Torrid Tabasco: sauce for soldiers and sinuses


It has made soldiers weep for joy. It has made other folks just plain cry. Its zealots claim it can bring life to seafood, zest to beef, and personality to scrambled eggs. The not-so-swept away simply complain that it burns their lips. Everyone agrees that it opens sinuses.

It is Tabasco sauce, the fiery stuff made from red capsicum peppers by the McIlhenny family of Avery Island, La. This year the sauce is 125 years old. And to mark the occasion, Paul McIlhenny and Barbara Hunter have written "The Tabasco Cookbook" (Clarkson Potter, $14).

As a user but not a fanatic -- I gargle with Tabasco but do not let it near the breakfast table -- I was able to control my passion as I flipped through the book.

The idea, for example, of shaking a little on some raw oysters, had me licking my soon-to-be singed lips. But the recipe calling for tossing two teaspoons of the stuff into a marinade for Fiery Catfish Fingers had me running for the cucumber sandwiches.

I found it interesting that this sauce, which I link with the pepper-on-toast tastes of Louisiana, was first made by a Marylander.

The primal pepper-grower of the clan was Edmund McIlhenny, who as a young bank clerk moved from Hagerstown in the 1830s to Louisiana, eventually settling on Avery Island, where his wife's family owned a sugar planation.

Edmund began experimenting with plants, including some capsicum peppers brought to him by a friend who had visited Mexico. The peppers grew, McIlhenny puttered, and eventually he hit upon a sauce-making technique. He crushed ripe peppers, tossing about half a coffee can of salt on them. Then he let the concoction stew in large vessels. First it fermented by itself; then vinegar joined it. It was strained, put in bottles, sealed and sold.

Early on, the sauce was called "That Famous Sauce That Mr. McIlhenny Makes." Now the name Tabasco is copyrighted. The name is linked to Mexico, where, in the native dialect, the phrase means something like "damp ground." That makes sense. The first eaters who swallowed one of these fiery peppers were probably looking for anything damp to put in their mouths.

At one time, all the peppers in Tabasco came from Avery Island, a remarkable piece of land, laced with salt, that rises above the costal marshes. But lately demand has outstripped the supply, and the peppers are imported from South America.

As anyone knows who has used Tabasco to fight congestion -- gargle a teaspoon, and your head will clear -- the sauce is hot. Just how hot is determined by the Scoville scale, a measurement named after its turn-of-the-century inventor, Wilbur Scoville, that rates hotness in peppers from zero for common bell peppers to 200,000 for habeneros peppers. Tabasco sauce scores between 9,000 and 12,000 on the Scoville scale -- hot, but it could be hotter.

I also found it interesting that the warm spot United States soldiers have in their hearts for Tabasco is due to the bland nature of military meals and the clever salesmanship of Walter "Tabasco Mac" McIlhenny. During the Vietnam War, this member of the McIlhenny family wrote "Charley Ration Cookbook," an often-humorous cookbook that told troops how, using the sauce, they could transform standard-issue meals into dishes like Combat Zone Burgoo.

During Operation Desert Storm, Tabasco sauce was widely heralded by the troops as an excellent way to revive the deadly Meals Ready to Eat (MRE) rations. Now small bottles of the sauce are standard issue in all MRE.

After reading about the history of the sauce, I felt braver, and was ready to reconsider where I was willing to sprinkle the sauce.

The idea of brushing 1/3 teaspoon of Tabasco on each side of a steak, then grilling the meat, was intriguing. And Paul McIlhenny, one of the authors of the book, assured me in a phone conversation that "most of the heat burns off" in the cooking process. He also advised rubbing the sauce on the steak with the back of a spoon, not a fingertip. When Tabasco sauce finds it, even a small cut on a finger becomes a major concern.

But the peppered pecans -- three cups of nuts covered with 3 cloves of minced garlic, 3 tablespoons of butter, 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 2 1/2 teaspoons of Tabasco cooked for an hour in a 250-degree oven -- sounded exotic. Something that only bon vivants in Louisiana, or bankers in Hagerstown, were ready for.

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