A Kansas BBQ Sauce Celebrates 100 Years
When it comes to Kansas barbeque, Eric Hamm is a caretaker of history: He is the sole keeper of Carper’s BBQ sauce recipe, developed 100 years ago in Topeka by his great-great-grandfather William Carper.
The family sauce didn’t start as a commercial enterprise; Eric’s great-great-grandfather simply loved to barbeque. “He dug a hole in his backyard, put a grate over it, and he would barbeque—with the sauce—and just give it to the neighbors,” Hamm explains. It was Hamm’s grandfather, Harry Nathaniel Carper Jr., and his wife, Marjie Hayes Carper, who took the sauce and their smoking skills to open Carper’s Bar-B-Q restaurant in 1942 in North Topeka. Harry also worked as a fireman in Topeka, so Marjie did the bulk of the cooking and preparation. Their restaurant served sliced pork and ham sandwiches, brisket, sausage, rib tips, macaroni and potato salads, and baked beans.
“It was open from 4 p.m. in the afternoon to 2 a.m. at night,” says Hamm. “It would serve workers who had just finished the late shift and people who wanted to cross over the bridge at night for a meal.”
Many family members worked at the restaurant, and eventually, Hamm’s father, Harry Nathaniel Carper III, took over and brought young Eric along. “I was the guy who took out the trash, washed the dishes and took orders. I didn’t make the sauce,” Hamm laughs.
When Hamm’s dad died in 1985, the restaurant closed. His grandfather had died the year before, and the two losses were too heartbreaking for his grandmother Marjie, whom Hamm describes as “the backbone of that restaurant,” to continue alone.
Hamm eventually started his own business, but in construction and in Colorado.
“The recipe went dormant for 27 years,” he says.
But when Hamm’s grandmother Marjie passed away in 2002, she left Hamm just one inheritance—the secret sauce recipe. “I got the most important thing,” says Hamm. Immediately, Hamm tried to revive it from paper to cooking pot. “I got the recipe and was messing around with it, and I called my aunt and said, ‘This doesn’t taste like the sauce.’”
“What chili powder are you using?” she asked. When Hamm replied that he was using a typical grocery store brand, she replied “Oh, no. It has to be Pedro Lopez’s chili power,” a Topeka-based brand of Mexican foods that’s been in business over 100 years.
Once he captured the taste, Hamm began cooking up small batches of the sauce and sharing it with friends and family. In 2011, a cousin in Topeka said, “Eric, you ought to bring it back to Topeka where it originated.” Capital Label in Topeka worked with Hamm to develop the label and provided the commercial kitchen where Hamm makes batches of his sauce when he’s in Topeka. When he’s in Denver, he uses a commercial kitchen there. “It has to be cooked, strained, bottled, labeled … it’s some work. When I cook up a batch, it’s in a 40-quart kettle, and if I do two batches, it makes eight cases, twelve bottles to a case. “In Topeka, the sauce is available at CW Porubsky Grocery & Meats. It’s also available in a couple of restaurants in Denver, and Hamm plans to expand the availability. Eventually, Hamm wants to retire from the construction business and open his own food truck to sell barbeque. But whatever the future holds for Hamm’s culinary plans, he has already ensured that the family sauce recipe will survive for another generation.