STEPHEN SMITH: Try Elwood's: Meet the Man Behind the Best BBQ Sauce
It's the dog days of summer -- hot, hazy, and humid with a 50 percent chance of thunderstorms now through mid-October -- a good time to catch up with old friends.
This sultry afternoon, I'm tipping a cool brew at the John Boyd Chapter of the VFW and chatting with my friend Elwood Kennedy.
If you don't know Elwood, you should. He concocts the best damn barbecue sauce in the universe. No exaggeration. Ask anyone who's tried Elwood's secret formula, and he'll tell you flat-out and hands down that Elwood's (among friends, the sauce is affectionately known simply as "Elwood's") is the absolute total tangy gum-curling, eye-popping, rib-sucking Eastern Carolina vinegar-based barbecue sauce ever.
Pour a little on pulled pork, and you'll be stuffing your fat face till you lapse into a coma. In fact, you don't have to put Elwood's on pork. It's great on everything but Cool Whip. I have a friend who loves Maryland beaten biscuits -- the ingredients in beaten biscuits are unbleached flour, lard, water, sugar, salt, and baking powder; that's right, 50 percent lard -- and he just microwaves the biscuits for 15 seconds and then dunks them in Elwood's and chomps 'em on down. "Ah, me," he says, "ain't nothing better!"
Every Christmas, I purchase a couple of gallons of Elwood's and give it as a gift to my sister in Maryland. She divides the sauce up into smaller bottles and passes it out to her friends as Christmas presents. They love the stuff and infuse it into their beef, pork and lamb.
Growing up during the Great Depression in Beulaville, a stoplight burg on beach-bound N.C. 24 between Kenansville and Richlands, Elwood acquired his craft from two long-departed gastronomical mistresses -- Cloe's and Lula Miller's.
"My sauce is a combination of the two," he told me years back. "I worked at both barbecue places to make a little money."
Times were hard when Elwood was a child, and he once explained how he had to "bird-fish" with twigs and hair hooks to catch the family's dinner.
"The birds would come down into a freshly plowed field and peck the bread on the hooks, and they'd get caught," he said. "Then we'd fry up their breasts and legs with a little gravy and we'd eat them. It was better than having no dinner."
For 17 years, Elwood and Berry Boykin were the bartenders at Bruce's Tavern on West Pennsylvania, and he sold barbecue sauce from behind the bar and through the mail -- about 1,000 bottles a year. But Elwood retired from bartending a few years back and now hangs out with old friends at the VFW. (He spent 27 years in the Army in Germany, Vietnam, Okinawa, Panama, Jamaica and Honduras.)
Bruce has been ill for the past few years, and Elwood misses him.
"I stop by to see Bruce about every three or four months or so," Elwood says, with a nod that bespeaks a sadness tempered by resignation. Then he adds: "We're all aging out."
And Elwood has suffered his fair share of medical problems. Last year, he lost a toe to diabetes.
"I just went through three months with another lesion on the other toe," he says. "They sent me a machine that helps the circulation, and I had to use it every morning and night. But the toe is getting better."
Elwood and Ray Walters, a former power company employee and another Bruce's alum, prepare dinner at the VFW every Friday night. "We get a good crowd, and Ray and I like doing it," Elwood says.
And on Tuesdays and Thursdays, they play shuffleboard in the mornings. "We have three or four tournaments a year with a $10 entry fee," he says. "We've been doing it for a number of years now. We're not getting rich, but it's a lot of fun."
Elwood is a lot like his friends at the VFW -- good-natured, quick to laugh, a trifle laconic, and touched with a knowledge and melancholy borne of experience -- completely authentic. He's the very substance of American life.
I think of him every time I pour a little of Elwood's on my pork barbecue. It's the best. Ever.
Contact Stephen Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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