Wednesday, April 10, 2002

Sauce reaches new generations

Daughter's bottling of old family recipe inspires her mom to pitch it to Reds, Dayton Dragons, Kroger

By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It's a tad tart, thick with elusive spices, carrying a hint of molasses, packing prickly, peppery heat — kind of a cross between steak sauce and salsa. But better.

        Bobby Wright, the straight-shooting 69-year-old matriarch of Mrs. Wright's Recipe, calls her family's all-purpose sauce simply “a darned good condiment.”

[photo] Bobby Wright (left) and her daughter Jamese.
(Gary Landers photo)
| ZOOM |
        “I can only tell you a little bit of what's in there,” she says with a mischievous giggle. “If I tell you more, I may have to kill you.”

        There's definitely a big smidge of love mixed in with those secret ingredients. Mrs. Wright's daughter, Jamese, used the sauce to help pull her mother out of the depths of depression. And now, the women have a serious business on their hands.

        Two years ago, with the help of her chicken and ribs (and lots of sauce), Mrs. Wright persuaded the Dayton Dragons minor league baseball team to serve her Recipe sauce to fans at the new Fifth-Third Field (an especially impressive accomplishment considering ballparks are usually mustard territory). Then she talked her way into Kroger stores in Dayton.

        And this year, the Cincinnati native took her sauce to the major leagues, convincing the Reds to serve Recipe at Cinergy Field concession stands.

        Oh, if all those great-grandmothers, grandmothers and mothers who perfected the sauce over the years only knew.

        “You can put it on anything,” brags Mrs. Wright. “On brats, metts, steaks, chicken. Anything.”

        Her eyes burn with the intensity of her spiciest sauce when she talks about her product, her mouth set firmly. Then she breaks out into a blinding smile.

        “Nobody sells the sauce like we do,” she says. “It's ours.”

        Most who have a bold taste for spicy stuff love Mrs. Wright's Recipe — can't get enough of it. But most don't realize it's more than a mere condiment. This sauce may have saved its namesake's life.

Five generations

        Mrs. Wright's sauce was born more than a century ago, bubbling and gurgling in a pot on a stove in central Kentucky, made from tomatoes and peppers grown in the garden. Her family moved from their home near Danville to Cincinnati after 1900, and the sauce came with them. The Recipe is at least five generations old.

        “It was always on the table in canning jars,” Mrs. Wright says.

        Some members of her family believed the Recipe would cure colds. Well, with a splash of bourbon, anyway.

        Bobby Thomas grew up on West Ninth Street, downtown, attended Walnut Hills High School, went to Reds games at Crosley Field and watched her mother work in the kitchen. As with many family dishes, no one ever wrote down directions for making the family sauce.

        “You had to watch,” Bobby says. “That's how you learned to make it.”

        When she was still young, a handsome Navy man next door named James Wright swept her away. They married, moved to California and she earned a business degree from UCLA. They returned to Cincinnati and later migrated up Interstate 75 to Dayton, where Mr. Wright worked for General Motors and his wife was an agent for the Internal Revenue Service.

        The couple raised two sons, Gerald and Wayne, as well as daughter Jamese. their youngest child. Mr. Wright took his kids to Reds games at Riverfront Stadium and cooked big breakfasts of grits, eggs, cheese and biscuits. No matter what the meal, the family sauce was on the table.

Recipe at end of tunnel

        After their children left home, the Wrights enjoyed their retirement, taking trips and going on cruises. In 1994, the year they were to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. Mr. Wright surprised his wife with a cute Pomeranian puppy. She named her dog “Sugar.” Five days later, her husband died suddenly from congestive heart failure.

        “He gave me Sugar on Saturday and died on Thursday,” Mrs. Wright says. “It was like he knew he was leaving me.”

        His death was devastating for her. Mrs. Wright collapsed into depression and rarely left her bedroom. She hung sheets over windows to keep out the sunlight. Sugar was her only companion.

        “It was really bad,” Jamese says. “She was wasting away.”

        At the time, Jamese was living in Austin, Texas. She checked on her mother's condition by calling friends in Dayton. Four years passed, and Mrs. Wright seemed to be improving. But during a visit, Jamese noticed a change for the worse in her mother's emotional condition. The ominous shroud of sheets hung over the windows again.

        Back home in Austin, Jamese began to ponder how to save her mother. Jamese had lost her job because of her company's downsizing in 1997, but received a generous severance package. She had planned to take a cruise to Alaska and vacation in Europe before looking for another job.

