Thursday, October 14, 2004
McIlhennys Speak With Forked Tongues in Telling of Tabasco Origin
By ROGER M. GRACE
On its website, the McIlhenny Company offers a catchy version of how founder Edmund McIlhenny in the late 1860s came to apply the name “Tabasco” to the pepper sauce he concocted. Here’s the account:
“Edmund McIlhenny came up with the brand name TABASCO® as his second choice. Some scholars say it’s a Central American Indian word that means ‘land where the soil is hot and humid.’ This certainly describes the climate of Avery Island [in Louisiana] that has proved perfect for growing his special variety of hot pepper. Other scholars have put forth that it actually means ‘place of coral or oyster shell.’
“McIlhenny originally wanted to call his concoction Petite Anse Sauce (after the Island which then was known as Isle Petite Anse). But when family members balked at the commercial use of the family Island’s name, he opted for the trademark TABASCO®.”
In 1990, the then-vice president of the company (and now president), Paul McIlhenny, told the Wall Street Journal that the name was chosen because “Grandpere just liked the sound of it.”
But is it plausible that McIlhenny’s labels bear the description “Tabasco Pepper Sauce” for any reason other than that the product is a sauce made from Tabasco peppers?
The highest trademark protection is accorded names that are “arbitrary or fanciful.” The tale on the McIlhenny website and Paul McIlhenny’s press comment would seem to be aimed at projecting an illusion that the naming of Edmund McIlhenny’s condiment meets that description when, in fact, the designation is plainly a generic one, unworthy of protection.
According to the McIlhenny Company’s historian/curator, Bernard Shane, Edmund McIlhenny never called his peppers Tabascos—he “just called his peppers ‘peppers’”—and it was not until 1888 that a botanist in New York recognized McIlhenny’s species of pepper as distinctive, dubbing it “Tabasco.” That simply means the botanist was more narrowly applying the name than had been the custom in the marketplace. And there really can be no doubt that peppers were being sold in the marketplace as “Tabasco peppers” when the McIlhenny product entered commerce in 1869. In his 1870 patent application, Edmund McIlhenny declared: “This invention relates to a new process of preparing an aromatic and strong sauce from the pepper known in the marketplace as Tabasco pepper.”
That patent application, it would appear, was a sham.
The application, signed by McIlhenny, declared that the mashed pulp of Tabasco peppers was mixed with “fine vinegar and rock salt,” covered for six weeks, “worked through a sieve,” and that “about one drop of bisulphate of lime is then added to every ounce of mixture, for preventing fermentation.”
The application, which formed the substance of the patent granted Sept. 27, 1870, continued:
“The skins and suds not passed through the sieve are potted for about twenty-four hours, with an ounce of alcohol to each pound of the residue.
“This mixture is thoroughly agitated and then placed under a press, by which the remaining pulp and juice are forced out.
“A drop of bisulphate of lime is added to every ounce received from the press. The two mixtures thus prepared are now put together, and the whole compound worked through a fine flour sieve. The sauce is thus completely prepared and ready for use.”
Bernard, who described his job as that of uncovering truths and dispelling myths about Tabasco Sauce, said that bisulphate of lime was never used in Edmund McIlhenny’s process.
“There are no records of his purchasing bisulphate of lime,” Bernard noted.
Why the false reference to that ingredient? “I think that was a ruse,” Bernard told me, explaining that would-be competitors would be put on the wrong track in seeking to duplicate the sauce. He was unaware whether alcohol was ever used in the formula.
The McIlhennys have, in other instances, been caught in fibs. As I’ve recited in earlier columns, they were in 1909 stripped of the trademark registration they had gained three years earlier on the word “Tabasco” because the eldest son of Edmund McIlhenny, John Avery McIlhenny, had lied on the trademark application.
He had proclaimed that his family had exclusively used the word “Tabasco” as a description of a chile-pepper sauce for the preceeding 10 years. In truth, as he well knew, several other companies had been marketing “Tabasco” sauces.
And then there’s Edward Avery “Ned” McIlhenny, number two son, who had a penchant for telling whoppers. He led the company for about 50 years, while engaging in various pursuits, including exploration and conservationism. Ned McIlhenny was implicated in a political scandal in Louisiana that resulted in the downfall of the governor.
Next week: a look at this intriguing figure.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company
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