“Come on, let me have it.”
“It’s too hot for you.”
“Please?” My voice whined, even back then.
“You won’t be able to finish it and we would have wasted a sandwich.” Mom was always a careful accountant of opportunity costs and risks, even if it was just a $.39 Krystal burger.
“Just a little on the edge. It won’t touch the rest of the meat.”
“Dad, whatcha think?” She didn’t want to bear the brunt of the fallout.
“Give him a little,” said the muffled voice between chews.
I jumped gleefully in the chair, the rungs below the seat giving me a boost as I reached across the table for the clear bottle with the bright red liquid inside.
The slider open in front of me, I dashed a few drops on the thin meat—too much, in fact. I opened wide and devoured a corner. Not bad, I thought—no instantaneous burning. But those rogue splashes around the rest of the meat caught up with my neophyte taste buds, and pretty soon that glass of milk that I never wanted to drink became my best friend. There may have even been a cry or two, yet at the time I couldn’t grasp what embarrassed me more: the tears of pain, or the fact I couldn’t be like my dad.
At least that’s how I recall the incident.
Spicy cuisines, and the sauces that supplement them, have been part of southern culture for so long that I was amazed to learn there were other parts of the country that didn’t readily accept them. The long-running narrative that other foods within the US were devoid of flavor is legend, but untrue; many of the greatest food cities and cuisines from the Midwest to the Southwest have an abundance of phenomenal food, drawn from their immigrant roots and their new homeland. As travel became more economical and the country became more connected, both physically and electronically, the foodways sent the best of these regions to other states. It’s not uncommon to get great barbecue in Chicago, or fantastic Southern food in Seattle. Pizza made its way from Naples to New York, and not only went cross country in its own incarnation but spawned others along the way, such as Detroit, Quad-Cities, and New Haven-style. I’m sure there’s a beet and goat cheese salad somewhere in Mississippi, and people that wholeheartedly enjoy it.
I grew up on Tabasco; it was the thin concoction that burnt me that day and was a staple at my childhood home (along with my parents’ homemade pepper sauce). It was on a number of tables throughout the south but didn’t really have many competitors outside of its cousins Crystal and Louisiana Hot. It was probably my college years before I discovered the breadth of hot sauces available to the discerning consumer. A trip through the French Market in New Orleans uncovered a booth with hundreds of sauces, most of which you could sample from small cups with provided popcorn from a massive bowl. I must have given a number a test drive, with names like “The Hottest Fucking Sauce” and “Pain 85”, many of which were intended more to strip your taste buds rather than enhance any dish. I tasted (and bought) my first scotch bonnet pepper sauce—one for myself and one for my dad, the patriarch in this journey of the senses. This led to purchasing more and more sauces, with each buy unconsciously a competition to one-up the pain on the tongue or bragging rights with friends.
Dave’s Insanity Sauce was the one that broke me. One of the first sauces to use pepper extract, it actually said it would “strip wax floors” on the bottle. Having been used to shaking dash after dash of Tabasco, I failed to heed the “use one drop at a time” disclaimer before adding it to a beef stew one day after class. Leaving me actually heaving while hiccuping was enough, and the stew never recovered either, with the remainder quickly finding its way to the trash.
That ended my affinity for sauce that would deaden my taste buds and I began searching for those that reflected a certain cuisine, such as Cholula or Sriracha. The latter came to define the sauce space in the 2000s, its ubiquity at restaurants confirming its place in the public sphere and culture at large. This seemed to speak to a growing multiculturalism in the U.S., how food spoke about the changing American landscape and the opinions of globalism. Those in favor seemed to relish the idea of meeting those unlike themselves on their own turf, and restaurants became experimental factories of assimilation, integration, and community. Heat from sauce seemed insignificant; as Dave’s Insanity had proved, mouth-burning sensation could be added without actual pepper or trace of place. People were interested why a sauce tasted like it did, what went into it, the people who made it and the culture that inspired it. There was a searching to understand the creative process and ingredients behind these products, not completely unlike that of Tabasco or any number of household names that long ago shed any kind of niche status and have become almost synonymous with a commodity itself.
There is a new wave however—born of this curiosity of the foreign and its new accessibility but also harkening back to the 1990s’ days of searing heat. Higher learning institutions have developed their own agricultural programs and labs; with it, the cultivation of increasingly hot peppers from Ghost to Scorpion to Carolina Reaper has infiltrated salsas, sauces, and produce sections. It has prompted small batch purveyors to pop up by the hundreds, their product easily marketable via the Internet, with distribution nationwide. I myself used to keep a bottle of Tabasco (never Crystal or Louisiana Hot Sauce) in the panty for months, sitting there in isolation for months with perhaps only a bottle of Sriracha for contrast—and they arguably spent more time with each other than me. Now, there are a plethora of sauces of different ethnic profiles, spice, and heat levels, and I put them in almost everything from eggs to vegetables to soups.
There are days, however, when the homemade gumbo I sweated over calls for something born of home, of recollection, of symbiosis. With all due respect to Leah Chase, I don’t mind a dash or two of sauce in my gumbo—provided it doesn’t alter the flavors melded together over the hours spent over flame. Same goes for the shrimp etoufée from a recent Saturday night, though the burn from the combination of three ground peppers was enough on that one. There is a comfort in Tabasco’s simplicity and its appearance on my dinner table, or at a restaurant placed amongst a rack of condiments. It serves a reminder that I’m never too far from home and that I should count myself lucky that this humble sauce, still sitting on my family’s dining table, conquered the world.
So as we move across the vast expanse of a world growing smaller, and its culinary traditions adoptable even more readily, and the excitement of the new dwarfs the comfort of the old, spare a thought—or a dash—for the ones you left behind.