AP photo by Larry Crowe|
A dipping sauce made from ketchup and mustard powder.
Real fusion cooking: A Chinese-style sauce made only in Mississippi
By Chris Talbott
Associated Press Writer
LOUISE, Miss. — Hoover Lee’s small batch honey-brown Mississippi Delta marinade imparts a flavor that reflects its maker — a dash of the Deep South with nuanced notes of Asia.
“My main thing was trying to get a sauce that tasted like roasted Cantonese duck — that type of taste,” the 73-year-old native of China says in a booming baritone with a distinctively Southern cadence.
And that blending of cultures has proved hugely popular, despite Lee’s unwillingness to market by more than word of mouth.
It’s also putting this fading farm town of about 300 people on the culinary map. Recipes and stories featuring the sauce have appeared in regional newspapers and magazines, and Southern Living magazine recently named it an editors’ pick.
“It’s surprising to me that it’s beginning to move fast,” says Lee, who has been concocting the sauce from a secret recipe and selling it out of his Lee Hong Co. general store since the early 1980s. “In the past I’ve just been dealing with local people.”
Now he even gets recognized on the street 11/2 hours away in Jackson.
“ ‘That’s Mr. Hoover, the Hoover Sauce man,’ ” Lee says he often overhears people say. “It was just a hobby that turned into a working hobby now. I’ve just been blessed.”
Hoover Sauce blends the saltiness of soy sauce with the sweetness of, well ... Lee won’t say. Whatever it is, it works magic with chicken and baby back ribs, and he says people drive for miles to get it.
Though he has yet to sell Hoover Sauce online, Lee increasingly finds himself packing up jugs of it to ship to customers around the country and beyond. He’s sent it as far west as Hawaii and as far east as France.
“You know, the guy could make a damn fortune if he’d market it,” says Billy Ray Adams, a Hoover Sauce customer who uses it on steak, ribs, hamburgers, wings, pork, venison sausage and nearly anything else.
Lee seems about as versatile as his sauce. In a region not known for prosperity or for a tolerance for minorities in the past, he not only has run a successful business in a town where few remain, he also served as the community’s mayor and an alderman for many years.
Lee was born in 1933 in the Canton region of China, but less than a year later he and his family moved to Mississippi, where his father had run a store since 1917. Tensions between China and Japan prompted the return to the U.S.
After a stint in the Army and graduation with a business degree from Mississippi State University, Lee returned to Louise at his father’s request to take over the family store. He decided to honor his parents after his brothers declined to return to Louise.
“I said, ‘I tell you what, I’ll come back here for five years. I’ll run it for five years,’ ” Lee says. “And I’ve been here ever since.”
Today, the store is one of the few remaining businesses in Louise. Several Chinese families carved out lives in the area as storeowners, but most have since moved on. The Lees stayed, saying they found a greater acceptance than others in the Delta.
“We didn’t have any difficulty here because we was just one family,” Lee said.
Lee gave the store to his sons in 1997, but the Hoover Sauce hasn’t let him slow down. Not only won’t he say what’s in it, he makes it himself and hesitates to even show outsiders the room where he mixes it.
“Visualize,” he says. “I have a line of mixers, which I use to blend basically soy sauce plus a sweetener and other spices.”
Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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