heinz ketchup. One recipe states "unique taste" and "do not substitute". Here is a Shack ketchup fact: the brand is irrelevant. What is relevant is the 14 ounce bottle. Ketchup was a table condiment, and the 14 ounce bottle was the perfect size for placing on the tables, so cases of ketchup were always on hand. Hunt, Heinz, Del Monte, and maybe others all came in 14 ounce glass bottles. If the brand used was consistent, my bet is that it was because that brand was consistently cheapest. At this writing it would be Hunt's, at $1.14 retail, rather than Heinz at $1.34. Since ketchup was always stocked in the pantry it was easy enough to grab a few bottles to mix up a batch of barbecue sauce. Whatever brand was used was whatever brand was on hand. Furthermore, this is all about the sauce, and in the final product any distinction in taste between brands of ketchup will be overwhelmed by massive amounts of vinegar and spices.

CHILI POWDER. Found in virtually all tomato-based barbecue sauce recipes, there are as many variations in chili powders as there are recipes for vegetable soup. But most consist of ground dried Anaheim (AKA New Mexico) chili peppers, some cumin, garlic powder, and perhaps salt. Grocery store chili powders seldom contain exotic chili peppers because they add unnecessary expense. Chili powder, like wine, is inconsistent from year to year because the taste of chili peppers, like grapes, is influenced by weather and soil conditions during the growing season. To achieve consistency, chili powder makers, like winemakers, have to blend their product from several different crops from year to year. The original chili powder is Gebhardt's and I have found it to be the most consistent in taste year after year. It is distributed by ConAgra Foods but can be hard to find. Note that some chili powders are not based on the powdered New Mexico, but paprika. Paprika powders are used in making Cincinnati chili and that's a whole different taste and not suitable for what we're doing here.

In one of the recipes that follows, there is a reference to C&F Coffee Co. Special Blend chili powder. This is significant because The Shack's barbecue sauce was very dark, almost black, which indicates that something other than grocery store chili powder was used.

VINEGAR. In addition to variations in ketchup, you will also see both "white vinegar" and "cider vinegar" specified. There is a difference here. As the sauce is reduced the vinegar taste will intensify, and a strong or harsh vinegar, once intensified, can be very unpleasant. Cider vinegar is mellower than white vinegar. I reserve white vinegar for cleaning windows and use cider vinegar for cooking. There is also a difference in cider vinegars. At the grocery, place several bottles of cider vinegar side by side and get the lightest one. Darkness is an indication of strength, so start with a lighter vinegar to create a pleasing taste after reduction. Store brands are usually weaker than national brands. Wal-Mart's store brand is good, and locally I choose store brand over Heinz. The difference between the two is obvious in the picture at the right.

There are three versions of Shack barbecue sauce which follow that claim to be the original. But even if you had the real recipe in your hand, personally written down by Mister Slaughter himself, you wouldn’t know if you accurately reproduced the pork sandwich you ate at The Shack in your youth because you don’t really remember what it tasted like. What you remember is that it was smoky and vinegary and tomatoey and spicy, but time has erased all the subtle nuances of the taste that caused you to climb into your car and head for West Seventh Street or Third and Victory, perhaps driving past a half-dozen other barbecue joints on the way.

Not to worry, because you can still get the real thing. During a 2004 visit to Arkansas, I discovered that Smitty's Barbecue in Conway is, or was, allegedly, somehow connected to the Slaughter Family and serves what they advertise as "Original Shack Barbecue Sauce". Because K.C. Masterpiece (which contains liquid smoke) and others have sweetened and reddened and smoked America's expectations of barbecue sauces over the years, the original Shack sauce is offered as an option, while their main sauce is, well, sweeter and redder and smokier than the original. To get to Smitty's at 740 S Harkrider St, take the Highway 286 (Industrial Boulevard) exit off of I-40 at Conway and go west to Highway 65, then turn right and it's a block or so on the right. To get a jar of original Shack barbecue sauce, as you go in the front door take a right and go to the takeout window and you can buy a pint or quart Mason jar to go. But lest history repeat itself and Smitty's decides to close, my copycat of their recipe follows.

