Some Like It Hot
Tabasco, the best-known hot sauce in America, has local competition.
Thursday, April 27, 2000
As my dining compadre and I sat congratulating ourselves on the admirably considerable spoils of our visit to Central Texan Barbecue (see Dining Review), we began to muse on the potency of peppers. There at our booth, charmed by the array of condiments and admittedly playing with our food, we concocted our own complement of sauce that managed to make our ears turn red as it blazed a scorching trail from the tips of our tongues on down to our stomach linings, at once enhancing the flavor of the meat and making our eyes water. Capsicum frutescens, we reasoned, is a force with which to be reckoned.
"Knowledge is power," I gasped in a fiery breath, vowing to investigate. Only three ingredients comprise Tabasco sauce, perhaps the best-known pepper sauce that sits on refrigerator shelves and coffee shop counters across America: peppers, vinegar and salt. Researching further, I discovered that each five-ounce salvo of Tabasco contains 720 rounds of potent, power-packed punch, 720 drops of liquid life force guaranteed to wake up your eggs and slap some sense into your hashbrowns.
There''s a charming story that accompanies the bottle that wears the easily identifiable white, red and green label. The name "Tabasco" is a southern Mexican toponym meaning "land where soil is humid and capsicums can kill a stouthearted culinarian in one bite." Originally the sauce was called Petite Anse Island, from the anscestral land of Edward McIlhenny, a mid-19th century banker and pepper fancier who stuck pepper plants wherever sugar cane didn''t grow on the Isle Petite Anse off the coast of Lousiana. Following the Civil War, the name was changed to Avery Island, after Ed''s father-in-law. That was also after the Union troops decided they''d help themselves to the sugar and salt the land produced, since the island was also one of Johnny Reb''s favorite salt mines.
Who knows how the course of history may have been changed if Ed McIlhenny had known the impact that his peppers might have made on the Union army? Ed hadn''t gotten around to pickling a single peck of his peppers when the Yanks showed up. When the Averys and McIlhennys got back to their island after the war, all that was left were a couple of Ed''s pepper plants. Miffed and in a huff, Ed decided he would pick the peppers from his remaining plants, mash them up with salt, store them in a crock for 30 days, add some French wine vinegar, store them for another 30 days, stirring frequently, strain them off and then pour the bright red liquid into cologne bottlesand show those Yankees just what was what.
Ed corked his bottles of incendiary perfume, sealed them with wax and fitted a pouring spout on the each of the tops. Rallying his one remaining pig and sewing himself a smart smoking jacket from his single surviving window treatment, he then put on a massive victory barbecue. When the word started to get out about the secret ingredient in Ed McIlhenny''s barbecue sauce, the carpetbaggers came swooping down and orders started coming in from as far away as New York City. Ed McIlhenny had saved his island and enlivened the palates of those who like it hot.
Enlivenedand inspired: After touring the pepper plantation down in Louisiana, Gil Tortolani came back home and found his true calling. Starting with a Tabasco-like method, Gil added tomatoes, garlic and habañero peppers, to arrive at the thing of beauty that is Gil''s Crying Tongue Hot Sauce. Going completely out of control, he then opened up Gil''s Gourmet in Sand City, and erected the Wall of Flame, where heat-freaks may indulge themselves in 262 other varieties of hot sauces in what may be the largest collection of its kind, and of which "Hot Bitch at the Beach" and "Bad Girls in Heat" are just two. (If you''re picking out a gift for little Sally''s teacher, note that most of the selection bears more innocuous monikers.) As long as you''re heat-seeking, you''ll also find a large assortment of olives, nuts, salsas and even candies, all doing their part to live the legend and keep the fire burning.