Started with the Aztecs now we're here

EC: How Hot Sauce Got So Hot
Credit: Illustration by Lauren Kolm, photos by Daniel Kaesler / EyeEm and pioneer111 via Getty Images

In America, the cool kids love to douse their food in hot sauce, and the coolest of cool are connoisseurs who go to the pepper equivalent of microbrewers and taste craft hot sauces, or even make their own specialty sauce. That’s an abrupt change from not so long ago when hot sauce was seen as a plebeian condiment. When did hot sauce become so trendy? (Hint: it has nothing to do with Beyoncé or Hillary Clinton.)

Hot sauce has a rich history in America, particularly the American South, but it did not originate in the bayou of Louisiana, as many Americans think. Hot sauce, or pepper sauce, like so many condiments, was Christopher Columbus-ed: chiles are native to Central America. Columbus dubbed these spicy little fruits peppers because the spice with which he was familiar was black pepper. The Spanish would have first encountered these peppers in the 15th century at the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, but little did they know that at this point the native Central Americans had been domesticating a variety of chiles (i.e. jalapenos, anchos, and chipotles) for over 2000 years. Leave it to Columbus to show up at the last minute and claim all the fame.

From there, the chile boarded the Columbian Exchange to Europe and spread to places we assumed have just always had those spices (like Spain, Portugal, and Hungary) and even to the Caribbean, India, Northern Africa, and South and Southeast Asia. Many of these cultures already had their own spice strategies, but the conquistadors introduced the power of the chile pepper to many of those regions. Denver Nicks, in his book Hot Sauce Nation, asserts, “There’s a strong argument to be made that chiles are the Americas greatest gift to the world,” and I would have to agree. Without chiles, our favorite bottled flavors wouldn’t exist: Harissa (Northern Africa), Gochujang (Korea), Sriracha (Thailand), Peri Peri (Portugal), Cholula (Mexico), Pickapeppa (Jamaica), and, finally, Tabasco (USA).

In the U.S., Tabasco has been synonymous with hot sauce since 1868. For the longest time it was the only stuff commercially available on the market. But decades before that, hot sauce started as pepper vinegar: a sealed jar of chiles (typically cayenne) submerged in vinegar. These pickled peppers were often also used medicinally as a gargle to treat patients who complained of mouth, throat, and even digestive issues. It also became a popular seasoning in Southern soul food, which later birthed the more modern Louisiana-style hot sauce (like Tabasco) that is far more vinegar-y than, say, Sriracha. This latter method simply means the peppers of your choice are processed, mixed with vinegar, and then aged creating that lovely red-hued—and very liquidy—sauce.

In the 1840s, Maunsell White, an Irish immigrant and slave owner, started growing tabasco peppers (the new cayenne) on his plantation to help stem the cholera outbreak. He soon discovered that despite “polite society’s” aversion to spicy food and its social context, New Orleans oyster saloons would buy his chiles as a sauce. There’s actually a chemical reason that people slowly got over this aversion: capsaicin, the chemical that makes peppers spicy, causes the body pain to which it responds by a flood of dopamine—hot sauce is a high of sorts. But it wasn’t until the McIlhenny family started growing and bottling the temperamental pepper some 20 years later in the ideal soil of Avery Island that the Tabasco brand was born.

Tabasco, like Sriracha, has a cult following in the States. Ounce for ounce, it is the most expensive Louisiana-style hot sauce on the market, yet it is far and wide the most popular. The relatively simple process for bottling Tabasco, and other Louisiana-style sauce, has translated into hundreds of craft hot sauce brands that now permeate the restaurant markets especially in cities that fancy themselves “foodie towns.”

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Credit: Photo by steve snodgrass via flickr

It’s safe to say that the condiment that was once considered verboten in American high society isn't going anywhere. In fact it's only getting hotter.