Thursday, September 21, 2006
McIlhenny Company Perpetuates Myth on Its Website
By ROGER M. GRACE
The website of the McIlhenny Company—producer of the popular food perker-upper “Tabasco Pepper Sauce,” now has a section addressing itself to widespread myths about the product, marketed since 1869. All of the myths but one were covered here in a 19-installment series of columns which stretched from July 8-Nov. 12, 2004.
An introduction to the website’s discussion of the myths, bearing the byline of Shane Bernard, company historian/curator, says that the maker of Tabasco Sauce wants “to accurately chronicle the events surrounding the creation of this global culinary icon.”
The discussion on the website is in a question-and-answer format. The question relating to the myth not mentioned in my 2004 series is this:
“Is it true that TABASCO® Sauce was so instantly popular in Europe that [company founder] Edmund McIlhenny opened a London office in 1872 - only four years after Tabasco sauce went on the market - in order to handle intense European demand for his product?”
The answer given is:
“No, this oft-repeated story is entirely untrue. Edmund McIlhenny did not export any TABASCO® sauce to Europe until late 1873/early 1874, when he sent only a few dozen bottles to Europe in order to stir interest in the product. He did not begin to export Tabasco pepper sauce to Europe in large quantities until several years later.”
Is there any problem with that? Yes. The question alludes to 1872 having been “only four years after Tabasco sauce went on the market.” I don’t think it’s a controversial proposition that 1872 minus four is 1868…the very year prominently displayed on each Tabasco Sauce bottle. The words used are: “Since 1868.”
However, Bernard told me in 2004 (and his employer probably wishes he hadn’t blabbed) that he’d discovered from company records that while McIlhenny had planted tabasco peppers in 1868 in preparation for marketing his sauce, actual marketing did not begin until 1869. Why, then, was the company still proclaiming “Since 1868” on its bottles rather than changing the date by a year? Bernard at the time rationalized that the planting of the peppers was commercial activity, so the company (or its predecessor) does hark to 1868.
However, in conveying on its website that the sauce has been “marketed” since 1868, when Bernard has uncovered documentation showing that to be false, the McIlhenny Company is knowingly perpetuating a myth, contrary to its announced myth-busting purpose.
The series here included discussion of Maunsel White who made a sauce from Tabasco peppers before Edward McIlhenny did. I quoted from a 1986 book, “The Hot Sauce Bible,” which says:
“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].”
Bernard was quoted here on July 22, 2004 as saying in an e-mail:
“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.”
After the series had ended, Bernard advised me that he had determined—his methodology being undisclosed—that White never advertised his sauce, and that it was widely called “Maunsel White’s,” not Tabasco Sauce. From this, a lawyer for the McIlhenny Company said in a missive weeks later, it must be concluded that White did not have rights to the name “Tabasco Sauce.” I never said that he did. My point was that the early trademark decisions denying protection to the words “Tabasco Pepper Sauce” were correct because they were generic; the product was a sauce made from tabasco peppers.
The website portrays the word “tabasco” as having had a vague and uncertain meaning until 1888 when “Edmund McIlhenny’s pepper was officially recognized by a noted American botanist and is now classified as Capsicum frutescens var. tabasco.”
It may well be that some botanist hired by McIlhenny pronounced his pepper to be the tabasco pepper, but any implication that there was not long before then a pepper known in the marketplace as a tabasco pepper would be erroneous. McIlhenny, himself, had declared in an 1870 patent application: “This invention relates to a new process of preparing an aromatic and strong sauce from the pepper known in the marketplace as Tabasco pepper.”
There will be more about mistruths on the McIlhenny website next week.
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