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Tabasco - and Louisiana is drowning

"Tabasco sauce is to bachelor cooking what forgiveness is to sin."

P. J. O'Rourke

Yesterday, having received the weekly newsletter from the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, I watched Karen Martini do her thing in the Celebrity Sandwich series. It was a bit more complicated than some - a luxury roast chicken sandwich with onion rings, but one of the ingredients was green Tabasco, which she said was her favourite ingredient of the moment. Indeed she gave a quiet little rave. So I thought - yes, that's probably an interesting story - Tabasco that is - and indeed it is.

Tabasco is actually a state in Mexico, where in fact, they have just discovered a huge pyramid - Mexico's largest, so it must be big - having watched a program just a day or so ago about the huge pyramid at Chichen Itza (shown at left). Mind you I'm not sure how much of the new one is actually still standing. I think it is just that they have seen the outline from the air, with that new laser technology that archaeologists use.

But that's an aside. Tabasco the sauce, appears to be named after a particular pepper whose origins are in the state of Tabasco.

Origins - oh yes origins. Disputed as always. The official line of the McIlhenny Co. which makes Tabasco is that:

"The diet of the Reconstruction South was bland and monotonous, especially by Louisiana standards. So Edmund McIlhenny decided to create a pepper sauce to give the food some flavor and excitement."

They do go on to say that he was given the seeds, which I suspect is a slight nod to what it seems really happened. According to one Jeffrey Rothfeder who has written a book about it:

"The story actually begins in the pre-Civil War era with a New Orleans plantation owner named Maunsel White, who was famous for the food served at his sumptuous dinner parties. Mr. White's table no doubt groaned with the region's varied fare—drawing inspiration from European, Caribbean, and Cajun sources—but one of his favorites was of his own devising, made from a pepper named for its origins in the Mexican state of Tabasco. White added it to various dishes and bottled it for his guests. Although the McIlhennys have tried to dismiss the possibility, it seems clear now that in 1849, a full two decades before Edmund McIlhenny professed to discover the Tabasco pepper, White was already growing Tabasco chilies on his plantation."

Suffice to say that the McIlhenny Co. website makes no mention of Maunsel White. I will not enter into the argument. What cannot be disputed is that it is Edmund McIlhenny who commercialised the production of Tabasco in 1868. He was formerly a banker, born in England, migrated to Maryland and moved to Louisiana around 1840. He had lost money but his wife had property - Avery Island - and so they moved there. Avery Island is in the western part of the state of Louisiana - that's the state of which New Orleans is the capital, with the Mississippi River running through it and the Gulf of Mexico at its base. I will return to Louisiana and Avery Island later, because it's really quite interesting and distressing too.

But back to the McIlhenny family who still own and manage the company. One source says that Edmund McIlhenny was given the seeds of the pepper by 'his friend' Maunsel White. Who knows, and really who cares. Whether he made up the recipe, or pinched it from Maunsel White no longer matters really. What matters is that somebody discovered this particular pepper and somebody devised a way of turning it into what we now know as Tabasco sauce. It's actually really simple to make - you can sort of mimic it at home - Matthew Fort of the Guardian has a recipe - but no, it won't be like the real thing. The real thing is made from this particular variety of jalapeño peppers. They are picked when the red of the peppers matches the red of 'le baton rouge', shown above. They are then crushed and packed, with salt into old bourbon barrels which have had their insides stripped back to remove the taint of the whiskey - although maybe that is the secret ingredient. You would think that you could never quite remove that.

After three years of sitting in the barrels they are decanted and vinegar is added. This is stirred for 30 days - I'm not sure whether this is a constant thing or a daily thing or just from time to time. The result is strained and bottled - giving you the sauce that Karen Martini - and the rest of the world loves.

That bottle (this is the original) and it's very noticeable shape comes from the fact that the first sauces were put into bottles that had been destined for cologne. The little spray at the top helped restrict the amount of sauce that came out of the bottle. For it is potent. Today they produce some 750,000 bottles a day and export to 185 countries around the world. They have also expanded into making different varieties. There are nine shown on their website. The green one that Karen Martini loves is much milder and made from green jalapeño peppers and green capsicum.

Today the peppers come from various parts of South America, where they are grown on small farms from seeds that are produced on Avery Island, Avery Island itself not being big enough to produce enough peppers. But Tabasco is still made there. And the company is still in the hands of a direct descendant although he doesn't have the McIlhenny surname. Somewhere along the line there must have been no son and so the line continued through a daughter.

It seems to be a pretty responsible company. Their website currently has a letter from the CEO supporting Black Lives Matter, and the website has a video promoting its environmental efforts.

Avery Island, is currently not quite an island as it is surrounded by wetlands/marshes which are featured in that video. And rather lovely they are. Avery Island itself is a hill of salt, near the coast surrounded by wetlands. Apparently until relatively recently there was no good road off the island and so virtually the entire workforce lived next to the factory - bottom left in the photo above. Nowadays with improved roads, many now live on the mainland, but some still live near their place of work. There is a museum and tourist visits, but again, in a more enlightened move than much of America, the company has temporarily closed this down because of COVID19.

However, the island is threatened. Indeed the whole of the state of Louisiana is threatened. Hurricane Katrina was the first blow, then there was Hurricane Rita, plus the sea level is relentlessly rising. The Mississippi has been misused over hundreds of years, industry, particularly the oil industry has also wreaked havoc on the natural environment. The marshes are retreating by some 30ft a year according to the Guardian as salt water creeps in through canals made by the oil industry. The land is also sinking, and hurricanes regularly sweep in. The McIlhenny company has built levées to protect the factory, and is working hard to restore the marshes, with pantings and tiers but the Louisiana government is, quite understandably throwing all of its resources at the eastern part of the state - where New Orleans is. The rest of the state is on its own. The Guardian article reported the alarming fact that Louisiana loses a football field of land every 100 minutes to the sea!

So what to do with your bottle of tabasco, that you bought one day for some reason, used a couple of drops and haven't touched it since? Well if you're Karen Martini, you put it in almost everything! And she's not alone.

"Tabasco is one of those ingredients that seems to add huge waves of flavour to all sorts of dishes with just one or two dashes from the bottle." Tom Shingler

I confess, that although I have a bottle in my cupboard it rarely gets used. I just don't think about it, unless a recipe specifies it. It's most famous use, of course is in the making of a Bloody Mary, but we don't drink cocktails in our house. Also it is often sprinkled over oysters, but I just can't come at oysters. I also see that it is used in the making of Chile con carne, although it is not in the recipe I use - Robert Carrier's. Not that I would make that particular dish these days because of David's aversion to chilli. And when I checked Robert Carrier's recipe I see why the first time I made it we nearly died from the heat - it specifies 4 tablespoons of chilli powder!!! Is that a typo? I know we had palpitations. I have made it since and it is delicious, but I radically reduced the amount of chilli.

And you need to be careful with the amount of Tabasco you use too, although it sounds like the green version might be worth a try for more regular use. The McIlhenny website has a stack of recipes and the BBC Food website has some too, just to give you ideas. But yes I should use it more, because for such a little thing you get a lot of flavour - well so the chefs say. Maybe I should start using it when I want a mild chilli hit and hope that David won't notice.

"When you use Tabasco in the marinade, it kind of infuses everything." Mario Batali


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