Visitors to New Orleans in August tend to talk a lot about the heat. Locally, we talk about the heat twelve months a year. Tabasco Hot Sauce, Crystal’s, Louisiana Gold Hot Sauce each have their passionate fans claiming their’s as “The Best.”
In New York, you cannot be both a Yankees fan and a Mets fan. It’s not allowed. In Carolina, you have to choose between UNC Tar Heels and the Duke Blue Devils, or as my 4th generation Tar Heel wife calls the school in Durham, “That Yankee School.” Choosing between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones has become an ageless argument. Each band released their first record in 1964. If you look at Keith Richard’s face, you get an idea of how long that’s been.
Here, in New Orleans, you’re either a Tabasco fan or Crystal’s Hot Sauce fan. Most restaurants will have both bottles on the table next to the salt, pepper, and Sweet & Lo packets. They don’t want to start a fight.
There are literally hundreds of hot sauce brands you can buy in New Orleans; CaJohn, Emeril’s, Frank’s, Scorned Woman, Cholula, Ring of Fire, Da Bomb, Chile Today–Hot Tamale, Louisiana Gold, Acid Rain, Ass in Hell, Bayou Love, Bayou Passion, Bayou Pecker, Crazy Bastard, Crazy Good, Mad Dog, Lucky Dog, Slap My Ass and Call Me Sally . . . and I could go on. But only Ta-basco and Crystal have acquired superstar status.
Tabasco was created in the late 1860s by Edmund McIlhenny. It is often claimed to have been the first hot sauce ever. Though after years of that having been a commonly held belief, word of Colonel Maunsel White surfaced, claiming his “Concentrated Essence of Tobasco Pepper” pre-dates McIlhenny by four years. Nasty rumors were circulated that Eddie McIlhenny borrowed, bought, or even stole the recipe from Colonel White. Tabasco created a Myths page on their website to dispel the rumors officially. Though they’re now curiously put qualifying phrases in their copy like, “According to family tradition” seemingly just in case any heirs of Colonel White seek recompense.
Edmund McIlhenny, food lover and avid gardener, was given seeds of Capsicum frutescens peppers that had come from Mexico. He sowed the seeds in his home soil on Avery Island (about two hours from New Orleans). After the Civil War, the cuisine of New Orleans got briefly bland and monotonous, either because during Reconstruction residents couldn’t afford better ingredients or because of the stultifying influences of the Puritan Northerners (houses should be white, clothes should be black, food should avoid Satan’s beckoning of flavor).
This was an ideal time for McIlhenny to introduce his flavor-enhancing spice. He made his sauce by crushing the reddest peppers from his plants, mixing them with Avery Island salt, ag-ing this “mash” for thirty days in jars and barrels, then blending the mash with French white wine vinegar and aging the mixture for another thirty days. He sold his strained concoction in dis-carded cologne bottles. In 1868 when he started to sell to the public he ordered thousands of new cologne bottles from a New Orleans glassworks. He labeled the bottles “Tabasco,” a word of Indian origin meaning “damp earth” and also a region in Southern Mexico. His new sauce be-came so popular that McIlhenny quit his job as a banker to devote his full time to making and marketing Tabasco Sauce. His first year, he sold 658 bottles at one dollar apiece. Nearly 150 years later, the company now ships 3.2 million gallons of hot sauce every year to 165 countries across the world. Tabasco labels are printed in twenty-two languages. I can’t even name twenty-two languages.
On his death in 1890, McIlhenny was succeeded by his eldest son, John Avery McIlhenny. When John Avery resigned to join Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, his brother Edward Avery took over. Upon Edward’s death, Walter McIlhenny succeeded, then Edward “Ned” McIlhenny, then Paul McIlhenny, and finally today Tony Simmons. Don’t worry, he’s a McIlhenny cousin.
Tabasco sauce has been shaken and spritzed nearly everywhere. During the Vietnam War, Brigadier General Walter S. McIlhenny issued The Charlie Ration Cookbook featuring the sauce in recipes for Combat Canapés and Breast of Chicken under Bullets. Each cookbook came wrapped with a two-ounce bottle of Tabasco in a camouflaged water-resistant container. Ta-basco has been used by NASA, going into orbit on Skylab and the International Space Station. Like Kleenex and Xerox, the name Tabasco has become synonymous with the product. It is the most popular hot sauce in the world.
