Papa Loves Mambo (Sauce)
Cue Mitchell Ayres’ Orchestra. The brazen trumpet followed by the laid-back baritone of Perry Como's voice transports me back to my childhood every time I hear it. It's a song from the sound track of my youth as my grandma would pop the crooner's 8-track into her Magnavox Stereo Console before our 500 Rummy matches. Alas, this has nothing to do with today’s topic other than some clever word association and a shout out to my Gram. I am quite certain that "Mr. C" wasn’t singing about the mild sauce found in the predominantly African American neighborhoods of Chicago and Washington D.C.
Mild sauce is the generic term for the sweet condiment that has been used since the 1950’s to douse fried chicken, fish, fries and even Chinese food. The popular consensus of those in the know is the more sauce the better. The base component of mild sauce is believed to be a ketchup BBQ mix with everything from brown sugar, duck sauce, sweet & sour, and even orange soda. No two recipes are alike, and neither is the sauce’s consistency. It can be thick like a glaze or thin like Tabasco and ranges in color from bright red to hues of orange.
Chicago Mild Sauce
Chicago is flush with neighborhood fried chicken joints and home to a long-standing competition between two black owned restaurants, Harold’s Chicken Shack on the South Side and Uncle Remus Saucy Fried Chicken on the West Side. This fifty+ year rivalry has always been more between their loyal customer base than the establishments themselves. Legions of fans swear by Uncle Remus’s sweeter sauce while all of Harold’s 38 locations tend to have a consistently inconsistent je nais sais qua about them which tends to be on the thicker side and with a more forward tomato taste. Now I can wax poetic about the history of Chicago’s fried chicken scene all day long, but since this is a post about mambo sauce, you will have to wait for a future story. That brings me to Argia’s B BAR-B-Q. Unlike the aforementioned fried chicken restaurants, this now defunct South Side spot specialized in traditional BBQ and is known to have coined the term mumbo sauce back in the fifties. Their sweet and sticky mild sauce, with hints of pineapple and citrus became so popular that other area restaurants used the broad moniker mambo or mumbo for their homemade mild sauce.
Mr. Mambo Goes To Washington
Okay so maybe there wasn’t actually someone named Smith and maybe the headline is just a way for me to shoehorn another movie reference into my story, but somebody at some point brought mambo sauce to Washington DC. According to Capital City Mambo Sauce’s website, an African American run chicken wing restaurant Wings-n-Things introduced their version of mild sauce in the late 1960s. How they got it, is a bit of a mystery but just like in Chicago, the sweet and tangy condiment was a hit. It was quickly appropriated by other restaurants who made their own version of the sauce and it is now a staple in practically every chicken and Asian establishment in town. Ask a native, I’m not talking about a politician or fancy suit lobbyist, but rather someone born and raised in the “District” and I wouldn't be surprised if they said, “I put that shit on everything”. Whether you are enjoying a half-smoke sausage at Ben’s Chili Bowl, chowing down some pork fried rice in Chinatown or enjoying a cocktail at the iconic Hamilton, mambo sauce will likely be available. DC’s versions tend to be more vinegary and with a little more heat than it’s Chi-Town cousin, but it is equally as addictive. I suggest you try as many as possible and find your own personal favorite.
Mambo Sauce is Part of the Culture
If you have read any of my writings, you might have picked up on my appreciation of pop culture. So, it is only fitting that the first time that I ever heard of mild sauce was while watching an episode of Deliciousness on MTV last month. Co-host Kel Mitchell gave a raving endorsement of the stuff. I had to rewind and listen again. "How have I never heard of this? I immediately went into research mode. Not only did I purchase a bottle of Capital City Mambo and Harold’s Mild Sauce to take the Pepsi Challenge but I fully immersed myself in the subject. I watched YouTube video after video talking about the importance of mild sauce to the community. I read comedian Hannibal Buress’s gushing article “The Simple Genius of Mild Sauce” in the Chicago Magazine. I even purchased Camille Acker’s book The Training School for Negro Girls to read the short story Mambo Sauce, a tale of how the condiment had such a powerful effect on the protagonist that it inspired her to fight against her neighborhood's gentrification. In more than one way Mambo sauce has made me a more well-rounded person. (Rounded, get it? It's sweet and I ate a lot of it) But most of all, I learned of the community pride that this food made by African Americans for African Americans has had on the their culture.