Milan, 10 March 2023
Sharp-eyed readers will no doubt have noticed that in my last post I mentioned the Mexican State of Tabasco; I was saying in passing that we had visited the state’s capital Villahermosa.
As I wrote that, a little voice in my head asked, “What’s the connection, I wonder, between the State of Tabasco and Tabasco sauce?” I am, of course, referring to the world-famous little bottle of red, and very spicy, sauce that one frequently comes across in restaurants, in people’s spice and condiment racks, in bars (to add to Bloody Marys), and who knows where else.
I personally never, ever use the stuff. As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, I hate hot spices with a passion. But you’d have to be a hermit living on top of some remote mountain since the age of five to never have come across this cute little bottle at some point in your life.
In any event, a short answer to the little voice in my head is that Tabasco, the State, and Tabasco, the Sauce, are connected by tabasco, the chilli peppers, which are used in the sauce.
For those of my readers who are not majorly into chilli peppers, the tabasco pepper is a domesticated cultivar of the wild species Capsicum frutescens. It’s actually quite a pretty plant, with its strangely upright fruit (a characteristic of all C. Frutescens cultivars) going from pale yellow-green to yellow, to orange, and finally to bright red when the fruit is fully ripe. In fact, some people choose it as an ornamental plant.
In terms of heat, the tabasco pepper scores 30,000-50,000 on the so-called Scoville scale, which is a way of measuring scientifically the heat levels of chilli peppers. That’s mildly hot, in the same range as cayenne pepper. There are peppers with insanely higher scores on the Scoville scale: 1,000,000 and more. I simply don’t understand why people let such chilli peppers get anywhere near their mouths. But they do.
Just when the tabasco pepper was domesticated is unknown, although it was surely before the Europeans arrived in the Americas. Where it was domesticated is equally unknown, although one can guess that it was somewhere in the natural range of C. frutescens. As this map shows, that range is strongly focused on the region which is now the State of Tabasco, although it also extends quite a bit into the neighbouring State of Veracruz.
As I said, that was the short answer. But it doesn’t tell us how a chilli pepper domesticated in the general region of Tabasco ended up being put in a sauce created in the late 1860s in coastal Louisiana.
I have to tell my readers that the fame of Tabasco sauce is such that it has led to a bunch of armchair historians trying to figure out every aspect of the sauce’s life and times as well as to a multitude of people spinning yarns about the sauce to liven up their websites. I am merely reporting what I’ve read, although I have tried to sort the grain from the chaff.
There is a general consensus among the armchair historians that tabasco peppers had turned up in New Orleans by the late 1840s. I throw in a few prints of the city to set the scene.
How the peppers got there is unknown, and probably unknowable. But that hasn’t stopped various theories being propounded.
The fanciest of these is that the pepper’s arrival was linked somehow to the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. I invite any readers who are curious about this rather obscure war to google it. For our purposes, all we need to know is that an American army disembarked in Veracruz to march on Mexico City, that in parallel there was a navy blockade of Mexico’s Gulf coast which resulted on two attacks by American marines on Villahermosa (at that time called San Juan Bautista), and that at the end of the war many of the American soldiers were shipped back home via the port of New Orleans. Just to get us in a military mood, I throw in photos of paintings from this war. The first shows an assault on the city of Veracruz, the second of the second assault on San Juan Bautista.
The thinking is that someone involved in those military actions – and there were a good number of volunteers from Louisiana who fought in the war – still took time out to sample the local cuisine and, appreciating this new chilli pepper, decided to bring some of its seeds back to Louisiana to grow on the family farm (we have to remember that most of the volunteers were rural folk).
Now, I don’t want to be a party pooper – I like the storyline of army veterans coming home with their pockets stuffed with tabasco pepper seeds, I really do – but I’m thinking that the explanation could just as well be something much more prosaic, like a Louisiana merchant who was doing business in Tabasco before the war thinking that the pepper would be popular back home and bringing back some seeds.
In any event, we know that the tabasco pepper was present in the coastal area of Louisiana by the late 1840s. We now fast forward 20 years to Avery Island, located some 200 km west of New Orleans in the heart of Cajun Country. It’s actually not really an island, just a piece of higher ground rising out of the surrounding bayous and marshes. Here we have a rather suggestive photo of Avery Island from the mid 1970s.
And here we have an even more suggestive photo of a bayou.
