It was hot and muggy on the Tennessee side of the Mississippi River in Memphis’ Tom Lee Park in the mid-1980s.
The air was heavy with sweet aromas from hickory smoked meat fires. More than 250 barbecue cooking teams were vying for Grand Champion of the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.
They cooked hard and partied hardy. Boom boxes belted out Elvis, Merle, Dolly, George Jones and David Allan Coe. Men in grass skirts, coconut shell bras on hairy chests, pig noses and girly wigs danced and sang for awards in the Miss Piggy Contest.
Virginian by birth, New Englander by choice, Chris Schlesinger and his East Coast Grill team had high ambitions, like every other team, to kick butt and take the Grand Champion trophy home to Cambridge, Mass. They didn’t make the cut to the finals.
After the awards ceremony I found my way to the East Coast Grill cook site to say farewell and wish the team safe travels home. Their canopy was still up. Their pit and equipment was there, but the team was elsewhere.
Standing guard like a sentry on their cold custom-built steel pit was an empty bottle of super-hot Inner Beauty Hot Sauce, symbolically screaming the team’s disappointment at not scoring a ribbon or a trophy. I took the empty bottle home with me as a memento.
Inner Beauty often took honors at the American Royal International Barbecue Sauce, Rub & Baste Contest. The cases Schlesinger donated for sale at the Diddy-Wa-Diddy Barbecue Sauce Store sold out fast.
Former 61 Country deejay, David Lawrence, host of Chow Town’s most popular morning radio show back then, was a big fan of Inner Beauty. When Chef Paul Kirk and I joined Lawrence in the studio each year to promote the Royal Barbecue and sauce contest, we always brought a flask of Inner Beauty. After his first bite of a sauce-slathered rib, Lawrence broke out in a sweat with a mouth-on-fire, “Love-this-stuff!” smile.
Schlesinger’s recipe and video demonstration on how to make Inner Beauty is now online. I have looked at that empty glass flask for more than three decades, hoping to draw some lessons about life from it to share with others. Most of what I came up with was trivial. Finally, I got it:
Schlesinger shut down sauce production several years ago and moved on to other projects. You can’t buy Inner Beauty. You have to make it yourself. That’s the lesson.
Chris will make a guest appearance at the East Coast Grill on June 2, to sign his latest book, “The Big Flavor Grill,” with co-author John “Doc” Willoughby.
For a glimpse of Austin pitmaster Aaron Franklin and some of the best barbecue brisket on the planet, treat yourself to the new movie, “Chef.” Eat before you go. Fantastic entertainment for people who love food.
Ardie Davis is an iconic figure in the barbecue community. He founded a sauce contest on his backyard patio in 1984 that became the American Royal International Barbecue Sauce, Rub & Baste contest. He is a charter member of the Kansas City Barbeque Society and an inductee into the KCBS’s Hall of Flame. He has been interviewed on numerous food shows and writes for a variety of barbecue-related publications. He is also the author of a number of barbecue books, His most recent release book is “America’s Best BBQ Homestyle: What Champions Cook in Their Own Backyards.”