A Shack barbecue sandwich consisted of meat, cabbage, and sauce on a bun. This is a Memphis sandwich. Memphis is the Mecca of the "slaw on barbecue" religion and the further away you get from Memphis the less it is found until you cross into Texas on the west or the Carolinas on the east where it disappears altogether.

The meat had a pronounced hickory flavor because it was smoked in a smoker under a shed in back, surrounded by stacks of hickory wood. You could smell the hickory smoke for blocks around. Modern electric smoking ovens that use hickory sawdust for flavor produce bland meat compared to wood-fired smokers because sawdust doesn't contain the amount of essential flavoring oils that a stick of wood does. When sawdust is produced, the wood cells are ruptured and much of the oil dissipates. Some restaurants don't even pretend to smoke the meat. They bake it in an oven and depend on a heavy serving of sauce, maybe laced with liquid smoke, to provide the flavor.

A Shack sandwich was not health food. The Shack cooked its meat in the days before the healthier lifestyle came into vogue and before the cattlemen and hog farmers started breeding leaner animals to accommodate it. A roast suitable for smoking in the fifties was layered with fat that was trimmed off and discarded just before serving. The fat contributes to the tenderness, so modern lower-fat meat is not as tender as what we ate in our youth.

The sauce was Memphis style. There are a jillion barbecue sauce recipes, but most, especially the tomato-based ones, are all variations of three, distinguished by their predominant flavors which, from east to west, go something like this:

North Carolina style is heavy on vinegar, light on tomato, contains mustard
    (eastern NC omits tomato entirely)
Memphis style is about equal vinegar and tomato, hint of sweetness
    (mustard is heresy in Memphis)
Kansas City style is light on vinegar, heavy on tomato, heavy on sweetness
    (The first three ingredients in KC Masterpiece are corn syrup, tomato, molassas)

The bun was a Plain Jane gummy bun and it was slightly griddled, not enough to toast it but just enough to get it warm (I used to sit at the counter at Third and Victory and watch through the kitchen door as the cook tossed buns onto the griddle.) The cabbage was very thinly sliced and undressed, and there was only enough of it to provide texture, not taste. The whole thing was wrapped in thin commercial waxed sandwich paper. Our memory of the experience is based upon that whole package. If you put authentic Shack’s sauce on tasteless meat with a poppy seed Kaiser bun and a mound of dressed cole slaw, the resulting sandwich would rasp your taster (and you would blame the sauce.) The question is not whether we have the actual sauce recipe, but whether the recipe we have is close enough that in combination with the three other ingredients it will jog our memory enough to coax a smile.

What we’re trying to do here is reproduce a sandwich that was nothing short of perfection. To do that we start with the sauce. Here are the recipes.

Version 1, from the Internet.

This one is from a claimant that states that his recipe “was given to me by a long time employee”. He even claims that The Shack sometimes (or once) put Grapette in their sauce instead of water. Note for later reference that he states that minced onions are not authentic. Here are his ingredients.

3 - 24 ounce bottles of ketchup
3 - 24 ounce bottles of water (or Grapette)
Plain white vinegar (from a pint to a quart)
1 - 4 ounce can of chili powder
1 - 4 ounce can of black pepper
1 - 4 ounce can of garlic salt
1/2 cup sugar
1 - small Tabasco (1 to 4 ounces to taste)
1 - small mustard (I assume this means a small jar)

This is a Memphis variation with mustard added. I haven't made it but it's probably a good sauce if you like mustard sauces. The Shack's sauce was not a mustard sauce. Read on.

Version 2, from the internet.

Compare this one to version 1 above. I saved this recipe in 1996 from a website that has long since disappeared. There was no story of origin, and no actual claim that it was from The Shack, only that "it is as close as I have tasted to the sauce used by The Shack". This is a slightly modified version of one published in the Democrat-Gazette in June, 1994, where it was called a "Hot Barbecue Sauce Like The Shack's", and that's probably the original source. I have made this sauce and it is well scaled if the mustard is reduced by half, and it is in a more manageable portion than the previous one.

