Marine Corps Railroad-Style Barbecue Sauce

by John Smith

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When I was a young cook in our nation's finest military establishment, we used to right a lot of wrongs come dinnertime with a special barbecue sauce. You see, most of the cooks responsible for fueling the world's elite fighting machine were not assigned to the galley because of any kind of culinary skill or disposition. In fact, most of us would have gladly traded our spatulas and aprons for an M-16 and a chance to pick up cigarette butts from 8 to 4, I mean zero 800 to ah, whatever, and then hit town on liberty until dawn like a real Marine. But no, we of the grimy white T-shirts and soiled white cotton trousers and funny looking white cook hats had to get up at zero dark thirty every morning to fulfill our obligation to our fine country by slopping the, I mean feeding the, troops. So on account of the poor attitudes of some of the cooks toward this time-honored and important responsibility, many of the meals weren't fixed with the same care and love that, say, Mom always seemed to use when fixing our food at home.

Of course, a few nasty comments did not bother us cooks; after all, we were tough, too. But after awhile, things began to get more and more ugly at mealtime. The troops were very picky. They did not like our rendition of egg drop soup with chunks of gelatinized corn starch the size of softballs or the chocolate pudding with a rubbery top that Goodyear is still studying for a possible synthetic replacement for rubber or the stew that one of the cooks dropped a 25-pound bag of salt into. They especially hated it when we would serve dried-out roasts. We just could not get into our brains the concept of breaking out the frozen meat the night before to thaw. So after we would throw several hundred pounds of frozen beef or pork roasts into our giant rotisserie ovens with the heat turned up full blast to make sure they would reach the desired internal temperature in time for dinner, we decided that we needed to do something a little different before the troops began bringing their weapons to the mess hall.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and we needed to do something quick to pacify several hundred of the Marine Corps' finest. So the next time we burned several hundred pounds of roast meat, we decided that what we needed was a sauce to moisten things up a bit. Now some brown gravy would be nice, except for the fact that our gravy was rarely nice or even brown, for that matter. That is when we got the idea that maybe a barbecue sauce might be in order. At that time, the Marine Corps was not supplying us with any kind of canned or otherwise barbecue sauce, so we would have to make our own.

Several of us men in white solemnly gathered around a large steam-jacketed kettle. After brainstorming for a painful moment or two, we decided to go with a ketchup base, for no real apparent reason. Into the large kettle went three gallons of ketchup. Next we deduced that barbecue sauce has to be sweet and have a bite, so we dumped in several bottles of Louisiana hot sauce and a couple of cans of molasses.

Someone said that all barbecue sauces have vinegar for tang, so in went a 12-ounce bottle of apple cider vinegar. Then we just added whatever we thought would taste good on meat, such as garlic powder, onion powder, salt, pepper, etc. Guess what? It was terrific! This sauce may have been the first thing some of us ever made that actually tasted good. In fact, it was better than good. It was out &%$?)$# standing! (That's a military term for really good.)

I have been using this Marine Corps Railroad (railroad is a term used for winging it, cooking without a net, so to speak) Style Barbecue Sauce ever since, and it is still delicious. You can take a cheap tough cut of meat, and with a little of this special sauce and a roasting pan, turn it into a feast fit for the Corps.

Marine Corps Railroad-Style Barbecue Sauce

1 24-oz. bottle ketchup
3-4 tablespoons molasses
a couple of good shakes Tabasco sauce
2 tsp. apple cider vinegar
1 tsp. onion powder
1 tsp. garlic powder
1/2 tsp. MSG (optional)
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper

All ingredients can and should be adjusted to suit your taste. This sauce turns out differently every time I make it, but it is always delicious. Mix all ingredients, and pour liberally over and under your favorite cheap meat in roasting pan. Cover and cook at 275 degrees F for 3 to 6 hours or until tender.

My favorite cheap meat is country-style ribs cut from a pork butt on sale dirt cheap, of course. Good luck and "Semper Fi."

John Smith has been a butcher/meat cutter for 30+ years. He's written the book Confessions of a Butcher - eat steak on a hamburger budget and save$$$. You can check some of his archived articles at or post any meat related question and get it answered usually within 24 hours. John, his wife Vickie and their 8 kids live in eastern Idaho in the shadow of the Tetons.

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  • Check your pantry for the ingredients to make this great barbecue sauce and jazz up even a cheap cut of meat.

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