Thursday, July 22, 2004
Is Tabasco Sauce Patterned After Colonel White’s ‘Tobasco Extract’?
By ROGER M. GRACE
A “gentleman of the Old South” was Col. Maunsel White, a Louisiana plantation owner, New Orleans city councilman, and state senator. The colonel, who was born near Limerick, Ireland in 1783 and died in Louisiana in 1863, is credited by some as the inventor of Tabasco Sauce.
But that distinction is not recognized by the McIlhenny Company, the Avery Island, La., outfit that manufactures the popular condiment. Through the decades, it has proclaimed its founder, Edmund McIlhenny, the originator of the 135-year-old product.
As I discussed last week, White was growing “tobasco” peppers by 1849 and began marketing “Col. Maunsel White’s Concentrated Extract of Tobasco Sauce” in 1859. McIlhenny’s marketing effort did not begin until 1869.
Yet, historian Shane K. Bernard, curator of the McIlhenny Archives, told me that this does not necessarily mean that McIlhenny’s “Tabasco Sauce” has any relationship to what White manufactured.
1879 menu from steamship Ed. Richardson includes "Maunsel White" sauce.
Bernard acknowledged that White, “almost as a hobby,” had engaged in “making something he called ‘Tobasco Sauce’ out of something he called ‘tobasco peppers.’ ” However, the word “tobasco” referred then to “any pepper or spice that was held to come from the Tabasco region of Mexico,” Bernard said.
The historian noted that while Tabasco is now a state in Mexico, it was then a “vaguely defined area south of Veracruz.” The term “tobasco,” he advised, was applied even to non-peppers associated with that terrain, including the fruit of the myrtle tree, now known as allspice.
There is no trace of correspondence between McIlhenny and White, Bernard related, declaring that McIlhenny “never communicated directly or indirectly with Maunsel White or his family.” He added:
“I don’t think they actually knew each other.”
He said the only discernible link between McIlhenny and White was that the former’s father-in-law had been on a three-member commission with White in the late 1840s, charged with overseeing plans for a new state Capitol in Baton Rouge.
That connection—which Bernard dismisses as tenuous—is portrayed as highly meaningful by Maunsel White, a great-great grandson of Col. Maunsel White.
The descendent is project coordinator for a bridge construction company in Florida. He told me that Col. Maunsel White and McIlhenny’s father-in-law, Baton Rouge lawyer Daniel Dudley Avery (a judge from 1860-62), “were friends and often visited each other’s plantations.” On some occasion when the colonel went to the plantation on Avery Island, “Edmund McIlhenny may have been there,” he speculated.
McIlhenny, a banker, moved to the island in the early 1860s, having married into the Avery family in 1859.
In his 1992 book “Peppers, a Story of Hot Pursuits,” Amal Naj mentioned that one of Avery’s sons “knew White well and was a frequent dinner guest at his Deer Range plantation.”
In my conversation with him on July 6, White asserted that there is a “preoccupation on the part of McIlhenny [Company] to downplay any connection Maunsel White had” with Tabasco Sauce, to the point of there being a standard “paranoid response” to the mention of Colonel White.
However, in the course of e-mails back and forth among me, White, and Bernard, it did become clear that Bernard is foremost an historian, not simply a promoter of the corporate line.
In an e-mail to Bernard, I summed up White’s main contention as follows:
“Daniel Avery, father-in-law of Edmund McIlhenny, was bound to have known of Col. Maunsel White’s efforts to promote use of Tabasco peppers for therapeutic purposes, and of his sauce, because of a close relationship between them.”
Bernard, in a July 12 e-mail to me and to White, responded: “I concur completely.”
“One might be tempted, however, to infer from the above that—through the Avery-White relationship—E. McIlhenny somehow must have obtained his peppers from White; and although I believe this is possible, I do not know if it is probable.”
He went on to say:
“I think it is likely/probable that E. McIlhenny knew of White’s sauce when he concocted his own sauce, for two reasons: 1) White’s sauce had been advertised and sold as early as ca. 1850 in [New Orleans], where at the time E. McIlhenny resided, which may have resulted in a familiarity with White’s sauce*; and 2) McIlhenny family tradition maintains that E. McIlhenny was fond of well-seasoned food, which, again, may have resulted in a familiarity with White’s sauce.”
These are probably the biggest concessions on the matter ever to come out of the McIlhenny camp.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company
*Bernard subsequently concluded that White had not advertised his sauce. The historian has not disclosed the methodology by which he reached that conclusion.
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