2 14 ounce bottles Heinz ketchup
2 14 ounce ketchup bottles of water
3 cups cider vinegar
4 ounces chili powder
2 to 2.5 ounces black pepper
2 to 2.5 ounces garlic salt
2 TBSP sugar
Tabasco to taste
6 ounces yellow mustard (One small jar)
Juice of 1 Fresh Lemon

Version 3, from Jack's(?) at Palarm Creek.

This is not a Shack's recipe. I include it to compare with the others. This recipe came from a white-haired lady who made barbecue in a joint at Palarm Creek in the early 1960s. If I recall, the name of the place was Jack's. If you went to State Teacher's in Conway, or if you lived in Conway in the pre-freeway days, you know the place of which I speak and you can correct me if my memory is rusty. Going south on 365, I think it was the third joint on the right after you crossed the county line and it was atop a small hill. The lady made a great barbecue sandwich (with sliced beef and no slaw, so it wasn't a Shack copycat). She didn't sell a lot of barbecue so she made small batches of sauce and these are her proportions, not a scaled version.

1 14 ounce bottle ketchup
1 14 ounce ketchup bottle hot water
1 1/2 cups cider vinegar
2 TBSP sugar
4 TBSP Gebhardt’s chili powder
1 rounded TBSP salt
1 rounded TBSP pepper
Tabasco to taste

I have used this sauce for years and it makes a very good Shack-style sandwich. I didn't think much about this recipe until I started to run into "Shack" sauces in the mid 1990s. Only then did I realize that this recipe represents a possible kinship to the holy grail of barbecue. If you make this, it fits nicely into an empty one-quart vinegar bottle. Keep it in the refrigerator, and shake it well before using.

Version 4, from Kenneth A. Hutchinson Sr.

This 1994 Democrat-Gazette version is from Mr. Hutchinson of Little Rock who claimed, "this is the sauce that was used on the meat served at that restaurant," referring to The Shack. He doesn't say how he came by the recipe, but here are the ingredients:

1 large onion, finely diced
4 cups ketchup
4 cups white vinegar
4 cups water
6 tablespoons salt
6 tablespoons black pepper
6 tablespoons sugar
6 tablespoons C&F Coffee Co. Special Blend chili powder

This is an unpalatable sauce most likely improperly scaled from a larger one, and maybe even a badly scaled version of the real thing. It is much too heavy on salt and black pepper. I advise you to leave it be. I included it so you can compare it to version 5 below, and also because of the specification of C&F Coffee Company, a North Little Rock wholesaler.

Version 5, from Ms. Jackie Waller.

The last one is the most intriguing. I saved this version from a Usenet forum in 1996 (I didn't save the headers so I cannot give credit to the original poster). It also appeared in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in February 2005. It came from a lady named Jackie Waller of North Little Rock, who said she worked for 14 years at the Third and Victory site and made a lot of barbecue sauce. Ms. Waller's ingredients list is the only one that would indicate restaurant proportions, and she gave a home version. I have not made this but the home version looks like it may have been scaled by calculator so the spices may be off a bit (it looks heavy on salt and pepper and light on chili powder). If it were properly scaled to use a single bottle of ketchup, I think I would end up with the Palarm Creek version. Here are Ms. Waller's ingredients.

