AUSTIN — In Jamaica, chicken is jerked. In Nashville, it’s hot. Here in Chicago, chicken gets dipped or doused in mild sauce.
Combining the sweet flavor of ketchup, smoky tang of barbecue sauce and bite of hot sauce, mild sauce has been a staple at Black-owned chicken joints for generations, a cultural hallmark served up with southern-fried classics.
Up until now, the sauce was largely offered up as a side in takeout spots. But a Chicago chef — a white entrepreneur — aims to change that, by bottling his version of the condiment, called That Mild Sauce, and selling it in grocery stores and on the internet.
Chef Clayton Weber, That Mild Sauce’s chief operating officer, said he and his business partners have been eating mild sauce forever.
“After a while, we started our little company and began shipping That Mild Sauce to former Chicagoans who have moved away and miss that Chicago-style flavor profile,” he said.
But some Black Chicagoans who came up on the condiment think the Lincoln Park-based company’s good intentions got lost in the sauce — pun intended. As word of the bottled-and-branded mild sauce spread on social media, people learned it had no connection to the chicken shacks who developed the slightly sweet, spicy condiment.
For some, it felt like a slap in the face to see a white-owned company profiting off of a Black culinary staple — and the people who pioneered an entire regional food culture with mild sauce as its defining feature.
“They become aware of something, and they seek to own it,” said Bronzeville native Phade Wayze, who reposted a complaint about the sauce on Facebook. “…Black culture is something that people feel like they can just take and commodify. Our culture isn’t accepted as culture. It’s seen as a fad or a trend that people don’t have to respect the creators of it.”
A private company swooping in and profiting off of a Black creation without partnering with the folks who helped create the flavor harms them, Wayze said.
Some Black Chicagoans were particularly taken aback by some branding on That Mild Sauce’s website: “The underground flavor of Chicago is finally coming up.”
Wayze said the tagline is the epitome of cultural gentrification, wherein a Black creation is watered-down to appeal to a white audience in a way that exoticizes Black creators rather than honoring them.
“It’s a coded way to address the fact that it’s coming from a culture that’s not his. One that’s lesser-than, or in the shadows,” she said.
Posts online complaining of That Mild Sauce echoed Wayze’s concerns about the branding.
Others criticized the company for appropriating, gentrifying or “Columbusing” the Chicago staple.
Online rumors swirled suggesting That Mild Sauce had secured intellectual property rights to the condiment by trademarking the name or patenting the flavor. Some said that would’ve been a particularly egregious move in claiming ownership over the condiment.
But others said that if nobody in the Black community or in the Chicago chicken scene had yet patented the product, then it was their own fault for missing out on the opportunity.
But Weber, the chef behind That Mild Sauce, set the record straight: the mild sauce industry is still wide open for competitors as they hold no rights to the invention or the name of the sauce.
“We do have a trademark on our logo,” Weber said.
At least one of Chicago’s Black-owned chicken empires, Harold’s Chicken, does sell bottles of mild sauce at some of its restaurants and online.
Responding to critics, Weber said their recipe was crafted after tasting many different versions of mild sauce across the city and fine-tuning it to his team’s palate.
“That Mild Sauce did not partner with Harold’s, or Uncle Remus, or JJ’s, or Shark’s, or Crystal’s or any of the hundreds of hot dog/Italian beef stands, or any of the hundreds of BBQ places, or any of the thousands of restaurants outside of Illinois that sell their own versions of mild sauce,” he said in a statement. “Nor have those places partnered with each other or reached out to us. We just created another version in the market.”
The mild sauce has been overwhelmingly well-received, Weber said. He understands some people think the company has appropriated mild sauce, but that wasn’t his intention, he said.
Rather, he was inspired by the sauce he had been around for most of his life, and decided to put his own spin on it as a celebration of one of the country’s most multicultural cities loaded with diverse culinary options.
“I empathize with the deep connection and pride people have with their culture, whatever culture that may be. The passion we feel about our music, clothing and even food, is profound. And I completely respect and cherish that,” Weber said. “I also feel that I live in the same community, ride the same trains, cheer for the same sports teams, and eat at the same restaurants, so naturally, I can’t help but identify with mild sauce myself.”
‘I’ll probably crush their mild sauce’
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when and where mild sauce was invented in Chicago, but on the West Side, most folks would point to Austin’s Uncle Remus Saucy Fried Chicken as one of the originators of the sauce.
Charmaine Rickette, CEO of Uncle Remus and daughter of the restaurant’s founder, said her father started serving mild sauce in the 1960s after noticing that customers would combine ketchup and hot sauce to have with their chicken.
“I’m pretty sure that everybody’s version of mild sauce started with mixing hot sauce and ketchup and shaking it,” she said. Back when they first started to produce the sauce, Rickette said the condiment was pretty much unheard of. “The shift came when my dad began to explore other avenues of taste and worked with a supplier downtown.”
Rickette said the restaurant worked with the supplier to customize a base for the mild sauce, and then improved on the flavor with a proprietary blend of ingredients that gives Uncle Remus a signature tangy, smoky taste that edges out other sauces in the city.
“What makes Uncle Remus mild sauce distinct, different, what’s craved for, is that we are probably the only authentic brand that has our mild sauce formulated with our ingredients which are trademarked. I own the recipe,” Rickette said. “As you know, everybody loves it. I don’t think mild sauce can compare to our mild sauce.”
Rickette’s father came to Chicago from the South during the Great Migration and brought with him southern cuisine, like the fried chicken and a love of barbecue flavors.
But Rickette said one reason why people love the slightly smoky mild sauce so much is because it is much more versatile than barbecue sauce, which can overpower a lot of foods. She puts her mild sauce on everything from fried chicken to french fries to hamburgers from Wendy’s.
Uncle Remus doesn’t sell bottles of the coveted sauce in stores or at the restaurant. Rickette said selling the sauce is something that the business is working up to, but she is waiting for the right moment to branch out from the chicken business into the sauce market.
“My joke is, I don’t want my mild sauce to put me out of the chicken business,” she said. “Our mild sauce is so good, you can put it on everything. … If people can get my mild sauce anywhere, they might not come here to get the chicken.”
And even though the bottled That Mild Sauce means chicken-lovers can get their fix anywhere and anytime, Rickette’s not worried. Uncle Remus customers are loyal, she said, and nothing compares to their original, authentic sauce.
“Certainly any idea, a recipe, and an invention that we’ve had, it’s not uncommon for someone to take it. I can understand how some folks feel like, hey, its a cultural icon and how dare he,” she said. “But my response to that— it’s free enterprise.”
“Does that make me feel like he’s infringing upon my business? No,” she said. “I’m in the chicken business that happens to have an awesome, amazing mild sauce. And whenever I get ready to put it on the shelf, I’ll probably crush their mild sauce.”
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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