It was here that a certain Edmund McIlhenny created Tabasco sauce in 1867-68, a few years after the end of the American Civil War. McIlhenny originally hailed from Maryland but had moved to New Orleans in around 1840. He got into banking, made a small fortune, and started a bank of his own. He married into the Avery family, who owned the eponymous island and ran a sugar plantation there. Here, we have what he looked like in this period, a solid member of the New Orleans bourgeoisie.
Unfortunately for McIlhenny, the South’s economic collapse after its defeat in the American Civil War ruined him; having no more than the proverbial shirt on his back, he was forced to go and live with his in-laws on their island. There, with time on his hands, he started cultivating tabasco peppers and turning them into a fiery sauce, which he immediately started selling through grocers in New Orleans.
Quite what brought him, a banker by profession, to the idea of making a chilli pepper based sauce is not clear, at least not in the documentation available on the internet. But he did. For what it’s worth, my take is that in 1869, when McIlhenny’s Tabasco sauce first came out on the market, there “was something in the air”, as the band Thunderclap Newman sang in my youth: somehow, either through the increasing presence on dining tables of similar home-made sauces, or because of chatter among the Right Sort of People, a demand for a spicy sauce had been created and McIlhenny saw a business opportunity – and he was unemployed, broke, and had a family to maintain.
It’s time to see how McIlhenny made his fiery sauce. But before even the processing, there was the picking. McIlhenny was most particular that only fully ripe, bright red peppers should be used to make his sauce.
Initially, all of the peppers McIlhenny used in his sauce making were grown on Avery Island. To ensure high levels of ripeness, McIlhenny gave his labourers a “little red stick” by which they could judge if a pepper was ready to pick or not. A cute idea. The McIlhenny Company says that while their peppers are now grown in many different parts of the world, they still insist on their peppers being picked by hand and still give their growers a little red stick to judge pepper ripeness.
Once picked, the ripe chilli peppers were crushed and the resulting “mash” mixed with salt (the salt was actually mined on the island, which sits atop a huge dome of rock salt). The mixture was then left to ferment for a month, using whatever containers were at hand – earthenware crocks and jars, recycled molasses barrels. At the end of the month, the fermented mixture was skimmed to remove the layer of mold that had formed on top. The skimmed mash was then mixed with white wine vinegar. The resulting mixture was aged for another month. Finally, any new mold that had formed was removed, the chilli skins and seeds were strained out through a fine sieve, and the sauce was bottled.
Interestingly enough, the little bottles which McIlhenny used were actually cologne bottles. As far as I can make out, because the sauce was so strong, he wanted a bottle from which the sauce could be sprinkled onto the food, not poured; cologne bottles were perfect for the task because the necks were so small. To make doubly sure that users only sprinkled the sauce, he also had a sprinkler system fitted onto the bottles. Finally, he designed a diamond-shaped label to put on his bottles. In 1869, he sent out 658 of his little bottles to grocers in and around New Orleans, under the name Tabasco brand pepper sauce.
We need not dwell long on the rest of the little bottle’s history. Through savvy marketing, the sauce spread throughout the US and then the world. The look of the product has hardly changed at all in the intervening years; here we have an early bottle next to a modern one.
As I said earlier, the peppers are now grown elsewhere. However, peppers are still grown on the island to produce seed stock.
As for the process to make the sauce, that has not changed materially. The one big difference is that the initial mash of peppers and salt is now aged for three years rather than the original month. It is still only made in the factory on Avery Island, which looks pleasingly retro.
That being said, I wonder how long production of the sauce will manage to stay on the island? Because of climate change, the storms crashing through southern Louisiana are getting more and more extreme. Already back in 2005, the island was hit so hard by Hurricane Rita that the company built a 5 m-high levee around the low side of the factory to protect it.
What is heartening is that the company is still a family-owned business, with the current CEO being a cousin of some sort of Edmund McIlhenny’s direct descendants. As I’ve bewailed in an earlier post, it’s a tragedy that once proud brands have simply become part of the large “portfolios” of multinational behemoths, to be traded between themselves like schoolboys trading marbles in the schoolyard.
What is less nice is that ever since the death of Edmund McIlhenny, the company, with the help of a bevy of lawyers, has aggressively gone after any other company which dared use the word “Tabasco” in the name of a sauce, even if was made with tabasco peppers. Somehow, with the agreement of the courts, they managed to turn a place-name, something which by definition is in the public sphere, into a Trademarked name! The wonders of commercial law … I wonder if this legal transmutation doesn’t explain why the company has also done a verbal transmutation and always writes Tabasco in capital letters, as in TABASCO®.
