Homegrown

A Zingy Sauce with Style

By Jackie Sheckler Finch | Photography courtesy of Shari Lee
Asian-inspired, Mississippi Delta-made Hoover Sauce has become so popular it’s now being shipped coast to coast.
When Hoover Lee would grill ribs and wings for family and friends, he yearned for the delicious Cantonese duck sauce from his Chinese homeland. Since Hoover couldn’t find the sauce in his Mississippi hometown of Louise, the creative cook came up with a solution. He made his own sauce.

“Dad would cook for the fire department and church fellowship meals, and our friends would come in and ask for Hoover’s sauce from the meal,” his daughter Shari Lee says. “It was word of mouth how Hoover Sauce was created.”

Besides the love that went into it, Hoover Lee’s sauce has something extra added. “Dad wanted to incorporate flavors he’d come to love while growing up in the Delta,” Shari Lee says.

As a result, the Asian-inspired, Mississippi Delta-made Hoover Sauce is a sweet savory mix that has been described as having a special zing to it.
“Dad perfected the sauce and people loved it and wanted to buy some to use at home,” Lee says. “In 1975, Dad bottled it himself and sold it in our store, Lee Hong Company.”
Word began to spread and the sauce quickly became a regional specialty that attracts local townspeople and connoisseurs around the world.

When Cole Ellis opened his Delta Meat Market in 2013 in Cleveland, Miss., the chef had never heard of the local sauce. He quickly learned about it through an employee.

“We found that we were selling a lot of barbecue ribs and sauces and one of my first employees was from Louise, and he was really eager for us to carry it so I gave it a shot,” Ellis says.

The result? Ellis says he was pleasantly surprised. “We primarily use it on our steak frites, but customers have started requesting it to put on all sorts of dishes on our menu. While a lot of locals have known about Hoover Sauce for years, most people had traditionally used it as a marinade as opposed to a sauce that you add to a dish. Now we have to make the trip to Louise to buy more sauce a lot more regularly.”

When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began requiring nutrition labels in 2015, Shari Lee worked with the Food and Science Department at Mississippi State University—the alma mater of her father, her brothers and herself—to meet FDA requirements.

The sauce that was first developed and made by Hoover Lee in his home kitchen is now manufactured and bottled by a Mississippi co-packer. Since then, the devoted fan base for the sauce has grown even more. The sauce has been featured by chefs around the country and highlighted in local as well as national magazines. Hoover Sauce is now shipped coast to coast in the United States as well as to such distant locales as Germany, France, and Hawaii.

As owner of Ultimate Gifts in Southhaven, Miss., Lauren Norton has seen firsthand the booming popularity of the sauce. “It’s a hot seller for sure,” Norton says. “We sell it by the gallon. I use it myself to add a different twist to venison, pork, chicken, steak. It’s a perfect marinade, but you also can use it as a dipping sauce.”

Hoover Sauce is a wonderful addition to the gift baskets created by Ultimate Gifts and is a featured item in the store’s men section. “It can be so hard to buy for guys, but many guys love to barbecue and Hoover Sauce is a neat Mississippi product,” Norton says.

As for that name, Hoover Sauce is a salute to the family’s Chinese/American heritage. Hoover Lee was named after the U.S.S. Hoover which safely brought Hoover as an infant from China to the U.S. in 1934. Lee Hong, Hoover’s father, had emigrated from China to the U.S. in 1917 and established a grocery store business in Louise. He returned to China several times before bringing his family to the U.S.

When Hoover grew up, he went to Mississippi State as a business major and met his future wife. After Hoover earned his college degree and completed a term in the U.S. Army, he and his wife returned to his family hometown of Louise to help run the store, which they eventually took over in 1960. While running the store, Hoover also served six terms as the mayor of Louise (population 177).

More than six decades later, Hoover and his wife Freeda have three grown children and a thriving family business. Since Hoover and Freeda retired, his sons Stan and Tim now run the family store while Shari manages the sauce business in Madison, Miss.

“The sauce has always been there for my family,” Shari Lee says. “Now, when I see the sauce on the shelves at stores and gift shops, I am so proud. I pretty much touch every box that goes out. I call it putting a little ‘Hoover love’ on it so that others will love it as much as my family does. I feel so blessed to share my Dad’s sauce and story with the world. I just want to honor my dad. I’m so proud to be his daughter.”

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