KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Condiments are the unsung heroes of the food industry. Mustard, ketchup, relish, hot peppers, mayonnaise, barbecue and other sauces can enhance many red meat and poultry cuts.
Growing up, my family’s small refrigerator was always filled with bottles and packets of the best, and sometimes worst of the condiments of that era, from Koops’ stone ground mustard to Louisiana Hot Sauce, when it came to condiments.
One iconic variety I recall fondly is Tick-Tock relish, which came in a small glass jar shaped like a clock. Options included one designed for hot dogs, which was sweet relish mixed with mustard; and one for hamburgers, which was sweet relish mixed with ketchup. Meat at my house back then was always cooked to “well done: temperature. We regularly had ‘blackened’ hamburgers and hot dogs and the condiments always helped make the desert-dry meat more palatable.
Growing up, when my family enjoyed sirloin steaks on rare occasions prepared on an electric broiler, steak sauce and salt were usually shaken onto the meat before even tasting it. That was a family tradition.
On special occasions, my dad would make the 30-minute drive to The Shrimp Boat, a small foodservice joint that offered boxes of the best carry-out fried shrimp in the county. One of the best things about the shrimp was its cocktail sauce, which was uncommonly hot and spicy.
As time passed, my desire for condiments featuring increased heat levels grew. My dad was born in a small house in Loda down in central Illinois, where horseradish grows everywhere…even along the very same Illinois Central tracks that the City of New Orleans travels. Once after visiting his parents, who lived one town south of Loda in Paxton, Ill., he brought home a small jar of local horseradish.
As I was putting some of this horseradish on my pickle and pimento loaf sandwich for lunch one Saturday afternoon, I remember thinking it was odd that the jar didn’t have a label. As I slowly unscrewed the lid, the aroma on the inside of the jar wafted up to my mouth, nose and eyes. I literally couldn’t breathe and my eyes wouldn’t stop tearing.
In the late 1990s, I frequented a wonderful Mexican food restaurant not far from O’Hare Airport as the older owners were longtime friends. It was there that I learned the power of chili in red sauce. The co-owners were husband and wife. Maria sometimes shared cooking duties with their full-time chef, Jesús
My favorite dish they offered was Pollo Hustequeño, bone-in chicken with a very hot red sauce and rice. I would always order it as Pollo El Diablo (The Devil’s Chicken). Maria would laugh and then disappear into their tiny kitchen. Thirty minutes later, she brought the dish to our table. Without fail, the sauce was so hot it always caused tears to stream down my face while it burned the inside of my mouth —but this dish was too delicious not to order. They have since retired and sold their restaurant, but the memory of Pollo El Diablo will live in my mouth forever.
My love for condiments is terribly annoying to my wife, who is a gourmet cook and loves to flavor her dishes with the many herbs she grows on our deck and spices in her cupboard. She takes a lot of pride and time in preparing gourmet meat and poultry dishes when she has the time. But she is never happy as I drag out the ketchup or barbecue sauce to add to one of these dishes.
Condiments can turn an ordinary meat or poultry dish into something extraordinary. As I explain to my aggravated wife when she asks why I put condiments on meat and poultry, they enhance something that already tastes really good.