In Alabama there’s golf and then the white sauce

While the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail is known throughout Alabama — and beyond — what visitors may not be aware of is a tantalizing barbecue niche that can be found at such local locales as Saw’s BBQ in Birmingham.  

Saw’s BBQ location in Birmingham, Alabama. :: Photo: Tom Bedell

In the world according to barbecue, some might say Alabama isn’t in the same league as Texas, North Carolina, Missouri or Tennessee. Brandon Cain begs to disagree. President of six Saw’s outlets in the Birmingham area, Cain says, “I think we have a pretty good representation in the BBQ world. Sure, Texas is all about beef. Alabama lives more in the pork world, known for tomato-based sauces, super sweet. But then there’s chicken, and our white sauce.”

Almost 100 years ago Bob Gibson, a railroad worker in Decatur, Alabama, started smoking meats in his backyard on weekends. The barbecues proved so popular that Gibson went pro. A large fellow, he opened Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q. While Big Bob is now gone, two of his restaurants are still in Decatur. And his singular creation — white sauce — has become Alabama’s unique contribution to barbecue.

“It started up north, but white sauce is now identifiable throughout Alabama,” Cain says. “Everyone has a white sauce or variation — from sandwich shops to fine dining establishments. The basic premise is a mayonnaise base with vinegar, a lot of black pepper and then everyone adds a few different things.

“At Saw’s we have only one white sauce and one red sauce, and we use a bit of the red in the white, along with a lot of fresh cracked black pepper.”

Red in the white? But it’s still white? “We don’t use a lot of the red, but that’s our secret ingredient,” Cain says. “It’s vinegar-based, there’s some sugar in there and a few other things I can’t tell you.”

Cain was born in Los Angeles, but his family moved to Birmingham when he was 11. “All the men in my family cook. I still remember cooking with my dad when I was small and the first time I cut an onion with my eyes tearing up.”

When not feeding people, Cain is likely playing golf. Though he never played until some of his fellow Auburn University buddies dragged him out to a course, he says he’s now a full-on golf junkie: “We’re really spoiled for golf here. We have the RTJ Trail, so a lot of good public golf and privates like the Country Club of Birmingham and Shoal Creek.”

Smoked pulled chicken with white sauce and pickles, along with a side of McEwen & Sons cheese grits. :: Photo: Tom Bedell

Cain has a fine dining background. When he came to Saw’s in 2012 the menu expanded beyond strictly barbecue. “Still, it’s a key component of who we are and we sell a lot of it,” he says. “The best sellers are probably our three variations on fried chicken sandwiches, two of them hand-battered and fried and then smothered in the white barbecue sauce, one also piled with pimento cheese and fresh tomato. A Sweet Heat version is a play on hot chicken with a vinegar-based coleslaw, an out-of-this-world ranch sauce and a little kick from a spicy sweet sauce.”

Speaking of ranch, is it anything like white sauce? While they may look the same visually, their respective taste is completely different. Ranch tends toward herbaceous and sweet; white sauce is tangy and peppery. And while white sauce is used mainly on chicken, there’s nothing to stop you from using it on smoked turkey, grilled ribs, burgers, even brisket. And if stopping at Saw’s or any other Alabama BBQ joint, the old saying is, “Come for the barbecue, stay for the banana pudding.”

Banana pudding? A story for another time.