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What Is Chicago Mild Sauce?

Not quite barbecue or hot sauce, "mild sauce" is an indelible part of the Chicago experience.
By Published Oct. 20, 2021

Throughout Chicago, the fried chicken chain Harold’s is a civic institution. On the West Side, the same can be said for Uncle Remus. In the Chatham neighborhood, on the South Side, Lem’s Bar-B-Q is so renowned that on certain days you’ll find lines wrapping around the building.

What do they all have in common? It’s a sauce, hallowed on the South and West Sides of Chicago, called "mild sauce." But don’t let the meek name fool you—it’s beloved.

What exactly is mild sauce? You could technically classify it as barbecue sauce. But in the Windy City, and especially in Black communities, mild sauce is an all-purpose condiment. You’ll find it slathered on barbecued rib tips and hot links, served with fried chicken, and sauced over french fries. In fact, fans of Harold’s Chicken wouldn’t admit this, but when you step inside it’s not the aroma of fried chicken that gets you—it’s the sweet tang of that sauce. 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.

(Note: Harold’s recently began selling—and selling out of—bottled mild sauce in Chicago supermarkets.)

When I was a child, my father worked nights, and I can the remember the first time he came home late with that iconic green and white bag of Harold’s Chicken. I smelled mild sauce through the bag the moment he entered our home. It was an aroma I would encounter over and over again, all the way through my adulthood. One whiff and it instantly brings me back to childhood.

Takeout food from the likes of Harold’s and Lem’s is usually built the same: Inside a paper bag or styrofoam container, the first thing you find is a slice of white bread. It's then topped with a tangle of fries, followed by a protein (whether it's a hot link, ribs, or fried chicken). I like to have mild sauce poured over my entire entrée, because the sauce is a crucial part of a multisensory journey. On top, the chicken is crispy, and the sauce acts mainly as a flavor-enhancing aromatic. The fries underneath, however, begin to soften after being blanketed by the piping-hot chicken and mild sauce. At this moment, my sauce experience begins to change. The mild sauce becomes a texture enhancer to the once-crispy fries. Then there's the white bread, used to sop up any remaining sauce (and truly fill you up, if you're not full already).

Some people insist on ordering their sauce on the side, but to me, having sauce drenched on everything is the connective thread. Come down to the South Side of Chicago and you'll hear this phrase uttered multiple times a day: “Six wings with mild sauce and salt and pepper” or “tip-link combo, mild sauce.” 

Chicago is lucky in that it has a signature condiment to call its own (Buffalo has buffalo sauce, and you can argue that Seattle has its own take on teriyaki sauce). We also share a kinship with Washington, D.C., and its mumbo sauce; mumbo sauce became famous in D.C., but its origins are firmly Chicago’s. Mild and mumbo are more like cousins than sisters, as the flavors are different but share similar applications. Mumbo sauce is sweeter and usually lighter in color. While its profile resembles sweet-and-sour sauce, mild sauce relies heavily on vinegar and barbecue spices to punch up its flavors. What’s similar, though, is that both mild and mumbo sauces are indelible parts of the Black experience in both cities.

The origins of both sauces are murky, and as such, so are their recipes. I spoke with my friend Bryan Fisherkeller, culinologist for a flavor company. He told me that most mild sauces are a concoction of tomato paste and ketchup mixed with sugar; vinegar; and spices such as cayenne pepper, mustard powder, and garlic powder.

I had my own experience as a teen attempting to track down authentic mild sauce in stores and got close, but the sauces I found always left something to be desired. What I couldn’t understand at that time is that the sauce is only one ingredient in a greater experience. The magic of the sauce is rooted in the urban Black culture that created it. Like all cultures, we made memories around the food we shared with the people we love, and the mild sauce, along with the chicken, ribs, hot links, and fries, was just part of the equation. 

Today, there are brands of both mild sauce and mumbo sauce available from major retailers throughout the U.S. And while their authenticity is hotly debated by tried-and-true fans, their mere existence on store shelves serves as a confirmation of their growing importance to American cuisine. Like jazz, hip-hop, and other Black cultural offerings, these sauces are shifting culture, and it’s not just about the dishes they adorn. It’s about the lives and memories these condiments have enriched, and how many more they’re now poised to reach. That’s the magic of the sauce.

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