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The spicy story of Tabasco sauce

BY Rashmi Narayan

11th May 2023 Food Heroes

The spicy story of Tabasco sauce

From the salt domes of Louisiana to battlefield rations to dinner tables all over the world, Tabasco sauce has been giving us heat and flavour for generations

The fiery sauce has come a long way from the swamps of Louisiana and is ubiquitous in more than 195 countries.

On nearly every table in the USA’s southern states, there’s salt, pepper and a very recognisable little red bottle of Tabasco sauce. Over the last century, this sauce has also become an ingredient that’s used in cocktails, it’s a staple in kitchen cupboards, diners, oyster bars, street food trucks, fine dining restaurants and even holds a royal warrant from the late Queen Elizabeth II.

Tabasco sauce has also been present in the places where history was made. British archaeologist Howard Carter carried along a bottle of the sauce while searching for the tomb of King Tutankhamun. It has been airlifted by NASA to Skylab when the astronauts complained about their bland rations, and in the Himalayas, Sherpa guides were given bottles of the condiment by Mount Everest climbers as a token of gratitude. It has also made an appearance in several films and television series. The most popular of them have been with Charlie Chaplin and the James Bond film The Man With the Golden Gun.

"It’s a staple everywhere from kitchen cupboards to fine dining restaurants and even holds a royal warrant from the late Queen Elizabeth II"

So where is it made? Ask anyone, even beyond the UK and a great number of people seem to be unaware that Tabasco owes its origins to Louisiana. The name is on its evident trademark that traces back to the McIlhenny family. The sauce is produced on Avery Island, which isn’t an actual island but a large salt dome surrounded by wetlands.

Tabasco’s salt link during the American Civil War

Tabasco pepper mash in barrelsTabasco harvested in barrels and formed into a pepper mash as part of the process

Salt domes are plentiful in Louisiana as over the millennia, the bayou area was covered by the sea. When the sea drew back, it left behind a layer of salt and resulted in salt domes being raised to the surface.

When the price of salt saw a sharp rise during the American Civil War, Edmund McIlhenny, who was then a banker and unable to work in the sector due to the war, joined his father-in-law Daniel D Avery to run his saltworks on Avery Island. The area’s salt deposits were a precious resource for the Confederates, as well as the Union troops who seized the island in 1863.

Before the McIlhenny family left the plantation and fled to Texas during the war, seeds of Capsicum frutescens peppers were planted. Upon returning to Avery Island after the war, the McIlhennys discovered that their peppers had survived. Mashing these peppers with salt from the island's mines, the family began selling their legendary aged hot sauce that was then bottled in old cologne bottles in 1868.

A year later, over 600 bottles of this sauce, now called Tabasco were made. According to the company’s history, Tabasco means “the place where the soil is humid.”

Advertisement and heavy competition

Barrels of chili pepper mash ageing in the Tabasco warehouseBarrels of the Tabasco pepper mash ageing in the warehouse

The recipe developed over the years as the pungent sauce became a mainstay in the state, releasing advertisements over Christmas in the 1900s on Tabasco being the “perfect seasoning for your Xmas dinner”. It was widely used in sauces, gravies, soups and roasts.

Soon after, competition with a former McIlhenny employee B F Trappey began when he founded the company B F Trappey and Sons and began producing his own hot sauce, which was also called “Tabasco”. The McIlhenny family protested to this and after several years of the feud, the McIlhenny family received a trademark for their Tabasco brand.

Tabasco in military meals

In 1949, it made its way into the ration of the American GIs when Walter Stauffer McIlhenny, Edmund McIlhenny’s grandson, became the CEO of the family business. He had experienced plenty of bland food in his Meal, Ready-to-Eat (or MRE) kit during his military career when he fought in the Second World War as a brigadier general in the reserves. This put Tabasco sauce on the American military’s radar, making it a welcome addition. After his term, Walter looked into the idea of making the bottle smaller, into ration sizes to help add spice and flavour to military meals.

"Walter Stauffer McIlhenny looked into the idea of making the bottle smaller, into ration sizes to help add spice and flavour to military meals"

During the Vietnam War, the company published a pocket-sized cookbook called The Charlie Ration Cookbook or No Food is Too Good for the Man Up Front. This contained some witty caricatures and many recipes on how to use Tabasco with C-ration meals and included a tiny, two-ounce bottle in the kit.

The method

Man picking chili peppersTabasco is still run from Avery Island in Louisiana by the McIlhenny family

Today, Tabasco is still very much a family-run enterprise, with several new sauces under their wing. Over 700,000 bottles of the original are produced on Avery Island per day.

Once picked, the peppers are mashed with a small amount of salt and then aged in oak barrels for up to three years before being mixed with vinegar and bottled. After this pepper mash ages, it is inspected by a member of the McIlhenny family (often by the president and CEO Harold G Osborn) in the ageing warehouse, before being approved for blending.

The approved, fully-aged mash is then blended with high-quality distilled vinegar. The sauce is then mixed for up to 28 days, after which the pepper skins, pulp and seeds are strained out, leaving behind the sauce for bottling. The parts of the pepper that are filtered out are used for compost in the pepper fields and also as ingredients for dried seasonings.

Tabasco in Creole and Cajun cuisine

Tabasco sauce bottle

Despite the rise in several new vinegar-based hot sauces in the USA, Tabasco has remained important in Creole and Cajun cuisine, so much so that it is now written into recipes at some restaurants in Lafayette and New Orleans. Local chefs in Louisiana also lean on Tabasco’s sauces. Some cook with the chipotle version and some experiment with the sriracha and jalapeno variations, mainly using them as a dressing for salad, smoked meats and marinades.

To diners, the original sauce is often associated as “that sauce” to liven up a gumbo or sprinkle in moderation on scrambled eggs, mac and cheese or even pizza.

Cocktails and literature

In the world of cocktails, while there are many versions of the tale, bartender Fernand “Pete” Petiot, mixed some vodka and tomato juice and over the years, Tabasco sauce was added to the cocktail which we know as a Bloody Mary. Beyond this drink, creative mixologists in the UK use Tabasco to add a kick in their cocktail recipes.

"Today, Tabasco is still a family-run enterprise, and over 700,000 bottles of the original sauce are produced on Avery Island, Louisiana per day"

Journalist Jeffrey Rothfeder talks about the success of the invention of the sauce and how the brand is now well-known to the masses. In his book McIlhenny's Gold: How a Louisiana Family Built the Tabasco, he sheds light on the story of this eccentric, private company with a lively history of one of the most popular consumer products of all time, with an exploration of our desire to test the limits of human tolerance for spicy foods.

Tabasco’s factory on Avery Island is open to the public and tours run on a daily basis.

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