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Alabama white BBQ sauce is smoked chicken’s best friend

Photo: Kevin Pang
Photo: Kevin Pang

Beef rules in Texas barbecue, pork ribs is the preferred protein in Memphis and Kansas City, and pork shoulder is a religious deity in the Carolinas. Barbecued chicken, however, gets short shrift (unless you count the gunk on bespoke California pizzas, which you shouldn’t). That is, unless you find yourself in northern Alabama, our nation’s beating heart of smoked chicken culture.

On my only trip to Decatur, Alabama, I made the pilgrimage to where all who visit Decatur must go, no exceptions: the fabled Big Bob Gibson BBQ. It is home to a specific variant of smoked chicken that’s become so influential within barbecue circles, this restaurant alone is credited for spawning an entire regional style. Alabama white barbecue sauce is Big Bob Gibson’s; Big Bob Gibson’s is Alabama white barbecue sauce.

In 1925, Robert Gibson was an employee for a railroad company. Looking for extra income to feed his six children, he turned his home outside Decatur into a farm. On weekends, Gibson and his wife would cook pork over hickory wood on a red clay pit, the smell wafting to nearby homes and drawing the curiosity of neighbors. “Big Bob” soon left his job as a railroad worker and set his sights as a full-time restaurateur.

One of the most popular menu items was Gibson’s barbecued chicken, which is seasoned simply with salt, pepper, and basting oil and smoked over hickory for three hours. It’s been the same method of preparation for 92 years. I was lucky to receive a tour of the smokehouse and witnessed an application of chicken I’ve never seen before: the butterflied poultry went straight from the pit and dunked into a beer cooler filled with a creamy, black pepper-flecked white sauce.

What a delicious dynamic—Hot chicken with cool mayo-based sauce, hickory smoke with creamy tang, and the apple juice and horseradish in the mix gave it a sweetness and bite that reminded me (and I say this not as a pejorative) of KFC coleslaw dressing. The versatility of the sauce makes it worth keeping a jar of it around: I’ve used it on smoked chicken, pulled pork, brisket, as a salad dressing, or tossed with shredded cabbage and carrots.

“Most folks raised in North Alabama have firmly believed since childhood that barbecue sauce is white,” Big Bob Gibson pitmaster Chris Lilly wrote in his 2009 cookbook. “Where did the rest of the country go wrong?”

Photo: Kevin Pang

Big Bob Gibson’s original Bar-B-Que white sauce

Makes 4 cups

2 cups mayonnaise
1 cup distilled white vinegar
1/2 cup apple juice
2 tsp. prepared horseradish
2 tsp. ground black pepper
2 tsp. fresh lemon juice
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper

In a large mixing bowl, combine all the ingredients and blend well. Use as a marinade, baste, or dipping sauce. Store refrigerated in an airtight container for up to two weeks.