Everyone knows about Tabasco Sauce, right? The original one in that small bottle, with the fire red sauce clear for all to see, and the McIlhenny name proudly stamped on its diamond-shaped label.
There’s a fine story that John McIlhenny made his own concoction, which he gave away to friends and neighbors in recycled cologne bottles. 150 years on, the family business still runs from the estate his wife’s family, the Averys, had bought not long after the Louisiana Purchase, and where they famously returned to after the Civil War. Some stories say John McIlhenny was a cook, but the family recounts he was a banker in Louisiana, having travelled south in the 1840s, like many from the East Coast, to seek his fortune. It was his son, John Jr., who made a business from what was John Sr.’s productive pastime.
How did this spicy sauce get started? The McIlhennys were not the first to make a hot, picante pepper sauce, that’s for sure. It may be that John Sr. knew a certain Col. Maunsel White, who some years earlier had started producing his own version of a fiery pepper sauce. One story goes that Col. While sold John McIlhenny some seeds, which John planted, harvested, and used for his version (cold fermenting instead of stewing).
Our suggestion doesn’t come from that time; it comes from the time a generation or two before both McIlhenny and White. It might have happened around the time the Keillers came up with their idea for marmalade, the time when New Orleans was still French. Back then there was a lot of small trade up and down those old Caribbean ports – sugar and slaves, calicoes and calabashes, peppers and pigs. One day a weary old boat pulled into the sun-bleached wharf of a ramshackle fishing port somewhere along the coast east of New Orleans. The boat sat so low in the water, some splashed down into bilges, where sacks of peppers, fresh from the fields in Tabasco, sat. By the time the boat was unloaded, the peppers had soaked so long they had lost all their firmness.
The captain wrote the soft peppers off as a loss, rammed his ragged hat on his head, walked past the saloon with a sack of the soggiest peppers slung over his shoulder (it was too hot to quench his thirst with grog and the sun was scratching at his neck anyway), and headed off to the eat-all-sorts-of-things eatery his wife ran. He wandered through the kitchen, dropping the wet sack of peppers by where his wife kept the stock of food she cooked up daily. He glanced over to his wife, ladled some fish stew out of the big bowl that squatted darkly over a low charcoal fire, sat down wearily on a long wind-carved bench, sucked his teeth and settled down to eat. The stew tasted decidedly waxy, the way one-day old fish stew always does.
Some time later (it might have been a day or two later) one of the kitchen hands noticed the soggy sack of peppers, the air ripe with liquid spiciness. This person, whom we shall never know, went to the captain’s wife and said “Ma’am, can I make a suggestion about those peppers that were left in seawater? I think we can make a sauce out of them, which will make the food we serve much tastier. And it will stop people thinking the meat is old too.”
And so it was that the first American hot pepper sauce was created. What we don’t know if they stewed the peppers, or left them to “stew in the their own juice” for a while. Either way though, that explains how salt got into the sauce. McIlhenny was simply lucky — his in-laws’ farmhouse sat, and still sits, on a mountain of it!
Now that’s a spicy suggestion!
A story inspired by events, as legend tells us
Carl Ottersen @ 2018