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Please, Pass the Tabasco Sauce

January 28, 2008

One of our treasured family stories is about the first time my mother shared a meal with my father’s family.  The event occurred two years before my birth.  I’ve heard the tale and repeated it so often I feel almost as if I was there.

The woman who would become my mother was the sweetheart of the man who would become my dad.  He took her to a Sunday meal at the family home, the very home in which Clare and I now reside, the home where we reared our own five children.

My dad was one of nine children.  The dining room table was large enough to accommodate the entire family. My grandfather, whom I called Pappy, asked the blessing and then grabbed a bottle of Tabasco Sauce, shaking the contents all over his salad, a lettuce leaf topped with a pear half, filled with a dollop of mayonnaise, and garnished with grated cheese, and a maraschino cherry.

My mother, seated next to my grandfather, was stunned when she saw her future father-in-law dousing his pear salad with pepper sauce.  Noticing her surprise, Pappy quipped, “Louise, if you get ahold of something you don’t like, change it to something you do like.”

Tabasco sauce will change the taste of anything.

Edmund McIlhenny, who invented Tabasco sauce, was a banker from Maryland who had moved to Louisiana around 1840.

McIlhenny was an avid gardener. A friend gave him seeds of red peppers from Mexico. At his home on Avery Island in south Louisiana, Edmund sowed the seeds and nurtured the plants to maturity.  The peppers they bore were a delight.

McIlhenny created a pepper sauce to add spice and flavor to food. Selecting and crushing the reddest peppers, he mixed them with salt, aging the mash for a month in crockery jars. McIlhenny then blended the mash with white wine vinegar. Aging the mixture another thirty days, he strained and bottled it.

It proved so popular with family and friends that McIlhenny decided to market his pepper sauce. He grew his first commercial pepper crop in 1868. The next year, he sent out 658 bottles of sauce to wholesale to grocers around the Gulf Coast, particularly in New Orleans. He labeled it Tabasco, named for the state in Mexico from which those first seeds came.

McIlhenny secured a patent in 1870, and TABASCO® Brand Pepper Sauce began to set the culinary world on fire.

Labeled in 22 languages and dialects, sold in over 160 countries and territories, it is the most famous, most preferred pepper sauce in the world.

Tabasco Sauce is still made on Avery Island, Louisiana, at the very site where Edmund McIlhenny planted his first garden. Half of the company’s 200 employees live on Avery Island. Their parents and grandparents worked and lived there as well. The current president of the family owned company is a sixth generation McIlhenny.

Until recently, all of the peppers were grown on Avery Island. The bulk of the crop is now grown in South America, where weather allows a more predictable supply.

Following tradition, the peppers are handpicked. Peppers are checked with a little red stick, le petit bâton rouge, to determine ripeness. Those peppers not matching the color of the stick are not harvested.

Peppers are ground, mixed into mash, and put into old white oak whiskey barrels to age for three years. The bright red mash is so corrosive that forklifts are reported to last only six years.

In addition to the original red Tabasco Sauce, several new types of sauces are now produced under the brand name. In addition, the company has cashed in on its name by licensing apparel including neckties and boxer shorts.

The hot sauce is used to season a variety of foods. It has been used to change the taste of desserts and even pear salad. NASA put Tabasco Sauce on the menu for Skylab, the International Space Station, and shuttle missions.

The spicy sauce has appeared in two James Bond movies.

The official Web site of the McIlhenny Company, www.tabasco.com, has nearly 200 pages of stories and comments from Tabasco afficionados. Among the entries are suggestions for alternate uses for the hot sauce.

  • Sprinkle Tabasco on flower and vegetable plants to repel pests, especially deer and rabbits.
  • Can’t get your teenager out of bed to get to school on time? A drop of Tabasco on their lip will awaken them.
  • Use a spoonful of Tabasco as a cough remedy.

These comments are included.

  • “When I was much younger my grandmother put Tabasco Sauce on my fingertips to stop me from chewing my nails. Half a century later, I still bite my nails, and I love Tabasco!”
  • “When I was little, if I talked back to momma, she would put Tabasco in my mouth. Soon, I started having a smart mouth on purpose because I loved the taste! To this day I’m just as sassy, and I love Tabasco even more!”
  • “My kitchen is full of Tabasco memorabilia. I even named my dog Tabasco!”
  • “My husband loves Tabasco Sauce so much, he asked me to get a Tabasco tattoo. He thinks it’s hot!”

Following the tradition of my grandfather, one of my cousins uses Tabasco on almost everything. I’m not sure if his wife has a Tabasco tattoo or not.

-Kirk H. Neely

© H-J Weekly, January 2008

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