Illustration by Jeremy Nguyen

Sriracha didn't start the fire

Matt Gross
January 04, 2019

Once upon a time, in 1830s New York City, a woman named Jane McCollick noticed a barefoot 11-year-old selling newspapers at Washington Market. McCollick had an idea for the “plucky young waif”: He should offer to clean up the meat scraps from the butchers and sell them to Indians in Hoboken. The kid, whose name was Seaman Lichtenstein, took her up on it and made one dollar the first day. He soon became McCollick’s ward, boarding with her, studying at night school, teaching her the bookkeeping tricks he learned, and eventually investing $600 in her food business.

With Lichtenstein as a partner, J. McCollick & Co. grew to become a manufacturer of—as one 1860 newspaper ad put it—“Pickles, Preserves, Sauces, Jellies, Jams, Catsups, Syrups &c.” Among those sauces was a hot sauce, technically a “bird pepper” sauce, likely made from chiltepins and sold in a hexagonal glass bottle. This wasn’t just any sauce, though—it’s the one of the oldest commercial hot sauces in America, and probably the oldest for which bottles (empty, sadly) still exist.

Today, this country is awash in hot sauce. From sea to shining sea, fiery condiments crown our every meal, transforming workaday eggs, chicken wings, and noodle dishes into incendiary delights. It seems like there’s always a new hot sauce debuting at a farmers’ market or Whole Foods, made from famous or obscure chili peppers. Those racks and racks of bottles fuel an industry that’s currently valued at $1.5 billion—and growing fast.

It was not, however, always this way. Cast your palate back just over a decade, and Sriracha, the so-called “rooster sauce” from California-based Huy Fong Foods, was still a niche player. Go back another decade or so, and you might not have tried anything fancier than Tabasco. In fact, the whole history of hot sauce in the United States isn’t much more than 200 years old—which is kind of odd, considering that people have been eating chili peppers for thousands of years. Here’s how it all went down.

Photo by Bob Levey via Getty Images

Long, Long Ago

The first thing to know about our now thoroughly chilified world is that chili peppers are native to the Americas. They originated in the wild in Bolivia and were spread throughout the continent by birds, which are immune to capsaicin, the chemical in chilies that makes them spicy. Chilies were first domesticated 7,000 to 9,000 years ago in what is now Mexico’s Tehuacan Valley. And like other New World crops (potatoes, beans, corn), chilies did not leave the Americas until the arrival of Christopher Columbus. That means no chilies in Indian, Thai, or Chinese food; no Spanish pimentón, no Hungarian paprika, no Tunisian harissa. Kimchi, if you can believe it, was white.

Even up north, past Mexico, there were no chilies. So when Europeans began colonizing North America, it wasn’t like they were ignoring abundantly growing chili bushes—they had to encounter chilies through other means, probably by importing them from Mexico, Brazil, and the Caribbean. And if early colonists and Europeans were freaked out by the tomato—they considered it poisonous into the 19th century—you can imagine how they might have reacted to the fiery pepper, its cousin in the nightshade family.

It wasn’t until 1807 that we have any record of hot sauces being manufactured in the United States, and even then the evidence is sketchy. Other hot-sauce histories, like this one by the great Dave DeWitt, cite Massachusetts city directories as bearing advertisements for bottled cayenne sauce. (I haven’t been able to find these ads yet.) Much of the other evidence comes from the bottles themselves, many of them featured in Betty Zumwalt’s Ketchup Pickles Sauce, a book that catalogs many rare collectibles, such as Bergman’s Diablo Peppersauce from Sacramento, California.

The American hot sauce business really picks up in the years leading up to the Civil War. While Jane McCollick was bottling her bird-pepper sauce up north, down south a new pepper was gaining popularity: the Tabasco, whose earliest known crops were planted in 1849 by Colonel Maunsel White on his Deer Range Plantation in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana.

“It is exceedingly hot,” wrote the New Orleans Daily Delta in 1850, “and a small quantity of it is sufficient to season a large dish of any food. Owing to its oleaginous character, Col. White found it impossible to preserve it by drying; 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.”

