Karen Coble Albright’s husband Ronnie tells her she has the “gift of gab.” Her sweet North Carolina twang and kind, sincere eyes can charm the socks off anyone.

But it’s the zing in her Old South Family BBQ Sauce that’s got people talking.

After almost two years of perfecting her late grandfather’s secret family recipe that dates back to the 1800s, Albright will bring her sauce to a wide audience this weekend at the 2008 Hillsborough Hog Day, where all the chopped barbecue plates and barbecue sandwiches served on Saturday will be sauced with Old South.

“I’m very excited. I’ve been working hard at it,” she said. “And I just thought, ‘Gee, people will like this’”

Albright lives in Pleasant Garden, a small town in Guilford County. She used her penchant for chatter to market the product. With a few phone calls to food service officials, she had her sauce bottled and packaged according to every regulation in the book. She then contacted local area businesses and began selling cases.

Margaret Cannell, Hillsborough/ Orange County Chamber of Commerce executive director, called Albright after finding her product online.

“I was completely charmed by her, and I went out and bought a jar,” Cannell said. “We usually try to straddle the line between Eastern and Western style flavor. It tasted like a good compromise between the two.”

Katie Lenhardt, associate grocery manager at A Southern Season in Chapel Hill, described Albright as “just the cutest person” after she came in one day with a sample of her sauce. Lenhardt was drawn to the fact that the sauce is entirely produced in North Carolina, from the recipe’s origin to its manufacture.

“You can imagine we get a bunch of sauces coming in, but there’s a deep history to this recipe,” Lenhardt said.

And it was the flavor that caused her to regret letting Albright walk out the door before she tasted the sauce.

“I thought to myself, ‘Oh no, why did I let her get away?’ There was such a noticeable difference in that sauce, such a unique flavor,” she said. “It opens it up to being versatile on all types of things.”

Strong hints of fresh lemon and piquant bits of pepper give Old South a tangy flavor. Not a traditional barbecue sauce, nor heavy in taste, it’s light in consistency. Albright says this makes it a great basting sauce or marinade for any type of meat or even fish.

She stumbled upon her grandfather’s recipe the day before Thanksgiving 2006. Traditionally, her side of the family takes care of the turkey, while her husband makes a ham. Wanting to add a twist of flavor, she browsed through her father’s old cookbook for ideas. She found her grandfather’s recipe tucked inside.

According to Albright, her grandfather Tom Coble was a sheriff in Randolph County in the late 1800s, “when they actually rode horses and didn’t have cars.”

“From the stories I’ve heard from my Aunt Edna, my Uncle Millard and my daddy, my granddaddy would have lots of picnic gatherings. He would cook a pork shoulder all night long for the folks from church,” she said. “I think it was really beautiful. Neighbors helped each other back then. They left joyous because they had a wonderful time!”

Albright never met her grandfather, who passed away in 1926 long before she was born. But she could never forget his special barbecue sauce used on his famous pork shoulder dish, a recipe passed down to the family by her late father.

“I remember smelling the sauce as a kid because my father cooked with it all the time,” she said.

Excited to find the recipe, she set to cooking the night before Thanksgiving.

“I prepared the sauce for a pork shoulder that night. The first batch that I made smelled exactly the same. But the flavor wasn’t quite there,” she said. “I went by the recipe, but he would use handfuls and half-a-handfuls of spices. That’s how the recipe was written. And, you know, my hand is a lot smaller than my dad’s and I’m sure my grandfather’s, so it was very hard to get the spices right.”

The bottled sauce is made with natural, North Carolina-produced ingredients (yes, even the lemons). Albright’s product is part of the Goodness Grows in North Carolina program of the N.C. Department of Agriculture.

Such a traditional recipe has found its way into modern, creative cuisine. Not just for pork, Old South receives rave reviews as an excellent marinade for grilled shrimp and fish.

“My daughter lives in Asheville. She’s a modern-day hippie, she eats it on her rice,” says Albright. “Some people even say they use it on pasta salad or as a soup base. It really took me by surprise. I never really thought about it and had never experimented with other recipes.”

“I’m just so surprised on how far we’ve gone with this. Sometimes I sit back and I feel like, I’m not really making a lot of money yet, that I’m breaking even. But things are getting better,” she chuckled. “I can see a profit this year.”

“The main thing is that people like it; that’s the thing that tickles me the most!”

Old South Family BBQ Sauce can be found in the North Carolina section at A Southern Season in Chapel Hill; the State Farmers’ Market in Raleigh; various Harris Teeter, Lowe’s Foods and Piggly Wiggly stores; and other locations in Guilford County and along the North and South Carolina coasts.

For more information, visit www.ncagr.com/NCproducts.

All things swine

Hillsborough Hog Day, Orange County’s largest festival, celebrates its 26th anniversary in downtown Hillsborough’s Cameron Park this weekend. The festivities begin Friday, June 20, 6-10 p.m. and continue Saturday, June 21, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Some details:

  • The festival begins on Friday night when 36 cooking teams from all over the state start the 12-hour roasting process, cooking hams, pork shoulders and more to compete in the Hog Day Cookoff. There is also a concert Friday night.
  • Saturday morning’s barbecue tasting begins at 8:30 a.m., when cook-off contestants sauce meat individually to be judged. The rest of the barbecue is then chopped and sauced with the official Old South BBQ Sauce for festivalgoers to enjoy.
  • This year’s festival has a “waste-free” campaign, complete with trash-sorting stations for recycling. Margaret Cannell, executive director of the Hillsborough Chamber, says, “We’re going to be the first ‘green’ festival in Orange County.”
  • Highlights include: live music from Jim Quick and the Coastline Band, Nantucket, The Flabbergasters and more; vintage cars and tractors on display; crafts for sale; children’s rides; contests like Hog Hollering and Guess the Pig’s Weight.
  • Admission is $3 a person; children 12 and under are free. (Friday night’s concert is $5.)

For more information, visit www.hogdays.com.