Amish barbecue grillmaster makes one of the best sauces on the planet
The big trophy and blue ribbon for the “2015 Best Sauce on the Planet” sit on the top shelf of an Amish barbecue joint just off U.S. 20 southwest of Shipshewana.
If you’re after the Sweet and Spicy sauce that won one of the American Royal competition, one of the top barbecue sauce contests, don’t look for a sign for something called Porky’s or even Norman’s Bar-B-Que. It’s at Wellspring Bar-B-Que or Wellspring Components or Wellspring Renewable Energy. All three are part of Norman Yoder’s family business at 1085 N 850 West.
Yoder is an Amish man who loves grilling and smoking meats and makes sauces or spice blends to amp up the flavor. More than that, he loves making the actual grills. “My main interest in cooking is in developing cookers,” he said on a recent Friday morning as he finished preparing chicken thighs on the grill he designed.
The meat was nestled between two grates and rotated inside the lid. By flicking a few spring-loaded pins and turning a handle, he could flip the meat without opening the lid and releasing all that charcoal smoke and heat. He said he doesn’t know of another cooker available that does the same thing.
The small factory behind the store with the grills, seasonings and sauces produces the grills and larger cookers that Yoder engineered. He makes and sells a grills called Tri-Flame that can utilize charcoal or gas to cook anything from a few pieces of chicken to a whole hog.
Some of the 15 or so employees at Wellspring focus on making the leaf springs used in Amish buggies and carriages. They use equipment far more advanced than Yoder’s uncle used in his blacksmith shop in the 1950s.
If you go to purchase barbecue when Yoder makes it on Fridays, you’ll be standing in the renewable energy store that sells solar panels and batteries. His sons Delmer and Arlin run the metalworking and solar businesses. His wife Annie helps cook and serve the food.
“I played around with barbecue most of my life,” he said. He’d build a cooker, use it for a while and sell it. After the Great Recession, he discovered a Green Egg dealership was available and expanded the business to sell those and other grills. “Meanwhile, we developed our own line of seasonings,” he said.
He discovered an “old, old recipe” for a barbecue sauce and tracked down the last cannery to make it. He got permission to make it again and put a Wellspring label on it. When he sent it to the American Royal competition last year, Sweet & Savory won the mild tomato category and the top overall. The Spicey Peach sauce (which he and I both like better) didn’t fare as well but placed in the top 10 in the specialty category this year. “We got some bragging rights on that one. That is an awesome one,” he said.
They’ve sold food at the Shipshewana Flea Market but have instead decided to offer Friday barbecue to attract customers to their store.
He makes ribs, rubbing them with his MSG-free spice blend, and smokes hunks for pulled pork. The result is unsauced barbecue that’s pretty good, particularly the chicken sold for $1.75 per sizable piece. A sampler with three ribs, a thigh, pulled pork and two sides (baked beans, fries or broccoli salad) is $12.
He was struggling to predict demand from week to week, so now he takes call-ahead orders and cooks accordingly. Pickup is from 10 to 2:30 p.m. just the one day a week.
1085 N 850 West, Shipshewana
Yoder said he could make a full-time business doing catering. Last year, he prepared more than 10,000 pounds of chicken thighs, often for reunions or fundraisers. In the Shipshewana Amish community, barbecue chicken was popular 10 to 15 years ago and then took a nosedive because some of the quality wasn’t good, he said. It’s coming back and a number of guys are renting his fully equipped trailer or purchasing his cookers to use.
Amish folks, amidst all the mythology and ogling of how they live, place importance on food without idolizing it. They gather around it and want interesting flavors. Not all of them relish spicy food as much as Yoder, but Amish food isn’t always bland.
The notion of Amish barbecue is a new one for most of us, or at least something we encounter more rarely than that from other makers. Yoder will be happy to make you a rack of ribs and sell you one of his grills or bottles of sauce. He has an idea for a rotisserie cooker he wants to build. Who knows what else will come.
“I could get totally carried away with this food thing,” he said.
I’m hungry. Let’s eat.