Tabasco peppers plus vinegar—sound familiar? It should, because the next decade, in 1868, White’s fellow Louisianian
Edmund McIlhenny started doing something very similar, mashing up Tabasco peppers with salt, aging them in wooden barrels, mixing them with vinegar, and selling this sauce in dropper-like bottles.


Photo by Omar Torres via Getty Images

The Tabasco War

The battle over who invented Tabasco sauce is a contentious one, to say the least. White’s supporters say he should get credit, claiming that McIlhenny’s brothers-in-law were dinner guests at White’s plantation and McIlhenny may even have acquired his seeds from White. The McIlhenny side disputes all this, pointing out that the term “Tabasco” (and “Tobasco”) had broad usage at the time. The word could have referred to any pepper from Mexico’s Tabasco state, or even, according to this article, to non-pepper ingredients from the same terrain. McIlhenny historian Shane K. Bernard has pointed out that White’s sauce was boiled in vinegar, while McIlhenny’s was fermented. To me, it seems like a weird dispute, as the “secret recipe” here is rather basic. Whether fermented or boiled, chili peppers, salt, and vinegar are the building blocks of almost every hot sauce. Neither McIlhenny nor White should get credit for that.

Still, “The Tabasco War,” as journalist Amal Naj dubbed it in his 1992 book Peppers, raged over most of the next century. As the McIlhenny Co.’s Tabasco sauce grew in stature and market share, even inspiring the Boston-based composer George W. Chadwick to write a Tabasco-themed burlesque opera, it came into conflict with other sauce-makers who labeled their products “tabasco sauce.” And those conflicts wound up in court—for a long, long time. “After five decades of acrimonious court battles in Galveston, Philadelphia, New York, Washington, and New Orleans,” Naj wrote in Peppers, “McIlhenny Co. mysteriously emerged in 1948 as the winner in the Louisiana courts after a string of defeats in other parts of the country. The tabasco pepper then disappeared from the public domain and became, in effect, a proprietary item: only McIlhenny had the right to call a sauce made from tabasco peppers a tabasco sauce.”

In the ensuing decades, McIlhenny used the 1948 court order to smite its rivals—or buy them out. By the 1950s and 1960s, when the McIlhenny Co. started advertising its product nationally, Tabasco was nearly to hot sauce what Kleenex was to facial tissue: the default. Even its competitors, like Crystal, were making essentially the same style—one type of pepper (let’s not name it), heavy on the vinegar.

Photo by Jeff Greenberg via Getty Images

The Modern Era

It wasn’t until the early 1980s that hot sauce in America began to evolve again. That’s when Chip Hearn, whose family had run restaurants on the Delaware shore for decades, decided he wanted his own hot sauce. At the time, there was little infrastructure available to amateur hot-sauce makers. There wasn’t much in the way of ingredients or experienced co-packers to manufacture your product. “There was nobody that would make what we wanted,” said Hearn, who now runs the enormous Peppers.com.

He got in touch with Louisiana’s Baumer Foods, parent company of Crystal hot sauce, and made them an offer they couldn’t refuse: “I’ll prepay you to give me your sauce without labels,” he said. Hearn then relabeled them “Dewey Beach Fire.” He had his own hot sauce at last.

Hearn was not alone. Other restaurateurs were making their own versions of regional sauces and selling them at their restaurants. Around the same time, new hot sauce styles were emerging in California. In 1971, Jose-Luis Saavedra started making Tapatio in Maywood, California, and in 1980 Vietnamese immigrant David Tran founded Huy Fong Foods and created Sriracha. Mexican-style salsas like Pace Picante and Old El Paso were now occupying supermarket shelves and airing TV commercials.

In 1988, Dave DeWitt, who’d started Chile Pepper magazine with friends, put on a conference—the Fiery Foods Show—that drew 47 exhibitors and about 500 visitors to downtown Albuquerque, New Mexico. It may have been small, but for hot-sauce lovers like Hearn, it was transformative, the beginning of a movement.

