Friday, November 12, 2004
A Few More Words About Tabasco Sauce
By ROGER M. GRACE
Little would Edmund McIlhenny, an out-of-work banker, have imagined in those days following the Civil War that his seeming puttering, his making and testing of brews of a sauce derived from hot peppers, would result in a commercial enterprise that would be thriving 135 years later.
McIlhenny, residing with his wife and in-laws on the in-law’s island in Louisiana, concocted the sauce for family use. It proved so popular with guests that he undertook in 1869 to market it, at $1 a jar. The sauce is still made by the family business, and it’s consumed around the globe.
Tabasco Sauce is, in fact, a big-time success in Japan where it’s sprinkled on pizza and spaghetti.
Here are some stray notes relating to that condiment, in this 19th and concluding installment on Tabasco.
•Treasured by the McIlhenny Company is the original recipe for Tabasco Sauce, jotted down by McIlhenny in a ledger. The existence of two other, and slightly different, handwritten recipes have been previously mentioned in the press. McIlhenny historian Shane Bernard told me recently he had just come upon across a fourth variation.
The first two recipes, Bernard said, called for aging the brew for only two months. Tabasco Sauce is now aged for three years, he noted. (Wooden barrels have been replaced with plastic ones, with the assurance to consumers that the wood never added a thing to the flavor.)
“One or two of these recipes will eventually be displayed for the general public in our forthcoming Museum in New Orleans, he mentioned.
•There is no question but that Col. Maunsel White concocted a “Tobasco Sauce” years before McIlhenny started brewing his version. What’s in question is whether there was any direct link between the two Louisianans.
Hal Burgiss provided me with a 1936 recitation he found in a bound family history book written by his great grandmother, Heloise Kennedy Bullitt, a granddaughter of White. The book, “Recollections of My Childhood,” is comprised of mimeographed reproductions of typed pages. She wrote:
“A friend of my Grandfather, a ship captain, brought back from Central America, and gave him a few tobasco pepper seeds. They were then unknown in Louisiana. Grandfather had the seeds planted and was successful in raising a crop of peppers. Out of them he made a delicious, pungent sauce. He made it solely for his own use, but gave it freely to his friends.
“He also gave the recipe to his friend McIlhenny.
“After my Grandfather’s death, Mr. McIlhenny’s family manufactured the sauce in large quantities and under the name of Maunsel White Tobasco Sauce, it was put on the market.
“The McIlhennys made money out of the sauce but none of it ever came the way of the Maunsel White family.”
Burgiss said his great-grandmother was born “somewhere in the 1860 timeframe or so.” Since White died in 1863, Bullitt obviously did not have personal knowledge of White supplying the recipe to McIlhenny, and it’s doubtful that she heard about it from his lips. So, she could have gotten part of the story wrong.
“[T]here is no evidence in the McIlhenny Company Archives or in any other materials of which I know (save Helen Bullitt’s memoir, which I strongly believe to be incorrect hearsay from long after the fact) that Edmund McIlhenny ever labeled his sauce bottles with any credit or reference to Maunsel White or White's pepper sauce.”
•Packed in the food rations of each U.S. soldier in the Mid-East is a one-eighth ounce miniature bottle of Tabasco Sauce. Any serviceman who wants a free 2-ounce bottle has but to send word to the McIlhenny Company and it will be dispatched.
The providing of Tabasco Sauce to U.S. troops began during the war in Vietnam while Walter S. McIlhenny, a grandson of the company founder, was serving as the company’s fourth president (1949-85). A Marine major during World War II (who earned two Purple Hearts, a Silver Star, and the Navy Cross), he well knew how bland C-rations (or “Charley rations”) were.
Thousands of copies of his “Charley Ration Cookbook” were sent to our troops, each wrapped around a 2-ounce gift bottle of Tabasco Sauce.
Back then, by the way, Tabasco Sauce only came in 2-ounce bottles, except for institutional use. Nowadays, there are the miniature bottles, as well as 5-ounce ones, 12-ounce ones, and gallon jugs.
•In 2000, fans of a TV show called “Roswell” sent more than 6,000 bottles of Tabasco Sauce to WB network officials to demonstrate their support for the show amidst rumors it was to be cancelled. The relevance of Tabasco Sauce was that the aliens on that sci-fi show were fond of drinking it.
The fans’ effort succeeded.
When “Roswell” was cancelled the next year, fans responded by bombarding officials at rival UPN with 12,000 bottles of the brew to persuade them to give the show a new home. Again, the campaign was successful.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company
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