Cultures worldwide have used spices to extend the longevity of food for thousands of years. It is out of this ingenuity that hot sauce was born.
Asian food boasts a wide variety of hot sauces. Korean cooking can be spiced up with Gochujang —a red chili paste that can liven up all kinds of dishes. Indonesia’s version of spicy chili sauce or paste is called Sambul. Most people are familiar with Thailand’s wildly popular chili pepper sauce, Sriracha. India is also well-known for their variety of spicy curries, known to make many unsuspecting individuals break out in a sweat.
The Caribbean offers up its fair share of spicy sauce as well. The famous Caribbean jerk sauce is made from pimento and Scotch bonnet peppers, combined with nutmeg, soy sauce, thyme and other seasonings. Scotch bonnet peppers —cousin to the habanero, but ranking much higher on the Scoville scale — are also used to make a fiery hot Scotch bonnet pepper sauce.
For a lot of modern society, spicy food is synonymous with good living. The right hot sauce can turn even the blandest food into something amazing. Likewise, it can take an amazing meal to the next level.
Those who love spicy food might wonder how people were able to get along before hot sauce. In the US, the answer was not long. The first commercial hot sauces in the US was created just 31 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It's clear that many early Americans had their culinary priorities in the right place.
The Earliest Days
Sadly, the exact history of hot sauces in the states has been lost to time. We find the first record of a tabasco chili crop all the way back in 1849. The crop was credited to Colonel Maunsell White. We don't often think of bankers as the spiciest people in the world. However, White was both a banker and a culinary innovator. He'd take that crop and create his own tabasco chili sauce. This branding would become more solid in 1869 thanks to one of his friends.
The friend, Edmund Mcilhenny, created the Tabasco Brand Pepper Sauce. Amazingly enough the local tradition in their area has continued all the way up to the modern era. The region of Louisiana where we find the first records of a tabasco chili crop is still renowned for spicy sauces. This geographic lineage also highlights one of the limitations of past eras.
Until recently, people needed to make due with local crops. North America as a whole didn't have much surplus of spicy ingredients to use. The result is that much of the real culinary innovation was happening elsewhere. What's more, many people kept a firm hand on their family recipes. We really didn't see much of a commercial boom in the sauces until the 1940s. This decade would see two major changes within the industry.
The 1940s Bring Some Changes to the National Palate
The first of these innovations came from La Victoria Salsa Brava. Their product line might not seem groundbreaking to the modern eye. But it's important to keep the time and place in mind. Their red, green and enchilada sauces offered something truly different to Americans in the 1940s.
The second innovation would come from a liquor store owner in San Antonio. His small store would become the birthplace of America's first Picante sauce. The owner, David Pace, may be better known to people today as the creator of Pace Foods. It's amazing to think that this simple recipe would lead to a company which was ultimately purchased by the Campbell Soup Company for $1.115 billion. These numbers also make it clear that Americans were more than ready for the taste revolution provided by spicy sauces.
Magazines in the 1950s Provide Some New Ideas for the Dinner Table
The 1950s saw continual growth within the industry. Once again, it's important to keep the very different tastes of the era in mind. The United States carries many of the culinary traditions of the British people. Saying that tradition tended toward more mild tastes would be an understatement. The average American still needed to learn about truly spicy tastes before he could appreciate this new type of sauce.
We can credit two magazines for spreading the news about spicy food to the households of the 1950s. Bon Appetit and Gourmet magazine would give people their first impression of many seemingly exotic meals. This included spicy meals which shocked and delighted those who tried them for the first time.
However, the average household was usually at a loss when it came to actually acquiring many of the ingredients for those exotic new meals. Thankfully mail order was becoming increasingly viable for those who wanted to add something more daring to the dinner table. Bottled items such as these sauces were especially useful in this more experimental era.
The 1960s Use Spicy Tastes To Help Those Far From Home
However, we need to move far beyond the innovative housewives of the 1950s for the next landmark in the sauce's history. War is seldom associated with humor or culinary appreciation. But a former World War II marine saw an opportunity arise during the Vietnam War. Walter Mcilhenny had experienced his share of bland survival food packages during his service. Their early form of MRE was known as C-rations. And he was well aware of just how much it could stand some extra flavor.
The vet was currently leading Tabasco and saw a perfect chance to combine two passions within his life. He could help both his company and soldiers by providing Tabasco. The company would soon ship out bottles along with an instruction book entitled "The Charlie Ration Cookbook". He also ran newspaper ads reading "Send YOUR man overseas some new food ideas and a few laughs". His book took a comical look at the subject. It also gave some valuable tips which helped soldiers combine their rations, spicy sauce and local items to create a true meal.
It can't be emphasized enough just how much a moment of comfort can mean to people under the strain of war. Some soldiers look back and recall that they often had trouble finding any fresh ingredients. But they could always count on the combination of hot sauce and survival food rations. At this point in history the C-rations had technically been replaced by MCIs.
But the Meal, Combat, Individual rations were functionally the same as the older C-rations. Likewise, people kept referring to them by the less than fond nickname "charlie rats". It's easy to imagine just how much a spicy sauce would mean to people who were living on the blandest of tastes.
In fact, troops loved the combination so much that spicy sauces would become a staple item. The true MRE would finally replace MCIs by 1981. Nine years later Tabasco sauce was officially made a part of MREs for the Gulf War. The taste of military rations has improved tremendously since those early days of C-rations. However, anyone who loves spicy food can attest to the fact that even the best meal is enhanced by a few dabs of the good stuff. Soldiers may not have humorously illustrated guides to using the sauces anymore. But many of those early recipes endure to this day.
From the 90s to Today
The changes in MREs for the Gulf War marked another turning point in the history of American sauces. In 1991 spicy sauces officially outsold ketchup in the US. David Pace's company, Pace Foods, was still going strong. The company founded in the 1940s went from introducing spicy sauces to standing at the top of the market it helped create.
By this point Americans no longer saw the average sauce as much of a novelty. Just two years later that would change thanks to Dave Hirschkop. His "insanity sauce" was so spicy that it was banned from that year's National Fiery Food Show. It proved to be the best marketing anyone could hope for. The public was suddenly seeing the sauces in a similar way to their predecessors in the 1940s. They were faced with a new type of heat in their food. And this led to a new race to create the spiciest of the spicy concoctions.
Of course, people were also innovating in the opposite direction. We noted earlier that the sauces were now competing against standard condiments like ketchup. This led to a desire for sauces that were hot but not overly distracting. Many people were looking for a sauce which would compliment but not distract from the other flavors in a meal.
Many Americans were looking for what amounted to a spicy replacement for ketchup. The public would find it in sriracha. It had been available in the US from Huy Fong Foods, with their distinctive rooster logo, since the 1980s. But it didn't really explode in popularity until the early 2000s.
This brings us to the modern era. Today we have a wide variety of options available to us. People still love to use the spicy sauces with their MREs. Others prefer to use more mild options like sriracha on everything from burgers to cocktails. But there's one thing every lover of spicy food can agree on. Almost all foods can benefit from a little hot sauce.