In Search of Brown Gravy Sauce
A barbecue sauce specific to North Texas.
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 aspire 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 passed away 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, and 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 S. 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 packed with flavor. It’s reduced down into a thick gravy, and was the darkest of the one 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 dress 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 they’ve developed their 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 jalapeno 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 few years (they’re 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 this brown gravy sauce out. 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 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 cup Mott’s regular applesauce
4 cups of hickory smoked brisket drippings
1 tbsp 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.
Have you noticed that recipes that were the greatest have been lost for eons? Methinks age and mystery is the greatest flavor enhancer.
John Raven Ph.B.
Commissioner of Barbecue
Po Sam did not use chicken broth, nor did he BBQ in the traditional fashion. He boiled his brisket and ribs, and used the broth to make the gravy. Once boiled he finished the meat in the smoker and collected the grease.
He did not make a slurry from flour and water. He made a Roux from the Grease and Flour like any gravy. Equal amounts of Flour and Grease (2 Tablespoons each to each cup of broth) cooked until light brown like you were making gumbo. Then added the broth left over from boiling the meat. That is all I am going to say, you can figure out the rest.
Hi, I found this article about Sam. I am wila Mae Chester’s, his late girlfriend, cousin from Arkansas. I am trying toxins out of Sam had any children and any information on how I can reach them.
Please reply with any information if you can.
Thank you in advance, Kelli Dockery 870-904-9039.
I should have turned on auto correct on my previous post. I meant to type:I am trying to find out if he had any children.
I recently met a man that had the original recipe of PO Sams gravy…probably one of the few that really know how to make it, so it is still alive.
I GREW UP EATING SAM’S GRAVY. WALKED BY HIS PLACE EVERY DAY SINCE HIS PLACE WAS BETWEEN OUR HOUSE AND HIS. TOOK ME 20 YEARS TO COME UP WITH A GRAVY THAT WAS VERY CLOSE TO SAMS. UNLESS YOU WORKED THERE AND MADE THE GRAVY YOU DON’T HAVE THE RECIPE. HE USED TO LAUGH AT ME AND CLAP HIS HANDS WHEN I ASKED HIM FOR THE RECIPE.
When we first moved to Colbert, there was an old red travel trailer walk-up BBQ place on the corner of Hwy 91 and Maupin Street. They served a super smokey light brown gravy I quickly grew to love. If I recall correctly, they went out of business (maybe due to a fire?) around 2003. I still get chills thinking how good it was, especially on their pork.
We have a place out here in Glendale Ca. named Pecos Bill’s.This place makes uunbelievable Oklahoma bbq. His Grandfather opened this place in 1946, I’ve been eating there off and on since 1961. I’ve been trying to figure out how to make his “bbq sauce”. Reading this article makes realize it’s not sauce, it’s what you describe here, brown gravy. Thank you. If you’re ever out here in California, check them out. They used to process game back in the day.
Everyone is missing the secret ingredient. Sam was a fervent believer in Voodoo, and stirred his ‘sauce’ with the claw of a rooster. Unless you do the same, you won’t ever duplicate the flavor. Fun Fact.
I can remember sitting in the dinning area of Po Sams eating BBQ and sipping on a Bud. Sweat running off my forehead but I wouldn’t stop eating until it was gone. Another beer please. Nothing fancy, Not really friendly folks but they weren’t rude either. Feed you BBQ, Keep you in cold beer, Take your money. Not for everyone but for those of us who liked it we will miss it forever. I think half the fun is not knowing the recipe. Makes for a great story. That stuff was good and Williams in Colbert is very close.