Thursday, July 15, 2004
Was Col. Maunsel White the True Originator of Tabasco Sauce?
By ROGER M. GRACE
It is not doubted that Tabasco Sauce—that red fluid with a kick that’s applied to food in drops—has been manufactured continuously by the McIlhenny family of Louisiana since Edmund McIlhenny started selling it 135 years ago. And it was long ago settled by the courts that only the McIlhennys’ brew may be labeled Tabasco Sauce.
And yet…it is also beyond question that there was an earlier “Tobasco Sauce” (note the second letter is an “o”), manufactured in Louisiana. Like the sauce McIlhenny and his heirs would later sell, Col. Maunsel White’s Concentrated Extract of Tobasco Sauce was made from hot red peppers, vinegar and salt. It just might have been virtually the same as, or close to, what McIlhenny made. Or not. No one knows.
No one knows how close "Col. Maunsel White’s Concentrated Extract of Tobasco Sauce" was to the McIlhenny Company's famed "Tabasco Sauce." It is known that White's sauce came first and, like Tabasco Sauce, was comprised of red peppers, salt and vinegar. However, it wasn't fermented, as Tabasco Sauce is, and the peppers might — or might not — have been different.
A 1986 book, “The Hot Sauce Bible,” recites:
“ marked the first recorded crop of tabasco chiles, the vital ingredient of McIlhenny Company’s Tabasco Pepper Sauce. That crop was grown by a prominent Louisiana banker and legislator, Colonel Maunsell White on his Deer Range Plantation. The New Orleans Daily Delta printed a letter from a visitor to White’s plantation, who reported, ‘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 red pepper. The Colonel attributes the admirable health of his hands [i.e., slaves] to the free use of this pepper.’ Tobasco was an early misspelling of Tabasco, the Mexican state.
“Colonel White manufactured the first hot sauce from the ‘Tobasco’ chiles and advertised bottles of it for sale in 1859. About this time, he gave some chiles and his sauce recipe to a friend, Edmund McIlhenny, who promptly planted the seeds on his plantation on Avery Island [in Louisiana].”
(White—whose title was derived from his service in the Louisiana militia—usually spelled his first name with one “l,” but sometimes with two.)
A great-great grandson of Col. Maunsel White, also bearing the moniker Maunsel White, told me his ancestor gave away tobasco seeds to many, seeking to promote use of tobasco plants for their therapeutic value.
He pointed to a Jan. 26, 1850 article in the New Orleans Daily Delta which reported:
“Col. White has introduced the celebrated tobasco red pepper, the very strongest of all peppers, of which he has cultivated a large quantity with the view of supplying his neighbors, and diffusing it throughout the state.”
The article went on to say:
“Owing to its oleaginous [oily] 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 [extract] 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 dedoction like this, particularly in preparing the food for laboring persons, would be found exceedingly beneficial in a relaxing climate like this. 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 his 1992 book, “Peppers, a Story of Hot Pursuits,” published by Alfred A. Knopf, journalist Amal Kumar Naj wrote of a woman named Sallie Huling, “who was about twenty-five years old when Edmund is supposed to have concocted his sauce.”
“[She] often stopped by at Deer Range to see the Whites and their four children. She would later testify that she had heard on her visits that ‘a Mr. McIlhenny had come down to Deer Range’ and that Maunsel White gave him ‘a number of pods of pepper, and also gave him the secret process’ for making the sauce.”
On its website, the McIlhenny Co. makes no mention of White. Its version is simply this:
“According to family tradition, founder Edmund McIlhenny obtained some hot pepper seeds from a traveler who had recently arrived in Louisiana from Central America. McIlhenny planted them on Avery Island, and then experimented with pepper sauces until he hit upon one he liked.”
Shane K. Bernard, an historian and the curator of the McIlhenny Co. Archives, said in a telephone interview that there’s no hard evidence of a link between White’s extract and the condiment McIlhenny fashioned.
It’s not known if they used the same pepper—the term “tabasco” then being widely applied even to non-peppers—and, in any event, White’s sauce was boiled, rather than being fermented as McIlhenny’s sauce has been from the outset, he said.
However, in an e-mail Monday to me and to White, Bernard, who is charged with separating fact from lore about Tabasco Sauce, made some major concessions.
There will be more about that next week.
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