Lifestyle & Culture

Kitchen Detail: BBQ’s in Their Bones

From the Bone Doctors website.

By Nancy Pollard

After owning one of the best cooking stores in the US for 47 years—La Cuisine in Alexandria, Virginia—Nancy Pollard writes Kitchen Detail, a blog about food in all its aspects—recipes, film, books, travel, superior sources, and food-related issues. 

LET’S GET one thing straight. Making my own  mayonnaise is a given, but I am not ever going to make my own barbecue sauce. I (being From Thecopper pot brewing from Pinterest North) was not brought up with it, and actually neither was the person From The South who resides with me. But he did start eating barbecue this and barbecue that during the happy almost-decade he spent at UVA, the University of Virginia. He loved the school and he loved barbecue. After a few taste misfires, I have actually come to like some versions of it. In my shop, La Cuisine, we had requests from both local and international clients who wanted to take a good example back home, so we launched a search for really good and unique barbecue sauces.

This repeated request required numerous treks down the aisles of the annual Fancy Food Show. Not that we minded, as we often found some real gems hidden away from the super-hyped big marketing venues. Countries will buy space in the NASFT foodapaloozas, and so will states. Usually the country aisles are hugely lacking in American marketing come-hither expertise, but over the years we did find some unique small producers who became beloved by La Cuisine shoppers. Interestingly, in the state-supported aisles, you saw very clever homegrown marketing and action: story-telling, engaged producers,  clever tastings. Really, for the Cuisinettes, as we called ourselves, it all came down to the taste.

So, after a few years of sampling detestable barbecue sauces, overloaded with tomato concentrate, truly low-end spices, corn syrup, plus a surprising amount of chemical additives (some parading as liquid smoke), we hit the jackpot. We located products concocted by two UVA grads who made outstanding examples of that very particular American Southern specialty, Barbecue Sauce and a masterful Dry Rub.

A Tangled History


16th century depiction of Indians barbecuing fish from History Today websitreIt is astonishing to note that there are currently more than 7,000 producers of  barbecue sauce, and its complex history probably has the same number of roots. Our current word “barbecue” most likely comes from a Spanish corruption of the native term for the slow cooking process over a frame—not to be confused with grilling—used by the indigenous tribes in the Caribbean islands (notably the Taino, who were enslaved and their population decimated by the landing of Columbus at the end of the 15th century) and also by southeastern Indian tribes in what is now the USA. These cooking practices were all noted in diaries by Spanish, French, and English explorers in the New World from the 16th century onward. The introduction of feral pigs to this process was introduced by the Spanish colonizers. But the method of cooking traveled by the numerous migrant populations as far west as the Kansas and Texas territories, and of course through the Carolinas and Virginia. George Washington wrote in his diary about a barbecue party he hosted.

Websites abound with histories of barbecue, but it is clear that the addition of citrus and spices and chilies came from the people enslaved and sent to the fields in the colonial New World. Lime or other sharp-flavored citrus was replaced with vinegar by Scottish and English settlers in the southeastern colonies of the US thanks to the lack of access to these fruits. The addition of mustard to some versions reveals the stream of German immigrants who adapted the recipe to their tastes from the homeland. Tomatoes were a relatively newfangled addition to barbecue sauces and were not really noted until the early 20th century. But the idea of slow smoking over a frame with whatever protein you had on hand remained with streams of settlers in the 19th century, and each group brought its own twist to the way barbecue is done

Sawbones Become Sauce Makers

As the labels hint, Bruce Wilhelmsen and David Heilbronner met as orthopaedic surgeons (bone doctors!) at the University of Virginia’s Department of Orthopaedic Surgery in Charlottesville, Virginia. They became friends, sharing a not-so-medical interest: cooking. David bought a smoker, fiddled with a neighbor’s recipeBDB-Products-Cart-Original for a basting sauce, and shared it with Bruce. Both married, had children, and continued to tweak versions of what now was “their” barbecue sauce. A daughter’s soccer game at a venue that had no food in sight gave David the idea to bring his own delicious BBQ sandwiches and sell them as a fundraiser for the daughter’s team. There was so much demand for the sandwiches (bathed with the now-famous sauce) that the two surgeons had to massively increase production for each game. And, ultimately, sales brought in enough revenue to send the soccer team to Europe!  Meanwhile, one of Bruce’s patients had his own recipe for the vinegar-based sauce that is particular to eastern North Carolina, and the BBQ wheels in the surgeons’ brains started turning.

Taking their Original Sauce and (to my mind, much improved) North Carolina vinegar version, they developed a small company to market a non-GMO, non-artificially flavored group of sauces. Their first thought was to sell at local farmers markets and  stores— Charlottesville has always been a hotbed of good food producers, restaurants, and gourmet retailers. The financial goal was to have enough money to take their families on annual vacations. That changed dramatically the year we came across them at the Fancy Food Show. They received the prestigious SOFI award at the Fancy Food Show in 2011. And now they ship to Canada, Costa Rica, and Germany.  I can never make up my mind which is my favorite, so I have them all.

Bone Doctors’ Rundown

I don’t know how they picked the photos to use on their labels, something I normally and studiously ignore when choosing products, but they are priceless. As Bruce said in an email, there is a reason why Facebook is called “Facebook.”
The Original is David and Bruce’s knock-it-out-of-the-soccer-field winner. And the  Brazen Heat is a much hotter (but comfortably so) version of it. I use  both. I will add them to marinades and also to savory quick breads (like the one you get in France to go with aperitifs). They are what I use instead of ketchup for dips and cocktail sauces.
Their version of Carolina-style barbecue sauce is vinegar-based and without tomatoes. Bruce was raised with this tradition of the Scottish settlers in the eastern Carolinas. After some misgiving, I now use it to flavor seafood and make a non-mayonnaise-based slaw.
BDB-Products-Cart-CarolinaBoldSweet and Spicy was my colleague Larissa’s favorite when we had tastings in the shop. It is a great addition to traditional Boston Baked Bean recipes (I actually thought it made it sooooo much better). There is a nectarine and peach salad (you grill the peaches with it and just add a bit to the dressing). It was an experiment that the good doctors devised with local peaches and honey and cranberry juice.
When they developed their dry spice blend, which is great on popcorn as well as shrimp, Bruce and David did a lot of testing and also got a lot of advice from pros on which spices to use that would still pack a flavor punch after hours of smoking or roasting. Obviously they listened. The video below is a good example of how barbecued spare ribs are done in certain Southern quarters, and of course is open to much discussion by competing viewers!
I have a grilling friend who used to make his own sauce but now just mixes up the good Bone Doctors versions to his satisfaction. So join the fun and get some: They keep in your fridge quite happily for months.

2 thoughts on “Kitchen Detail: BBQ’s in Their Bones

  1. Nancy G says:

    Where can you buy the sauces? And a great history lesson!

    1. Nancy McKeon says:

      Sorry for the delay in answering! While the Bone Doctors fix up their website, a general online search turned up several vendors selling direct, including the Made in Virginia store in Fredericksburg (

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