Soul in a Bottle
By Karen Ott Mayer | Photography courtesy of Delta Ridge BBQ Sauce
This “everything” sauce is capturing Southern palates throughout north Mississippi.
When people talk about Delta Ridge BBQ Sauce, the first odd thing to note is that no one really believes it’s a barbecue sauce. Even the couple that finally brought the family table sauce to market candidly calls it “the everything sauce.”
“My wife’s family is from Wynne, Ark., and during the 1940s and 50s, they were very minimalistic and didn’t have a lot,” says Carey File, the co-founder of Delta Ridge BBQ Sauce with his wife, Melissa. “This story really begins with her grandparents who always had a bottle of the sauce on their table and they put it on everything.”
While the exact ingredients remain secret, Carey File admits the family combined many ingredients traditionally used separately when it comes to barbecue sauce. Delta Ridge BBQ Sauce combines vinegars, mustards, and other ingredients like watermelon and Maker’s Mark to create varieties that seem questionable upon first glance.
Unusual or not, the sauce has been a big hit since its introduction in early 2019. For family and friends who have lived with the sauce for more than 20 years, the timing simply seems overdue.
Aaron Burns, who lives in Oxford, Miss., with his wife and three young children, knows first-hand about the taste. “Our four-year old Carson loves the Honey Heat and pours it on whatever, including chips,” Burns says. “I’ve called it the on-everything sauce or the all-purpose sauce.”
Burns has encouraged File to sell the sauce for years, ever since he tasted it more than 20 years ago. “I kept asking why they didn’t produce it. The different flavors go well with different things,” he explains. For instance, the Honey Heat is made from local honey and has a warm heat but not too spicy.
Burns lived briefly with the couple when they were younger, and he’d watch them mix up the batches. They never shared the recipe. “They never let me see what’s in it! When it was time to mix the ingredients, they’d send me in the other room,” he says with a laugh.
File says most sauces are either vinegar-based or tomato-based and that Delta Ridge BBQ Sauce combines both, in addition to the other ingredients.
“The original one made by Melissa’s grandparents had a tart and tangy taste,” he says. “Because the family didn’t have resources to buy a lot of different sauces, they had to make one to go with everything.”
Today, the couple experiments with unusual ingredients like watermelon and Maker’s Mark bourbon. The bourbon is actually cooked out of the sauce, leaving a residual smoky flavor that Burns enjoys.
“I think the Honey Heat is the favorite in our household,” Burns says, “but the Original and the Fiery Hot Bourbon come close.”
The decision to finally sell to the public came about through a series of events. File views himself as the proverbial jack of all trades, trying everything from music to turning bowls. When he was in between jobs, he turned his talents to making the sauce. The name itself reflects the File family. “I am from Batesville, Miss., which is in the hills and ridges, and Melissa is from the Arkansas Delta,” File says.
With a career in sales, File says he listens closely to his customers and wants the Delta Ridge BBQ Sauce experience to be more than just buying barbecue sauce. “We view this as selling hospitality or putting our soul in a bottle.”
His wife’s family, who has been sharing jars for years, didn’t quite believe anyone would buy it.
“They view the sauce as nothing fancy, just thrown together, Casey File explains. “Her parents were like no way is anyone going to buy it and they couldn’t believe it until they saw me at the Hernando Farmers Market this year. We sold 14 cases in one morning.”
With six different flavor profiles, File relies on Southern palates to define their tastes and direction. The watermelon idea, for instance, came as a result of Delta Ridge BBQ Sauce participating in the Watermelon Festival held in Water Valley every year.
“Southerners know their food and tastes and what works,” File says. “We wanted to bottle something in honor of Water Valley. It sounds weird but we sold out and it was really popular. We want to use the sweetest watermelon we can so we only make it during the season when we can find pure watermelon juice.”
Delta Ridge BBQ Sauce has been busy this year, selling at markets in Oxford, Hernando, Cleveland, and Jackson and distributing the product through shops like Commerce Street Market in Hernando and at Sugar Magnolia in Oxford. Heading into 2020, Delta Ridge hopes to secure a commercial space where they can make the sauce. Now, they are making 10-to-12 gallons every night in their home kitchen under Mississippi Cottage Food law. They hope to also launch a line of dry rubs that will pair well with the sauces.