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The Quest for the Perfect Barbecue Sauce

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As a certifiably rabid foodie, I’ll eat just about anything as long as it tastes right and is made from quality ingredients. In the realm of prepared foods, I like what I like if it’s consistently good.

With this in mind, this is the saga of my quest for the perfect barbecue sauce.

My father is the kind of guy who is constantly grilling and back in the day, he would make his own sauce. We would experiment with various ingredients, catsup, mustard, hot sauce, Worcestershire, garlic, whatever was in the fridge. Homemade sauce is never the same, so it was an adventure every meal.

There’s something intrinsically earthy and sensual about the entire grilling experience. Perhaps it’s the missing link back to the cave and the first fire.

My father is also the one who taught me that if you can open the lid to your gas grill in winter, you should use it. He lives in Colorado where snow can fall in May. I learned that even if you live in a northern tier state like I do, barbecuing in winter can be achieved. The only time we decided not to cook outside was during a harsh winter when there was 18 inches of snow on the grill at all times. That was the year I bought a Ronco Rotisserie.

For most grilling, my husband and I have used one and only one sauce: Rudolph’s Barbecue Sauce. Sure, we’ve tried other sauces, but our loyalty lies with the king. The problem in purchasing comes about in that you can only buy the stuff in Minnesota.

Okay, he’s from the Twin Cities and I lived there for eleven years, hence the Rudolph’s connection. But that’s not the only reason why we like the sauce. It’s the best stuff on the planet.

When I think of one ingredient or one food I cannot live without, it would be Rudolph’s Barbecue Sauce. I can do without Dijon mustard, mayonnaise, soy sauce, lobster, strawberry jam and Kashi Go Lean bars, but I would wither and die without Rudolph’s. Sure, there are other sauces, but they pale in comparison. They may be too sweet, too tangy, or not flavorful enough. There might be too much molasses or too much tomato and not enough garlic. The common addition of liquid smoke to many bottled sauces is a pet peeve of mine. Why add artificial “smoke” when you’ll be throwing your meat on fire? I don’t know about you, but there’s smoke for blocks when we barbecue.

It was 33 years ago when I was first exposed to Rudolph’s. Opened by Jimmy Theros, back then, there was the main restaurant on Lyndale Avenue in Minneapolis just south of the downtown, and a smaller joint on Randolph Avenue in the Highland Park area of St. Paul. This little stand, positioned on a busy street corner in what used to be a gas station, was my favorite place to splurge on ribs. There wasn’t much for seating, so we took our meals home to go.

Rudolph’s later opened locations in downtown St. Paul and northeast Minneapolis, to name a few. I even heard of one in Ohio. I could always find one, and that was fine by me. It’s a fun restaurant, and back in the day they named their dishes after early film stars. (Rudolph’s = Rudy Valentino?) There were John Wayne’s and Greta Garbo’s and Marilyn Monroe’s. Of course, now the names of the menu items aren’t attached to famous people, probably a wise legal move. The beef ribs were huge and meaty and looked like something Fred Flintstone would eat. The baby back pork ribs were to die for, and the chicken was always moist. The cole slaw was excellent, and there were huge fries.

In addition, the Lyndale location was quite the hot spot. Prince would frequent the restaurant, as would local newscasters. One evening we were seated in an area adjacent to a room full of Minnesota Vikings.

When Rudolph’s decided to bottle and sell the sauce, I was in heaven. It was the mid-‘80s and my husband and I moved to the Detroit area. When I was pregnant with my first child, I had a Rudolph’s craving of such epic proportions that I wrote a fan letter to the restaurant. In response, they sent me a case of sauce, gratis. I never considered it before, but it’s no wonder my son is also a huge fan of Rudolph’s sauce. He puts it on everything, including tuna salad.

With grandkids to take back to Minnesota for regular visits, I was able to procure my own sauce from Rainbow or Cub Foods. Then the in-laws passed away, and there went our excuse to go back to Minnesota. My husband’s old college friends weren’t about to do us any favors. The sauce supply was drying up quickly.

Enter the bright idea of calling the telephone number of the distribution center which is printed on the bottle. After a quick phone call, I was able to secure cases of sauce at a time. (We go through at least a case a year, and for the last couple of years have had a case sent to my son in San Francisco.) I’ve been able to do this for many years, thus ensuring a steady sauce supply for all of my grilling needs.

Two weeks ago, I noticed that I was down to my last bottle of Rudolph’s. Time to call the distributor. However, this year when I made my call, I was informed that I could no longer purchase Rudolph’s from them. Seems my two cases a year was not enough business to justify having me as a customer. I had to own a grocery store in order to get a line on the sauce.

In a panic, I sent out word on Facebook. My son replied back with “OH, NO!” I could see my baby back rib days drawing to an abrupt close. Then what? I'm too old and spoiled to get out the chemistry set and experiment with sauce making, plus I have no time for it. Rudolph’s withdrawals? I'll go mad, "mad," I say! Take a not-so-quick road trip to alleviate my craving? I had an offer from a friend in western Wisconsin to travel to Minnesota to get the sauce for me. I could see it: “Cheesehead Makes Trek to Wobegon to Score Sauce. Film at 11.”

Fortunately, I didn’t have to go quite that far. As I’ve said many times, the Internet is a wonderful thing. Through an impassioned email to the restaurant, I received word back that Rudolph’s is selling and shipping their own sauce! And, it was $10 cheaper than the last time I ordered through Big Distribution Company.

My case of sauce arrived safely from Minnesota yesterday. Today I’m going to celebrate by slathering it on some form of meat.

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About Joanne Huspek

I write. I read. I garden. I cook. I eat. And I love to talk about all of the above.