Monnie and Lute Roark are a farming family in Southeast Missouri in the 1930’s and 40’s. Several times a year Lute invites friends and family for a side of beef or whole hog and mixes up his family BBQ sauce for the event. He uses a #3 washtub as his mixing bowl and stirs the concoction with a boat paddle.
Monnie fixes her BBQ meatballs every Sunday for her children and grandchildren. This Sunday ritual was passed down for many of their children. One of their grandchildren, Terry Roark, still requested her grandmothers “BBQ Burgers” for her birthday into her 50’s.
Monnie and Lute’s son Ubon and his family moved to Yazoo city in 1966.
Ubon managed a farm in Yazoo County, MS called Little Twist. Ubon quickly becomes one of Yazoo’s many characters. His stories are always funny and his wit is quick. He was known for his daily breakfast argument with the mayor at a local resturant surrounded by many of the town’s business men. One friend, now in her 60s, remembers Ubon’s daily visit to her dad’s lumber company. She still remembers him calling her “Missy” and bringing her a Tab each morning. He always wore overalls and nearly always had a smoke. His granddaughters Leslie and Jennifer fondly remember him asking for help taking off his shoes and finding quarters in his shoes and socks. He let the girls do anything they wanted, including drawing on his belly with Mercurochrome. (He had red Mercurochrome smiley faces and hearts on his belly when he died.) For Ubon, the sun rose and set on his grandchildren.
Ubon built a BBQ pit in the shape of a wishing well in his back yard. This permanent backyard structure became a gathering point for the Roark family.
Ubon mixed up his mother’s sauce, a gallon at a time, every weekend. Ubon and his wife Bettye had 3 sons. The BBQ pit was always full because the boys and their friends were always hungry. BBQ chicken and grilled Red Rose Sausage with Ubon’s sauce was a mainstay for the family. Ubon made up the sauce and poured it into a metal bowl and would dip each piece of chicken and sausage in the sauce over and over until his rather thin sauce got thick and sticky.
As Ubon got older his son Garry began running the family pit. Ubon mixed the sauce and Garry cooked the chicken. Garry started learning the sauce recipe and he and his dad made many adjustments. One failed attempt included the addition of artificial sweeteners after Ubon was diagnosed with diabetes. Garry and Ubon modernized Monnie’s recipe to include the textural elements in the sauce today.
Ubon died in 1980. I’m sure the first chicken cooked after his death provided his family with very bittersweet memories.
Garry started making Ubon’s sauce according to the recipe father and son perfected. He mixed the sauce 1 gallon at a time. Family began to ask for some of Ubon’s sauce from Garry’s batches. Friends found out and requested that their gallon milk jugs be filled with Ubon’s sauce. In 1985 Garry regularly made 25 gallons, one gallon at a time in his home kitchen.
As a teenager Garry worked for a local grocery/deli called Patenotte’s Grocery. Mr. Patenotte was tough to work for but respected Garry’s work ethic. When Garry later approached him about placing the sauce in his deli Mr. Patenotte was very helpful. Garry sterilized BBQ sauce bottles from the deli and refilled them with Ubon’s Sauce, applied a hand written label and sold his first bottles of sauce.
Garry’s decision to market Ubon’s Sauce came in 1986. With the help of a friend he established Roark Packing Company and began producing his sauce for market. Garry and a friend, Steve Guthrie, designed the original label (with the old tired chicken.) Garry’s family, Elaine, Leslie and Jennifer were his first ‘employees.’ Jennifer and Leslie’s job was label application. They were relieved of this duty when several cases were labeled upside down. Years later in 1992 the girls would return to the BBQ sales team by making cold calls to gift shops and florists across the MS Delta area. (Garry continues to insist that this was simply the girl’s BBQ sauce vacation and there is some truth to that assumption.)
In the mid 80’s Garry first introduced Ubon’s to the public in a big way by being a vendor at Jubilee Jam in downtown Jackson, Ms. (Jam Y’all!!) Garry and Elaine decided then—“this event will either give us the funds to produce the sauce on a larger scale or convince us to stay at home.’ The Steak Shoppes in Jackson and Clinton Mississippi (a contact Garry made at Jubliee Jam) were among the first to buy Ubon’s Sauce in bulk. The Steak Shoppe sampled their frozen meatball with Ubon’s Sauce every day. 90% of their customers left with a bottle of sauce and a bag of frozen meatballs. Much of our Jackson, MS customer base today came from the Steak Shoppe.
Ubons Sauce meatballs
Garry found out about a BBQ contest in Cleveland, MS in 1988 and entered in the back yard category. He quickly found out he was a small fish in a very large pond. He also found himself bitten with the competition bug. Along with his friend Paul Hood, Garry began competing in local contests regularly. He decided that the best way to market Ubon’s Sauce was to create a name for it on the Memphis in May BBQ circuit. Garry’s first trip to Memphis in May in 1990 was to pass out sauce samples. He hauled sauce on a dolly and talked to as many BBQ teams as is possible in one day.
1990 had Garry cooking on a regular basis with his goal to be accepted to Memphis in May in 1991. With a win in Columbus, MS Ubon’s BBQ of Yazoo won a place at Memphis in May. And so began 20+ years of competition BBQ.