From small beginnings, Tabasco sauce has become synonymous with the American South and a staple of global kitchens.
Some like it hot
It's quite a leap of the imagination from the murky bayoux of Louisiana, where egrets stalk and alligators lurk, to Buckingham Palace, London, the home of the British royal family. What can this American state, with its exotic mix of Creole and Cajun cultures, jazz and blues, have in common with an institution where the only wild thing is, possibly, the party-loving Prince Harry? The answer can be found on the sideboard in the royal dining room. There tucked alongside the silver salvers and dinner service, its red and green top poking out, is a bottle of Tabasco.
It transpires that this most bravura of pepper sauces is a favourite of the royals, so much so that it has been granted a royal warrant by the Queen - making it the only privately-owned American company in the food category, though Heinz, owners of Worcester and HP Sauce, also have the coveted imprimatur. How are they on Louisiana cuisine at the Palace? "Grits with eggs, Ma'am?" Probably not, even with a reviving shot of Tabasco.
Despite its British connections, Tabasco has, over the years, become the very essence of the Deep South. It was here in 1865, on Avery Island two hours west of New Orleans, that Edmund McIlhenny, a banker who had lost everything in the American Civil War, planted his first peppers. The story goes that he was given a handful of pods by a Confederate soldier who had fled to Mexico after the war, where he had discovered the plant.
More in the spirit of interest than any great expectation, McIlhenny stuck them in the ground and was delighted when half a dozen bushes sprang up. He experimented by mashing the peppers and adding vinegar and salt to make a sauce which he sold in used cologne bottles. He was better placed than most culinary adventurers. Avery Island is on top of one of the biggest salt mines in America. The following year he produced 658 bottles. By 1889, production reached 41,472 bottles. Today 700,000 bottles rattle off the lines every day.
You won't find a New Orleans eatery without a bottle - whether it's a legendary name such as Brennan's, Commander's Palace or Antoine's or the more down-home Mother's Diner where plates are piled with po'boys - mighty sandwiches stuffed with fried shrimp, oysters or roast beef. Their gravy-drenched prodigality belies their origins as handouts to starving workers during a streetcar strike in the Twenties.
Maybe a bowl of gumbo, a broth of seafood or meat steeped in filé spice, or how about a mound of debris, the shavings from the roast joint left floating in the gravy? This is food is born out of hard times - from the Spanish occupation, from the wreckage of the American Civil War, from the Creoles and the Cajuns who settled here when expelled by the British from Nova Scotia in 1755. Today these are all dishes made exotic by their unfamiliarity to European and Middle Eastern palates and given extra gusto by that good ol' pepper sauce. And not just in Louisiana. Tabasco is sold in 160 countries, including the UAE, where a new marketing drive is being launched to boost sales.
It has been popular in the UK since 1873 when Her Majesty's forebear, Queen Victoria, was on the throne, cheering up bland breakfasts and lacklustre lunches, bringing zest to oysters and tomato juice. It still has the same ingredients of peppers, natural vinegar and a small amount of salt which are matured for up to three years in old white oak whisky barrels. "Grand-père", as he is known by today's family, would still recognise the flavour.
When he died in 1890 his autobiographical sketch barely mentioned Tabasco but his sons could see its commercial value. John McIlhenny, the elder son, increased the pepper fields from five to 70 acres and began to market the product. He even backed a New York musical, The Burlesque Opera of Tabasco, on condition a papier-mâché bottle of the liquid appeared on stage for each performance. But he was restless. He joined President Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders to fight in the Spanish-American War of 1898 over Cuban independence. Having been awarded a medal for his gallantry he went on his travels only to join up again in the Philippines to help quell a revolt against US rule. His brother Ned went off on expeditions to the Arctic to find specimens of birds, fish and insects.
John's son, Walter, went to war after Pearl Harbor in 1941 and, using the combat code name Tabasco Mac, fought at Guadalcanal against the Japanese where, according to an eyewitness, "he leaned up against a coconut tree and started firing. He killed six of them, just like that". Walter is reputed to have shot down a plane with a rifle and such was his passion for military service he carried a bullet in his leg for a year before submitting to surgery.
With all this adventuring it's a wonder that Tabasco flourished, but in between hunting, shooting and looking for trouble, the company's production accelerated - particularly under Walter, who used every gimmick available to him such as promotional songs using the new 45rpm records, advertising in magazines aimed at teenagers and African Americans and even supplying US servicemen in Vietnam with a Tabasco recipe book. During the Iraqi conflict an advert showed a Marine about to hurl a bottle of Tabasco as if it was a hand grenade with the slogan: "Defending The World Against Bland Food". Last month the British army in Afghanistan were sent Tabasco to spice up their rations and do their bit to combat "menu fatigue and taste degradation".
Walter paid for other methods of awareness-raising such as product placement in the Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun and boldly went where no hot sauce manufacturer had gone before by having Tabasco sent into space with the Shuttle missions. The royal warrant might be one of the company's highest accolades but it will also have to be one of its most discreet. The manufacturer can acknowledge the warrant only with the "By appointment ..." sign on the label and is not allowed to use it for anything as vulgar as advertising. The warrant is earned by supplying the royals for at least five years and all 800 of the current holders will have passed a series of checks on their environmental credentials and the conditions enjoyed by their workforce.
Paul McIlhenny, the latest in the Tabasco family dynasty, lives on Avery Island like his predecessors and is very much in their mould. He is an enthusiastic fisherman and "wing shooter", or wild bird hunter. "It's my bit for conservation," he jokes. He is clearly a man who knows his food - no stranger to the best restaurants in New Orleans - and has a reputation for being an accomplished cook. He has introduced new varieties such as a jalapeño-based green sauce, a chipotle smoked version, sweet and spicy and garlic.
But it's still the original Tabasco that captures the imagination and challenges the taste buds - maybe because it has stayed true to grand-père's first recipe. As Jeremy Lee, the exuberant head chef of the Blueprint Cafe, in London, says: "I can't imagine a kitchen without Tabasco sauce. You can make something out of nothing with just a few drops. It's like the magic elixir of life. It's a buck-you-upper which can elevate something ordinary into something quite special."
Richard Holledge is writing a book on the expulsion of the Cajuns from Nova Scotia to Louisiana.