The Gospel of Mild Sauce

The story of Chicago's condiments

Lem’s Bar-B-Q. Photograph by A.V. Benford.
“Mild Sauce is pleasantly pungent, with a vinegar sting, and tomato-y and sweet. It doesn’t have as much spice or molasses flavor as, say, the KC Masterpiece style of barbecue sauce; it’s punchier and more blunt.”
—Brian Davis, America’s Test Kitchen 

Velva didn’t cook on Sundays. Not for the house. Before I’d hit double digits she’d ended the practice. Left me five dollars on her dresser for after church, an exercise in autonomy. An early opportunity to personalize my palate, fill my belly. In the ’90s, five dollars a meal set the table for a queen, options upon options of Park Manor’s delicacies.

On 71st and Vincennes there was an A1 sandwich shop, their hit—the full 10 inch. Call it a hero, a hoagie or a sub, a few dollars bought a handcrafted dream, a sacrifice of ingredient autonomy. Meat and veg and cheese layered interdependently. Into the belly with the first half, save the second half for later, dinner’s option. And every order came with fries. Golden, hot, crispy delicacies tightly shoved into a small paper bag, sauced in red that hit with tang—their mild sauce was hostile, it bit and it slapped. 

Dollars of Velva’s allowances given as tithe to Black Chicago’s autonomy. Triumphs and tragedies carved into the Black Belt’s underbelly. King Fish sat near the corner of 71st and King, the seafood option of Sunday’s journeys. Fried fish and wings were their delicacies.

There were a few tables to sit, but King’s was mainly a take-out hit. A high temple of mild sauce, nuggets and jumbo shrimp. Black dollars switching Black hands on Black blocks equals fiscal autonomy. White capitalism needs us face down, spread eagle on the belly. Incarcerated or afraid. Cut down when standing up. No option left but to survive, strive, thrive, demand political delicacies.

I used to walk to church on Sundays, sounding out gospel hits—separating alto from soprano, noting shops to spend the dollars that grandma dropped. Velva in her wisdom, spoon-feeding autonomy, my explorations of the lifeblood—the gospel of mild sauce. 

I was an open belly witness, a gleeful congregant of several denominations, options, houses of worship; my mouth, it moaned over Mumbo delicacies. It longed for the swift hit of vermilion and flame. My belly hungered for the autonomy of the ubiquitously applicable condiment—douse it on any option and it immediately becomes a delicacy, a dollar well spent.

The Temples of Mild Sauce—Harold’s

Now Argia called it Mumbo and Harold Pierce called it mild, many names have been bestowed upon this Black Belt child. Half a decade before Ray Kroc applied Henry Ford’s assembly line to the grill and the fryer, two years before the colonel sold the secret and spread the recipe. In 1950, Harold Pierce was sitting playing checkers in a Park Manor barbershop. He was talking business and his business was chicken. 

Ran the H&H with his first wife, Hilda, on 39th—specializing in chicken feet and dumplings. Had him a method that’d made their shop a name. As Harold sat and articulated alchemy and adaptation in Park Manor, Gene Rosen was listening. Offered up whole birds from his shop before Harold left so he could try out his new ideas and formalize a recipe. He dredged and he seasoned and he dunked the birds in the fryer. Browned til crisp and let the oil drain off. 

And what a dream the fryer begat, a dream of oil and spice. The guys liked the taste of Harold’s chicken so much that he opened a take-out spot on 47th to disperse the recipe. That shop on Greenwood was the first Harold’s Chicken Shack, in name the original flagship. The birds still came from Rosen just as before, a steady supply for the empire spawned in a barbershop in Park Manor.

There were no larger restaurant chains in 1950s Park Manor. They tended to avoid the South Side, refused to bring their clan of fryers to Chicago’s Black neighborhoods. And Black business stopped before it reached downtown. Regulated and restrained, Black chicken was not sold in white neighborhoods, so Harold made his name by solidifying his brand, perfecting his cook times, honing his recipe in theme if not in taste. 

Pretty soon Harold’s had franchised, the recipe changing a little bit every time he set up a new version of his Park Manor dream. He’d open a new shop, pop $50 in the till and give it the Harold’s name. Let family and friends run the daily game. For every bird that hit the fryer, Harold took a 42 cent royalty. Gene Rosen still supplied every chicken. Soon, folks started calling Harold Pierce “the fried chicken king,” and before long he’d designed a logo, a theme and a color scheme—so that before you hit the store, you knew the score. Pierce perfected the recipe of bravado. A smiling, axe-wielding, red-suited czar chasing a chicken was his logo. Faux brick walls and white arches adorned most of each shack’s interior. By 1975, the pride of Black Chicago’s Park Manor had 20 South Side shops, and Harold Pierce’s portrait hung large above every fryer. A high priest smiling benevolently over each offering that bore his name. 

A recipe fried in a mix of beef tallow and vegetable oil, this Park Manor delicacy is always cooked to order, so factor in at least a 15 min wait to commune with an old name in the South Side game. Harold’s basic chicken dinner is a quarter or a half of a bird that’s doused in hot or mild sauce before it’s served with coleslaw and two slices of bread laid across to soak it all up.

Mumbo and Agria B. 

Call it Mississippi’s great gift to Chicago. A Southern allegiance to the grill and the pit, a vehement adherence to the low and slow roasting of shoulders and ribs. Call it a measureless understanding of how to yoke smoke and fire to flesh. The sentimental ones call it love, which is a good term for the reverence that the masters of this art show for flavor. A hallmark by which they judge BBQ, to be honest. Every layer from smoke ring to char to spice rub celebrated in each bite. 