    So far, Bobby Wright has persuaded two Cincinnati-area Kroger stores to carry her sauce. Beginning this week, Queen City Centre Kroger (off Mitchell Avenue near I-75 in Winton Place) and Hyde Park Plaza Kroger (3760 Paxton Ave., Hyde Park) began stocking Mrs. Wright's Recipe. Jungle Jim's Market (5440 Dixie Highway, Fairfield) also began carrying the sauce this week. Of course, Mrs. Wright is determined to get her sauce into more Cincinnati stores. We'll keep you posted.
    For more information on Mrs. Wright's Recipe: (937) 890-8211.
    Just think: They used to call Cincinnati “Porkopolis.”
    Now a vegetarian advocacy group has named Cincinnati's Cinergy Field one of the top 10 “vegetarian-friendly” major league ballparks. PETA, or People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, commends Cinergy for serving veggie hot dogs and vegetarian lasagna to fans at Reds games.
    We're sure Bobby Wright would say her sauce will taste great on either.
    Other baseball parks to receive the PETA award are: Coors Field (Colorado Rockies); Pro Player Stadium (Florida Marlins); SAFECO Field (Seattle Mariners); Comiskey Park (Chicago White Sox); Tropicana Field (Tampa Bay Devil Rays); Dodger Stadium (Los Angeles Dodgers); Network Associates Coliseum (Oakland Athletics); the SkyDome (Toronto Blue Jays); and Astros Field (Houston Astros).
        But there was more pressing business. Jamese put her life on hold, canceled her vacation and flew back to Dayton.

        “I knew that if she thought I needed her, it might pull her out of it,” Jamese says.

        She told her mother she wanted to sell the family recipe sauce. But Jamese didn't know how to make it, so she asked her mother to teach her. Mrs. Wright agreed, reluctantly.

Secret bottling

        For most of her life, Jamese was closest to her father (she is named for him). She was the tomboy who helped her dad around the house. She never watched the making of the sauce.

        The mother-daughter relationship improved in 1989 when Jamese was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma and treated successfully.

        “God brought her back from the jaws of death,” Mrs. Wright says.

        Jamese spent two weeks in her mother's kitchen, chopping and grinding peppers and onions, and stirring the sauce in a big pot. She scorched at least two batches before finally pleasing her mother on her fifth try.

        “I tasted it and said that's it,” Mrs. Wright says.

        Realizing this enterprise could become more than just a scheme to get her mother out of the house, Jamese returned to Austin with a plan. She bought jars and bottles, designed labels and convinced a friend to let her use a restaurant kitchen to make and can the sauce.

        A couple of months later, a package arrived at Mrs. Wright's home. It was her family's recipe sauce, bottled by her daughter with a slick-looking label.

        “I never thought Jamese would follow through with it,” Mrs. Wright says. “Then I thought: If my daughter can do this, the least I can do is get off my butt and help her put it in the bottle.”

Simple marketing

        For the next two years, Jamese continued to bottle the sauce in Austin, selling it at festivals and food shows. She developed a mild version for those who couldn't handle the heat of the spicy version. Jamese shipped a few bottles to her mother, who began pitching the sauce to small stores and pizza parlors in her Dayton neighborhood.

        “For years, people had been trying to get my mother to bottle the sauce,” Jamese says. “She was just never interested.”

        Now, she was interested.

        The news that Dayton's new minor league baseball team was going to open a downtown stadium in 2000 caught her attention.

        “I thought a hometown ballpark needs a hometown girl's sauce,” she says.

        Simple as that.

        Mrs. Wright called Sports Service, the company that handles food service for the park, and made an appointment. After her presentation, she heard nothing. So one day, she decided to smoke chicken and ribs, grab a few bottles of her sauce, and take lunch to the nice people at Sports Service.

        “They were coming out of nowhere to eat it,” she says, laughing. “Then they said: We want your sauce.”

        The Dragons were looking for a signature sauce to serve at the ballpark, and Mrs. Wright's Recipe fit the bill.

        “Now, if we forget to put the sauce out at any of the concession stands, we have fans who ask for it,” says Dave Levey, general manager for Sports Service in Dayton.

