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The Sauce Maker? He’s Busy Dreaming

Today let us praise the sauce makers. I’m talking about the barbecue chefs who, after years of patio triumph, decide one day to venture beyond their own backyards. They bottle up a batch of their homemade concoctions, slap on a label with a heartfelt slogan--"My Life Is in These Bottles” is a personal favorite, found on a sauce called Stubb’s--and set forth to marinate the world.

Curtis Hurd belongs to the breed. A former heavy-equipment operator for the county, and a father of six who gives his age as “the wrong side of 70,” Hurd is the creator, bottler and distributor of Hurd’s Barbecue Sauce--"A Special Treat for Any Meat,” as the bottle says. He started on his march to sauce glory more than three decades ago. Victory is not yet complete.

“I have been after this thing for years,” he said the other day, leaning on a hoe outside his green stucco house in the middle of Kings County cotton country. “It’s a struggle. But I’m a doer. I’m not a talker.”

Of course he’s not a talker. My field work among the sauce makers is only in the preliminary stages, yet a few patterns have begun to suggest themselves. And one is that they seem to share a peculiar aversion to publicity. Apparently the sauce maker dream, in its purest form, is to succeed only by word-of-mouth, advancing in this way from taste bud to taste bud, backyard to backyard, corner store to supermarket chain, no ink, no advertising. To seek out a press interview would be almost decadent, a form of cheating. On the other hand, should a reporter just happen to show up . . .

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I first encountered this attitude a few years ago. I was trying to track down the creator of Basque Meat Tenderizer & Barbecue Sauce. It’s made in Madera, just north of Fresno. I had used the stuff for years, had watched it spread throughout the state, and was curious about the story behind it. I placed a call, identified myself and asked to interview the owner.

“He’s not here,” the voice on the other end shouted back in an old-country accent. “He’s in and out, all day.”

“When should I call back?”

“Call back next week. We’re too busy.”

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“Who should I ask for?”

There was a slight pause.

“Ask for Raymond. He’s been here from the start.”

After a couple of similar conversations with this voice--"Too busy! We’re too busy!"--I finally figured out that the man who kept telling me to call back and ask for Raymond was, in fact, Raymond Ylarregui, the owner. He shrugged and laughed about it when we finally did get together.

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The slogan Ylarregui pastes on his bottles captures perfectly the faith that sauce makers possess in their product’s ability to sell itself: “If You Try Me,” the label promises earnestly, “I Know You Will Like Me.” Certainly it has worked in Ylarregui’s case.

An immigrant shepherd, he began delivering a few bottles of his marinade to Central Valley stores here and there in the 1980s; he now ships out 4,000 to 5,000 cases a month, coast to coast. Nonetheless, the day I showed up to interview him, Ylarregui still was labeling the bottles by himself. You bet he’s too busy.

As for Curtis Hurd, he was recommended by a friend and colleague of mine who has been researching the 1940s migration of black sharecroppers into the Tulare Lake Basin. Hurd had been a part of that movement west, and as a much-in-demand barbecue chef--he sets up shop in a Texaco parking lot every weekend--he has not lost touch with the surviving migrants.

“I cook for them all the way through,” is how he puts it. “I cook for them when they are baptized. I cook for them when they get married. And I cook for them when they die.”

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Of course, when I called to arrange for an interview, Hurd said it was impossible: “I’m too busy. I’m booked up till next year.” I was not discouraged. The man was just being true to the sauce maker’s code. A few days later I parked in front of his house, opened a freshly purchased bottle of Hurd’s Barbecue Sauce and dipped in my finger for a first taste--tangy, with a subtle kick.

I got out and approached a stocky man who was standing beside a large barbecue on wheels. There were several of these barbecues in the yard, along with some clunker cars and a couple big piles of wood. The man was dressed in a seed company cap, a short-sleeved cowboy shirt, jeans and boots. His eyes were red and watery, as if they had squinted through a lifetime of barbecue smoke.

As Curtis Hurd introduced himself, he extended a hand that was roughly the size and texture of a tri-tip roast. He said he was in a hurry, but could talk for a few minutes. Hurd got right to the story, explaining how he had come to California from Oklahoma at age 15, not to pick cotton, but for love.

“I came out to see a girl I met when I was about 12. I hadn’t planned to stay in California.” He eventually married the girl, and they are married still. They raised six children, Hurd said, adding: “All six went to college.”

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He worked for the county 25 years, cooking barbecue on the side, experimenting with woods and sauces. In 1969, he tried to obtain a grant for a sauce business. He failed, but persisted nonetheless, doing what he could to build a business without any outside financial backing. He said he never has advertised. He pointed to the pile of ashes in the barbecue.

“I just got done cooking a pig for some ladies in Bakersfield,” he said, “a 152-pound pig. They just heard about me. I don’t know how. That’s how it works.”

Hurd said he currently sells about 100 cases a year throughout California. This means there are only 49 other states and a world left for the sauce maker to conquer.

“Hopefully,” he said of his sauce, “I’ll get it all over. My hope is that somebody with some money will give me a break and back me. All I’m looking for is a break.”

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With that, Hurd said he had to go. He had rounds to make--Hanford, Lemoore, Riverdale, Fresno. He climbed into a pickup that might have been new when Truman was president. He turned onto a country road and was gone, a sauce maker on a mission. And somewhere a band struck up “God Bless America,” and the flames of a million backyard barbecues lighted the sky.


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