“We all went down there not even knowing that all these other nuts were just as nutty as we were!” Hearn said. “It’s what put everybody together.”

The next decade saw dozens of new hot sauces hit the market, from imports like Melinda’s and Cholula to home-grown labels like Tiger Sauce and Ring of Fire. But what really defined the 1990s was the arrival of ultra-hot concoctions like Dave’s Insanity Sauce and Blair’s Death Sauce. Both were created to get rid of unwanted restaurant patrons late at night, and both were unexpected hits. Dave’s Insanity was so hot—about 90,000 to 250,000 Scoville units, thanks to the addition of chili extracts—that it was banned from the Fiery Foods Show, which only increased its cachet.

Their success begat a wave of imitators, who often cranked up the heat by using extracts, which is now frowned upon. They also pushed the boundaries of taste. This was the era when it became standard practice to use the word “ass” in your hot sauce’s name and depict flames shooting out of a butt on your label. It was cute the first time I saw it as a teenager, but the joke quickly wore thin. Still, these were the hot-sauce makers keeping the business going back then. Questionable aesthetics aside, they laid the groundwork for today.

Photo courtesy of @queenmajestyhotsauce

The Golden Age

About a decade ago, things suddenly accelerated in the hot sauce world. Every week, it seemed, new hot sauce companies were starting up, some doing variants on traditional styles, others innovating with fruits, or experimenting with new ultra-hot strains like ghost peppers, Trinidad Scorpions, and the Carolina Reaper, which was anointed the world’s hottest pepper in 2013. In 2012, hot sauce was even being called the 8th fastest-growing industry in the country, just behind “social network game development." How did this happen?

One theory has it that when the 2008 recession put a lot of guys out of work, they turned to making hot sauce professionally. After all, it requires little startup capital and produces a relatively quick return (if it’s good). But when I asked around, I couldn’t find any significant hot-sauce makers who’d started out for that reason.

Chip Hearn suggested that one change was the resurgence of farmers’ markets across America. Once they began to be everywhere, the men and women who’d developed a sideline in making sauces at home suddenly had a way to sell their wares that didn’t involve finding a distributor or broker.

“Instead of just selling to their friends and people at the office,” Hearn said, “they could take seven cases to the farmers’ market and sell them in one day.”

The flip side is that farmers have also been growing a far broader variety of peppers that can go into sauces. Two years ago, Evolutionary Organics, outside New York City, was growing 105 different strains of peppers. With great raw ingredients at hand, it’s no wonder people are inspired to create new hot-sauce flavors.

Perhaps even more important, Americans’ tastes are changing. Much of that is due to a few generations of immigration from places where chilies are a centuries-old component of the cuisine. (Huy Fong Foods, for example, doubled its share of the market, from 4.9% to 9.9% in the last three years.) But it’s also, I believe, a result of the foodie-ization of America. Everyone from Boston and Baton Rouge to Boise and Bakersfield wants to eat well, and hot sauces are an easy, affordable way to experiment, whether you want a hit of bacon in your sauce or the bitterness of coffee.

The way I see it, America’s hot sauces today fall into one of roughly three categories:

1. Immigrant Sauces: These are relatively faithful re-creations of sauces from the old country, like Sriracha, Tapatio, or the sambals from Auria’s Malaysian Kitchen.

2. Heavy Metal Sauces: The inheritors of the 1990s traditions, with over-the-top graphics and even-more-over-the-top heat. They’re in your face, adorned with flames, and—more often than not—tasty as hell.

3. Foodie Sauces: Latter-day restaurant chefs are pretty much freed from convention, and that sensibility has found its way into hot sauces as well. Expect unusual ingredients (activated charcoal, black garlic) mixed with precision and quirky graphic design.

As for the future, I have no idea what it holds. Can the hot-sauce business continue to grow at a furious rate? What new flavors and styles are on the horizon? My hope is that those three hot-sauce sectors will cross over and influence one another, producing spicy new surprises. At the very least, things will be anything but mild.

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