Restaurant Proportions Home Proportions
1 large onion, finely chopped 1/2 onion, finely chopped
3 quarts cider vinegar 1 1/2 cups cider Vinegar
1 gallon plus 12 ounces ketchup 19 1/2 ounces ketchup
1 gallon plus 12 ounces water 19 1/2 ounces water
18 tablespoons salt 2 1/4 TBSP salt
18 tablespoons sugar 2 1/4 TBSP sugar
18 tablespoons black pepper 2 1/4 TBSP black pepper
18 tablespoons chili powder 2 1/4 TBSP chili powder

Ms. Waller specifies cider vinegar and her recipe contains no mustard or garlic salt. One gallon plus 12 ounces equals 140 ounces, and it's easy to envision Ms. Waller walking into the store room and pulling out ten 14-ounce bottles of ketchup. In the Democrat-Gazette version, Ms. Waller states that the onion is optional, which raises a red flag. I don't remember seeing onion in all the Shack sandwiches I have dissected, but the onion, if chopped fine enough and sauteed prior to adding the other ingredients, disintegrates during cooking. But optional? Either it was there or it wasn't.

So there you have it. Two schools of Shackism. One school uses garlic salt and mustard and no onion, and the other doesn't. But if you buy into the claim that Smitty's has the original recipe (I do), then it becomes a moot point, because Smitty's Shack sauce contains none of these. In fact, Smitty's sauce is in the same sauce family as the Palarm Creek Sauce so with that as the base I set out to reproduce Smitty's. Smitty's sauce is milder, somewhat sweeter, thicker, darker, and "mustier" in taste. Milder means less vinegar, sweeter more sugar, and thicker more cooking time. But darker and mustier means a change in chili powder -- specifically the addition of powdered ancho chilis. You will probably have to make your own, and you will find out how HERE. Once you have the spices, you're ready to make sauce. After about a hundred batches, tweaking each one ever so slightly, I concocted this recipe which is very close to Smitty's Original Shack Sauce. In blind tastings with several people (my wife and me) nobody could tell the difference. Here's the recipe.

Raymond's Shack Barbecue Sauce

1 14 ounce bottle ketchup
1 14 ounce ketchup bottle hot water
1 1/4 cups cider vinegar
1/4 cup sugar
2 rounded TBSP New Mexico style chili powder
2 rounded TBSP powdered ancho chilis
1 rounded TBSP salt
1 rounded TBSP pepper
Tabasco to taste

Follow the aforementioned cooking instructions. Simmer it about an hour to thicken it. After cooking, add Tabasco to taste if you so desire. The Shack offered both hot and mild sauce. Any claim that they were two distinct recipes is ridiculous. The hot sauce was the regular sauce with Tabasco or cayenne or other heat added.

Next you need meat. Beef or pork, your choice. If you don’t smoke your own, sample meat from various restaurants until you find what you like. Buy only from a restaurant that has an old fashioned smoker outside. You’re looking for meat that has a definite hickory flavor and is reasonably tender. Chop the meat finely. Not diced, but randomly chopped until individual pieces are unidentifiable.

And by the way, chopping has nothing to do with making tough meat tender. If the meat is improperly cooked and is tough, chopping will just produce tough chopped meat. Chopping has to do with distributing the hickory flavor, which is mostly on the outside, throughout the sandwich by blending it with the mostly unsmoked inside meat. The only meat that should be eaten sliced is brisket, which is thin enough that the smoky flavor doesn't need distributing.

Green cabbage. Very thinly sliced with a very sharp knife, then cut into short lengths, but not chopped. Don't slice it until you are ready to use it. Set it aside to come to room temperature so that it doesn't cool the other ingredients.

Buns. Plain grocery store hamburger buns. No Kaisers. No sourdough. No sesame or poppy seeds.

Now build a sandwich. This is supposed to be a hot sandwich, and it's best when served that way. Warm the meat and a dish of sauce in the microwave or on the stove. The Shack's saucepot was kept on the end of the griddle, so the sauce was always warm. You can warm the buns in the microwave but they end up so soft they collapse when you load them up. I have better luck when I brush a small amount of oil into a heated skillet and lay the open buns face down. Feel for warmth, and when the buns are warm remove them. Mound a nice serving of chopped meat onto the bun bottom. Top that with as much cabbage as you can grasp using your thumb and two fingers. Ladle on some warm sauce. I use about four silverware soup spoons per sandwich. Place the top on the sandwich and, as we said in the Navy, chow down.

Que le tonnerre m'écrase, mais cas c'est bon, oui!