A great meat aches for a dance partner. A sauce to storm and overwhelm the palate with. A post-pit balm for flesh made tender and submissive by patience meted out in time. Call it a religion, like Christianity or football. A BBQ in the South is where the sentimental community loves, extended beyond the walls of blood, where play sisters weave art, each sitting between the legs of another, braiding patterns and singing love layered. Neighbors communing, relating, savoring a gradient of smoke, ringed for aches of mouth. 

This Mississippi heritage: a root knowledge of flavor elicited by grill and pit, a knowledge of business ’cause now their daddy owned the land he worked. Call it a familial advantage, what the Collins boys carried north, a wild deuce of sentimental energy and the know-how to produce and profit from it. On the West Side of Chicago, an old art the Collins boys perfected, how to meet the people where they are, figure in layers of profit and of community. How to give the folk what they really want, what they ache for—a taste of home. 

Menu. Photograph by A.V. Benford.

Argia B. was one of the younger Collins brothers. Into the pits and theaters of WWII he was thrust at around 17. Served in the US Navy. Call it a family thing; in the 1940s he moved to Chicago’s West Side—a center for sentimental toughness of Black northern urbanity—to work for his older brother, ingesting the art of enterprise and the business of both being Black and in Chicago. Ridiculous layers of civil restriction. Redlining. But being Black in America is the craft of mastering ache.

Converting the two-spirited emotion of pain into a twirl of power. Uplifting from the pit each generation in turn. Argia B.’s eldest brother, Terry, had a grocery store. Call it a family business. Argia B. worked there while he finished high school. Sentimentally called “a man’s man,” he graduated from Englewood High in 1945. With the arts of business and administration heavy on his mind, Argia B. attended Kentucky State, layered in the theory of why with the practical of how to make the people smile through ache.  

Bronzeville was his choice of place, 1950 was his time. Argia B. Collins chose to pit his generational know-how and intelligence up against Mississippi memory. Call it a premonition cloaked in experience, a subtle checking of the movements, sentiment, the marrow of Black folk. From 1910 to 1970, Blacks made exiting the South an art. So by 1965, ex-Mississippians made up 42 percent of Chicago’s Black population. Layered in homes with first- and second-generation migrants. The Black Belt, the ghetto ached. 

Operation Breadbasket 

For good food. At 47th and Forestville, Argia B. opened a mission to wrap the crooked letter crooked letter i in zest and tang. For his BBQ house, the sauce had to be matchless. Found himself unimpressed by the national brands of sauce sitting on the store shelves and available to restaurants at the time, so Argia, of course, made his own. Took that humpback humpback i and cut it with wallop and smack till it rang Mumbo. Until the sauce became the thing the people came for. A capable culinary basket carrying forth community and Delta pith. 

Argia’s BBQ sauce with its veritable basket of flavor became so popular with the customer base that folks went and got crooked with it—asked for extra on their platters and brought in their own jars for his Mumbo sauce to take home. In 1968, Argia began to manufacture and bottle the matchless sauce for mass distribution. The South Side entrepreneur looked to process and own his entire operation. 

Mumbo was dispensed around the Black community at stores including Jewel Foods Store and Food Basket, a Black-owned store. Sold the sauce at Dominick’s Finer Foods and the A&P grocery too. Breadbasket was the economic arm of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that fought to increase Black business ownership and the percentage of jobs held by Blacks in the companies crookedly serving our communities. King called it the movement’s “most concrete program,” a matchless endeavor with “tangible results.” Argia B. and his sauce called Mumbo were founding members of the Chicago business division.

Harold’s, The Fried Chicken King. Photograph by A.V. Benford.

A selective patronage campaign, Operation Breadbasket, came north from Atlanta in 1966. Gave Mumbo and other Black Chicago products a lift by increasing the allotted shelf space in stores for Black-owned products. Even though it’s the “least well known,” the “Chicago Campaign” was matchless among the important civil rights actions that emerged in the mid twentieth century. Supporters picketed and protested and emptied their baskets of Dean’s Milk, Pepsi and Country Delight. With slogans of “Don’t Buy,” operation members rallied in front of A&P stores until they caved. Gave Blacks their own jobs, promotions, raises. Breadbasket said that “if you respect my dollar you must respect my person,” proposing that each member of the community has the right to her own. It was “a successful direct action model to help crack systematic discrimination in the American economy.” While exposing crooked business practices, Operation Breadbasket helped bring Mumbo sauce to the masses. With his increased store sales, Argia B. Collins embarked on a major advertising campaign, and Mumbo sauce gained national acclaim with a 1970 LIFE magazine debut. Folks across the country could throw it in their grocery baskets. 

In its six years of Chicago existence, again Breadbasket was matchless. Ensuring 4,500 jobs were filled by Black workers, adding 29 million to Chicago’s Black economy, solidifying the city’s Black middle class. An “economic model … usable when economic justice remains a deferred dream.” King fantasized about Breadbasket’s national expansion. Started building the framework for many cities to have their own selective patronage campaigns. But then there was Memphis. But then the Lorraine Motel. But then a basket of bullets. Argia B. eventually expanded to three stores, all of which closed in the ’90s. But over 60 years later, Mumbo is still that sauce and still in production on Chicago’s South Side and sold online and in stores. 

Crooked letter, crooked letter i. Now Argia called it Mumbo and Harold called it Mild. No matter which way you douse it, she’s Chicago’s Black Belt child.


A.V. Benford

A.V. Benford is a journalist, poet, cultural critic, photographer and chef. Her journalism has appeared in the South Side Weekly, Word In Black and the Sacramento Observer, among others. 

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