The ways Texas barbecue is prepared and presented varies quite a bit across the state. Most people know that each region of the state—Central, West, the Piney Woods—has its own style, but within these broad geographical regions you can find cooking methods and menu items that are hyper-specific to a certain area. Consider the onion rings and apricot puree of the Panhandle or the fatty all-beef links of southeast Texas. But I want to focus on an area around the Red River that’s covered in brown gravy sauce.
The original recipe for this sauce, the one that everyone preparing it today aspires to replicate, was perfected a mile and a half north of the Red River, in Colbert, Oklahoma. Samuel A. Flagg, better known as Po Sam, started a barbecue joint there in 1952 called Po’ Sam’s Bar-B-Que, and during his thirty-plus years in business, he created a loyal local following. Sam died in 1985, taking his famous sauce recipe with him. Since then, his legend has continued to grow, as has the mystique of the sauce.
At its most basic, the sauce is made like any gravy. Drippings are thickened with flour and thinned out a bit with broth. But the drippings for this sauce come from smoked meat, then plenty of spice is added to round things out.
For all we know, Sam’s sauce could have been developed in Texas. According to a collected history of the area titled Colbert, 1845–1982, Sam “had run barbeque places near schools in Paris and Honey Grove, Texas” before he settled in Colbert. Once there, he operated out of at least three buildings in town, including a white concrete block structure on South Franklin Street that still stands. Another went up in flames along with a small fortune. Sam liked to deal in cash.
Even in his old age, Sam worked fifteen hours a day cooking barbecue “in a deep pit longer than most folks’ living rooms.” His barbecue joint’s slogan was both humorous and modest. “Not the best … but hard to beat.”
Johnny Doyle doesn’t pretend to be recreating Sam’s original recipe at Hickory House Bar-B-Que in Denison. He tried some when he was a kid, but “it was so hot I couldn’t remember anything but the heat.” Doyle’s version of brown gravy sauce isn’t too spicy, but it’s packed with flavor. It’s reduced down into a thick gravy and was the darkest of the ones I tried, with a flavor reminiscent of beef jerky. It needs to be served hot lest it seize up, but it goes nicely with the smoky brisket.
Just down the street is Hateful Hussy’s Old Mining Camp BBQ & Burgers, where women dressed in Old West attire serve the barbecue. The pork ribs were good, but the brown gravy sauce was more yellow. It had the consistency of canned gravy and more smoke than a Lucky Strike. Subtle it was not.
I missed Edd’s on the way out of Denison, but I’m told it has developed its own sauce recipe that claims no relation to Sam’s.
Across the Red River, I drove past the old location of Po’ Sam’s on my way to Williams Old Style Bar-B-Que in Colbert. Many fans of Po’ Sam’s say that proprietor Nick Williams gets the closest. If they’re right, then I’m sure I would have liked Sam’s. I went for the hot version (mild is also available), and all that cayenne tinted this version orange. It coated the meat like hot fudge, which meant every bite of my sandwich had quite a kick. This was the most complex sauce of the group that I tried, with a well-balanced smoky edge.
Another favorite was in Savoy, Texas. Melissa Perkins of Perk’s Bar-B-Que ate more sandwiches at Po’ Sam’s than she can remember while growing up in Colbert, but hers is no exact replica either. “Nobody’s got his recipe,” she tells me. She won’t tell me her recipe either, but the smell of chili powder was strong. The color was light, like peach juice. It was thinner than the others, with a muted smokiness. The dominant flavor was from red pepper and what tasted to me like jalapeño, even though Perkins denied using it. I got all I wanted anyway with her sausage-stuffed peppers, which were just made to be awash in this sauce. The low viscosity allowed it to coat every bit of the pulled pork on one of the most enjoyable sandwiches I’ve had in a while.
Sam’s brown gravy sauce is legendary, and as with all “secret recipes,” some folks say they have the real deal. I missed Smoky D’s in Knollwood by a few years (it’s now out of business), but the owner claimed that his wife had gotten the recipe from one of Po’ Sam’s best friends. Having never tried Sam’s sauce, I have no accurate point of comparison. Sure, one of them might be that old recipe, but there’s no way they all are; the recipes are too divergent. But they all have something in common—they all help keep the memory of Samuel Flagg alive.
Gary Carter is a freelance journalist who has worked for Texoma Living Magazine and the Denison-based Herald Democrat. It was his 2009 article on Po’ Sam in Texoma Living that first got me interested in seeking out this brown gravy sauce. He’s a fan of this style of sauce, and has developed his own version of the recipe, which he has agreed to share:
Brown Gravy Sauce
1/2 cup flour and water paste
3 cups Swanson’s Chicken Broth
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1 cup Mott’s regular applesauce
4 cups of hickory smoked brisket drippings
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
Salt and black pepper to taste
Add all ingredients except the flour and water paste to the smoked brisket drippings while the fat is warm and liquid, and whisk briskly over simmering heat. Once all the ingredients are incorporated into the brisket drippings, slowly add the flour and water paste to thicken to a desired consistency.
Po’ Sam would dip a big spoon into the pot and see if the sauce coated the back, always looking for the right amount of red cayenne specks. Not an exact science, to be sure, which is why many are still seeking the exact proportions.