Normally, I would stop this post here, having replied in considerable detail to my original question. But I ask for readers’ indulgence to go back a little in this story, because one of the many things which my “research” (i.e., falling down rabbit holes on the internet) did was to throw a harsh light on the issue of slavery, a topic much in the news these days.
As I said earlier, the tabasco pepper had arrived in southern Louisiana by the late 1840s. However it arrived, once there it found an enthusiastic supporter in a certain Col. Maunsel White. White had come to the US from Ireland as a penniless teenager, but he had lived the American dream. Through hard work (and no doubt some luck), he first became a successful businessman and then entered Louisiana’s political establishment. By the time he posed for this painting he was a well-known personage in New Orleans’s upper crust.
And of course, this being antebellum Louisiana, no doubt as a mark of the fact that he had made it, White had bought himself several plantations as well as the slaves to go with them. He was a large slave owner; on one of his plantations alone, lying close to the Mississippi River downstream of New Orleans, he had nearly 200 slaves (to give readers an idea, less than 1% of white Southerners owned more than 100 slaves, so White was definitely a one-percenter).
In this same plantation, White grew sugar. We have here a Louisiana sugar plantation from that period.
When he discovered tabasco peppers, he put aside several acres to grow them. White actually seems to have made the first sauce from tabasco peppers, for use at his, and his friends’, table as a condiment. But from what I can make out, that was not his main objective at all. White seems to have primarily seen the peppers as a cheap way of keeping his slaves healthy. In 1849, a letter was printed in the New Orleans Daily Delta newspaper.
It purported to be from a visitor to White’s plantation, in which the letter writer said the following: “I must not omit to notice the Colonel’s pepper patch, which is two acres in extent, all planted with a new species of red pepper, which Colonel White has introduced into this country, called Tobasco [sic] red pepper. The Colonel attributes the admirable health of his [slave] hands to the free use of this pepper.” In the same newspaper, in 1850, the same or another letter writer reported, “Col. White has not had a single case of cholera among his large gang of negroes since the disease appeared in the south. He attributes this to the free use of this valuable agent.” In this, White was merely following a common belief of the time that the well-known cayenne chilli pepper was a convenient and inexpensive “medicine” that helped keep slaves fit for work. In fact, his enthusiasm for tabasco peppers may have had to do with the fact that he mistakenly believed them to be hotter than cayenne peppers (the letter writer of 1850 referred to “the celebrated tobasco red pepper, the very strongest of all peppers”) and therefore likely to work even better as a “medicine”.
And why the sauce? The letter writer of 1850 helpfully explains: “Owing to [the pepper’s] oleaginous character, Col. White found it impossible to preserve it by drying” (tabasco peppers are indeed the only variety of chilli pepper which is “juicy”, not dry, on the inside). The letter writer went on to say: “but by pouring strong vinegar on it after boiling, he has made a sauce or pepper decoction of it, which possesses in a most concentrated form all the qualities of the vegetable. A single drop of the sauce will flavor a whole plate of soup or other food. The use of a decoction like this, particularly in preparing the food for laboring persons, would be found exceedingly beneficial in a relaxing climate like this.” Again, the stress is on the pepper’s beneficial effects for “laboring persons”. I’m not sure if the word “relaxing” is being used more or less as it is used today, but I certainly read between the lines that not only did White believe that having his slaves eat tabasco peppers avoided them getting sick but the kick of the chilli also made them work harder.
It’s hard not to read these lines with great discomfort, but before casting stones at White and his kind I for one am minded to remember the Biblical injunction: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” I don’t know if any of my readers have read the articles which have been appearing recently in the British press, telling of well-to-do families which have been shocked to discover that their current financial security was greatly enhanced if not originally created by their forefathers building their fortunes on the backs of slaves. Do I have any slave owners in my family tree, I wonder?
Taking a strictly patriarchal view and looking only at the male line of descent, I think not. Those ancestors of mine were part of the rural poor in Derbyshire when British fortunes were being made in the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. But what if I were to look more broadly, taking all the lines of descent to lil ol’ me?
Would I find a slave owner or two lurking somewhere back there? I have a memory of my father saying that there was some connection to slavery in the family – not on the British side, actually, but on the French side. I have made a mental note to ask my brother, who is the historian in the family, what he knows. But even if I were to find that some part of my DNA comes from slave owners, what would I do?
A discussion for another day.