Thursday, July 8, 2004
Tabasco: a Hot Sauce With an Uncertain Background
By ROGER M. GRACE
On tables and counters, in diners, seafood houses, and bars, there is that ubiquitous cylindrical bottle with a narrow neck containing a crimson fluid. The label reads, “Tabasco Sauce.” Though known by sight and by taste throughout the world, there is probably no product on the market whose origins are surrounded by more false, or at least unverifiable, lore.
Dedicating efforts to separating fact from fantasy is historian/author Shane K. Bernard. Since 1993, he’s been working for the McIlhenny Company, which manufactures Tabasco Sauce. He’s found that some of the yarns of doubtful accuracy about the product had been spread unwittingly through the years by the company, itself.
One misstatement long propagated by the Avery Island, La., enterprise was that founder Edmund McIlhenny began commercial distribution of his concoction of peppers, vinegar and salt in 1868. Actually, Bernard told me last Friday, McIlhenny started marketing the product in or about April of 1869. And while he did sell it in cologne bottles (useful in promoting a dabbing rather than a pouring of the fiery condiment), he used virgin containers, not discarded ones as the company had previously recited.
Uncertainty surrounds the concoction by Edmund McIlhenny of Tabasco Sauce — a condiment now produced, and marketed internationally, by his descendants. The McIlhenny Company has hired an expert to undertake historical detective work to separate fact from fiction about the product's origin and development.
The date was erroneously pegged at 1868, Bernard explained, based on a “misreading of account books.”
Three hundred fifty unused cologne bottles were filled with a brew made from peppers harvested in 1868, Bernard said, but those bottles, he noted, were marketed along with 308 others which were infused with sauce manufactured from peppers harvested in 1869.
Whether marketing of the sauce commenced in 1868 or 1869 is not a matter apt to have an impact on any of our lives. Nor is the question of who supplied the seeds to McIlhenny for his first pepper plants.
Yet, I find utterly fascinating how the history of this familiar product has apparently been mangled, and how the manufacturing company, owned by descendents of the founder, has commissioned an historian to unravel the truth. In progress is an investigation taking place more than a century-and-a-half after the time when, according to most sources, the tale began.
That beginning, traditional accounts declare, occurred when Friend Gleason, a United States soldier in the War with Mexico (1846-48), brought dried pods back to Louisiana from south of the border where he had fought, giving a small packet to McIlhenny, a banker. The seeds from those pods are said to have spawned the pepper plants which became the primary ingredient in Tabasco Sauce.
“I’ve looked and looked for this Gleason person” in historical records, Bernard told me, “and just can’t find him.”
As the long-told tale progresses…following his 1859 marriage to Mary Avery and moving to Avery Island, McIlhenny planted some of the seeds in his wife’s garden. McIlhenny and his family fled their plantation in 1863 when Union soldiers stormed the area, seizing local salt mines.
Upon the McIlhennys’ return home in 1865 from Texas, they found their mansion had been looted and their cane crops destroyed. But some (or, according to the more dramatic version, one) of the pepper plants had survived, providing the seeds for the first crop of Tabasco peppers.
Bernard scoffed at the notion that McIlhenny obtained seeds in or about 1849 which had simply lain around, not planted for nearly two decades.
Aside from the inherent improbability of that having occurred, Bernard relies on family letters. Edmund McIlhenny’s wife, eldest daughter, and brother-in-law, he related, told a different version. Under it, the historian said, “an unnamed person gave Edmund the peppers after the Civil War” while he was in New Orleans, the gift consisting of five or six pepper pods.
The donor, Bernard said, might have been a Confederate soldier. He disclosed that in February, 1866, McIlhenny, who was “job-hunting in New Orleans,” wrote to his wife, telling of having encountered a rebel soldier just returned from Mexico, where he had fled rather than surrender.
It was E.A. McIlhenny, second eldest son of Edmund McIlhenny and company president from 1898-1949, who “believed the Friend Gleason story,” and caused the company to adopt and disseminate it, Bernard said. He noted that it was “a common story in all of our press kits.”
Does Bernard totally discount that rendition? Well, if he ever did, he doesn’t.
Bernard recently came across an article in an 1873 Louisiana newspaper in New Iberia, close to Avery Island, which “implied that Edmund got the peppers during or before the Civil War.” The information, he said, presumably came from Edmund McIlhenny or someone close to him. That article “throws everything into doubt again,” he remarked, adding: “I don’t know what to believe.”
A further complication is the theory—which I’ll discuss next week—that one Maunsel White originated Tabasco sauce, and that he gave McIlhenny the seeds from which McIlhenny grew pepper plants used in a copycat concoction.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company
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