Prepare to hate me for this, but Jezebel sauce—traditionally a base of apple jelly and pineapple preserves tricked out with horseradish and yellow mustard—is one of the weakest links in the Southern culinary canon. People love it because they grew up with it—the way they love ambrosia, for instance, or green bean casserole with mushroom soup.
Granted, this staple of community cookbooks and grandmothers’ tables has helped many a baked ham over the decades, but spooning it over a block of cream cheese, adding a few crackers, and calling it a party snack is just taking a so-so thing and making it worse.
Tandy Wilson, chef at City House in Nashville, feels my pain on this point. Like many Southerners, he grew up eating Jezebel sauce and fighting over where it was invented (multiple states, including Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi, all lay claim to it). “Mom’s was the best,” he says. “It was always in the fridge.”
But as Wilson began to cook professionally in California and Italy, his palate matured. He distanced himself from Jezebel and other Southern classics whose defining characteristic is sweetness. “You get away a little bit from what you grew up with, and you forget about the sweet flavors that you loved,” he says. “But some of these sweet things are still good in moderation. I mean, sweet tea is still pretty damn good.” So when he came home to Tennessee to cook in 2005 and then opened City House a couple of years later, he began to rework Southern classics in his own muscular way.
One result is a take on Jezebel sauce so good it has become a regular in my kitchen. Wilson starts with red onion that has been caramelized on the grill, then mixes in grainy mustard and freshly grated horseradish. The sweet characteristics come from lemon preserves (peach works nicely, too) and sorghum, which adds a certain depth. Lemon juice offers a tart edge. Wilson is partial to chicken, and the sauce takes well to thighs seasoned with lemon zest and roasted in a cast-iron pan. “Those juices get down in there with that sauce,” he says. “Man, that is heaven.”