        When the Dragons jumped on Mrs. Wright's sauce wagon, Jamese moved back to Dayton to help her mother. Soon they hired a local company to make and bottle the Recipe. That year, 2000, the Wright's won two ribbons from Chile Pepper magazine's national “Fiery Foods Challenge.”

        Though no one believed she could do it, Mrs. Wright convinced Kroger — even without packing ribs and chicken — to stock her sauce in 10 of its stores in the Dayton area. (She just convinced two Cincinnati-area Kroger stores to carry her sauce.) Then this winter, she set her sights on the Reds.

        In February, Mrs. Wright drove down in her Oldsmobile with the “Saucey 2” license plate (Jamese's plates are “Saucey 1”) to make her presentation at Cinergy Field.

        “The man tasted it,” she says proudly, “and said this is the kind of sauce we want.”

        About a month later, Jamese delivered more than 100 gallons of the sauce to Cinergy Field in her Ford truck. The women plan to attend a Reds game soon to make sure the concession stands have enough sauce on hand.

        As distributors of their product, the Wright women must make sure the sauce is in stock. Just about every week, Mrs. Wright checks on the Kroger stores, walking the aisles to see if there's plenty of her Recipe on the shelves.

        “I'm up and down the highway,” says Mrs. Wright, who always takes Sugar, the little dog they also call “Miss Diana Ross” (“big hair, skinny legs”), on her road trips. After Mrs. Wright takes the orders, Jamese delivers the sauce on days she's not working at a Dayton auto dealership.

        Selling the sauce is pretty much a full-time job for her mother. When she's not offering samples in grocery stores (she always keeps a folding table in her backseat just in case), Mrs. Wright is pitching it on the phone or in person.

        “I used to wake up wondering if I wanted to live,” Mrs. Wright says. “Now it's: Who am I going to sell the sauce to next?”

        “I was just trying to help her,” says Jamese. “Now she's gone crazy.”

        Even though this began as a project to heal her depression, Mrs. Wright is determined to turn the sauce business into financial security for her daughter.

        “I'm doing this for my daughter,” she says. “She didn't have to do this, but if she didn't, I don't think I would be here.”


        Fans of Mrs. Wright's Recipe have shared their recipes that use the sauce. Here are several favorites from Mrs. Wright and her daughter, Jamese.
Simply Good Bloody Mary Mix

       32 ounces tomato juice
       1 tablespoon horseradish
       2 dashes celery salt
       2 dashes cayenne pepper
       4 dashes Mrs. Wright's Spicy Recipe
       4 dashes Worcestershire sauce
       4 jiggers vodka
       Olives for garnish

        Mix all ingredients and chill. Pour into 4 glasses and garnish with olives. Makes 4 servings.

Simply Good Shrimp

       2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
       2 cloves crushed garlic
       1 pound small or medium shrimp, shelled and deveined
       Pinch each: basil, parsley
        1/4 cup Mrs. Wright's Spicy or Mild Recipe

        Add olive oil to large saucepan or wok over medium heat. Add garlic and saute a few minutes. Add shrimp and remaining ingredients and saute, stirring occasionally, until shrimp are pink, about 3 to 4 minutes. Serve alone or with rice or pasta. Makes 4 servings.

Simply Good Gumbo

1 pound mild or hot bulk breakfast sausage
       2 cans Healthy Choice Zesty Gumbo soup
        1/2 cup diced cooked chicken or turkey
       4 to 6 tablespoons Mrs. Wright's Spicy or Mild Recipe
       Salt and pepper, to taste

        Brown sausage until cooked through. Remove sausage with slotted spoon to drain on paper towel-lined plate. Set aside.

        In a 2-quart pot, bring soup, chicken and Mrs. Wright's Recipe to boil. Add cooked sausage and simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add water as needed for desired thickness. Season to taste. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Simply Good Baked Spaghetti

       1 pound ground beef or turkey
       1 pound spaghetti
       1 pound can crushed tomatoes with roasted garlic
        1/2 cup Mrs. Wright's Spicy or Mild Recipe
       Salt and pepper, to taste
       Grated Parmesan

        Brown ground beef or turkey until cooked through. Drain thoroughly. Cook spaghetti until al dente and drain thoroughly.

        In large bowl, mix cooked beef, spaghetti and remaining ingredients together well. Spray casserole with vegetable oil spray and pour spaghetti mixture into dish, spreading evenly. Bake at 400 degrees for about 20 to 25 minutes. Before serving, top with grated Parmesan. Makes 6 to 8 servings.


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