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Tabasco: The 'Grand Old Man'

Some people have been hip to the hot sauce fad for a little longer than others. Paul McIlhenny, for example, remembers his grandfather, John McIlhenny, putting drops of Tabasco Sauce into Coca Cola. That's not surprising, actually, since McIlhenny's grandfather's father, Edmund McIlhenny, invented Tabasco, the world's best-known hot sauce.

"I didn't begin to use it at the table until I was a teenager," says Paul, who is the head of quality control for the McIlhenny Company. "But the cooks put it into the food before that."

The McIlhenny's have their own mammoth site, with everything from an animated Tabasco screensaver to a photo essay on Louisiana musicians. Check it out .
The sauce has been around since 1868, when Edmund perfected a peppery concoction that he had been fooling with since returning to his ruined South Louisiana sugar plantation after the end of the Civil War. The cane fields had been destroyed, but the chile peppers he had planted before the war were still growing. Unable to grow sugar, he turned his attention to the peppers, a gift from a friend who had picked them up in Mexico, from the city of Tabasco (now known as San Juan Batista).

By 1869, the sauce was being sold all over the country. When Edmund died in 1890, his son John took over the business. John had a flair for marketing, and sauce sales boomed. Among his promotional strategies: he started a traveling opera troupe, called the "Burlesque Opera of Tabasco," which toured the country. The plot concerned a chronically cold Asian prince who finds he can warm up by drinking Tabasco sauce.

The sauce has become an American icon, one of the most recognized brands in the world. The McIlhenny Company, still a privately-held, family-run operation, makes two million gallons of its distinctive pepper-and-vinegar blend every year. The McIlhennys still use the same recipe, and still make Tabasco in the same place, on Avery Island in South Louisiana.

Although it is still by far the best-selling brand of hot sauce, Tabasco has lost cachet with aficionados. According to many more adventuresome eaters, the sauce lacks punch. These days, many popular sauces are three or four times hotter than Tabasco.

Others criticize Tabasco for being nothing but hot. "It has been overtaken," says Sidney Mintz, author of "Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom," an examination of the American way of eating. "You get the taste of hotness without the taste of the pepper." Mintz, who is both an anthropologist and a gastronome, compares Tabasco to refined white sugar: "Homogenized and uniform," he sniffs. "People who have learned that hot peppers have a distinctive taste are no longer satisfied."

Most chileheads, however, are more deferential. "It's een as the grand old man of hot sauces," says Dave Dewitt, author of 24 books about chiles, and a patriarchal figure to many chileheads. "It's still treated with respect." And Tabasco is changing with the times. The company has come out with a range of new sauces, including a new habanero sauce that is hotter and fruitier than its classic blend.

Any chance we'll see a Tabasco cheesecake any time soon? No way, Paul says drily: "I think we'll stay in the condiment section of the supermarket, and not get into ladies lingerie, or Frisbees, or anything like that."

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Written by David Kohn

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