In 1923 Alvin and Mildred Baumer produced the first bottle of Crystal Hot Sauce at their plant on Tchoupitoulas Street. For many, including me, it is the superior sauce. Crystal sells to only sev-enty-five countries, but their 3 million gallons shipped each year come close to Tabasco’s 3.2 million. You can buy Crystal Hot Sauce in seven-gram packets (fast-food ketchup-sized), or six-ounce, twelve-ounce, or thirty-two-ounce bottles, or for people serious about their hot sauce, gallon jugs.
“We believe we sell flavor and not heat,” said Al Baumer Jr., son of the creators and current company CEO. Crystal’s SHU (Scoville Heat Units) is not revealed. Tabasco’s is 2,500 and their kicked-up varieties reach as high as 5,000 SHUs. Theodore Scoville devised a method of cali-brating the amount of capsaicin, the chemical compound that stimulates chemoreceptor nerve endings in the skin, particularly the tongue, present in a dry unit of mass. In other words, how hot shit is.
There are many brands hotter, a lot hotter, than Tabasco’s 5,000 SHU. Endorphin Rush Beyond Hot Sauce is 33,390, Dave’s Gourmet “Insanity Sauce” is 95,000, DaBomb is 119,000, and then there’s the just-silly Mad Dog (3,000,000), Magma (4,000,000), and Blair’s 16 Million Reserve, the recognized hottest hot sauce on the planet. Blair’s 16 Million Reserve is an extremely col-lectable sauce with only 999 bottles ever made and discontinued after 2006. We wonder if they stopped because the thousandth bottle would ruin the song about bottles on the wall or because people who used their sauce actually died. The SHU of Blair’s is 16,000,000. At that point, sauces aren’t about flavor. They’re about drunk college boys on a dare.
In hot sauce competitions, Tabasco won Huffington Post’s Hot Sauce Death Match. Crystal didn’t make it out of the first round. But then Cooks Illustrated rated Tabasco dead last. Their tasters described it as “flavorless,” “vinegary,” “out of balance”—even “vile.” You’re just going to have to jump in, taste each for yourself, choose your personal winner, and then get ready to rumble.
When you visit New Orleans, connect with NOLA Tricentennial Tours and we will make your ex-periences spicy ones. Any of our other scripted tours can be tweaked to include a measure of music. We are always willing and anxious to create completely customized tours.
THE CITY THAT CARE FORGOT REMEMBERS - MOMENTS IN NEW ORLEANS HISTORY
With our 300th anniversary upon us, each new blog will highlight important or improbable dates.
August 5, 1969 — Lake Pontchartrain Causeway (second span) Opens
When completed, Guinness World Records named it as the longest bridge over water in the world. It was 24 miles long. OK, it was 23.8 miles long, but who’s counting? In 2011, the record was briefly usurped by the Jiaozhou Bay Bridge in China. Their’s was four times longer.
However, New Orleans loves itself (I think justifiably) and takes issue anywhere we’re not con-sidered the biggest, most historical, or best. The city pointed out to Guinness that the Jiaozhou Bay Bridge goes under water as a tunnel for some stretches. Guinness thereafter created two categories for bridges over water: continuous and aggregate lengths over water. We’re back to having the world’s longest bridge (continuous).
September 9. 1967 — The First Southern Showdown
New Orleans is city largely based on tourism. If you come to the city to see and support your hometown football Steelers, Seahawks, or even our in-division Bucs to play against our Saints, we will throw our arms around you. It’s a big party for everyone.
For some reason that goes back before my time here, we do not like those Dirty Birds.
The Saints played their first game against the Falcons in New Orleans at Tulane Stadium, de-feating Atlanta 27-14 in a pre-season game. The win earned the Saints a 5-1 preseason record -- the best ever for a new expansion team. Their regular season record that first year would be 3-11 — not the best ever for a new expansion team. The game also began the rivalry between the two teams. Founded one year apart, the Saints and Falcons were the first two NFL fran-chises in the Deep South (Washington, Dallas, and Miami being arguably southern but not in the "traditional" Deep South). Newspaper accounts from the Rome (Ga.) News-Tribune to the Los Angeles Times, called the game the "Dixie Championship." In recent years, the game has sometimes been referred to as the "Southern Showdown.”
ESPN.com writer Len Pasquarelli has cited the rivalry as one of the best in sports: "Every year, bus caravans loaded with rowdy (and usually very inebriated) fans make the seven-hour trip be-tween the two cities. Unless you've attended a Falcons-Saints debauchery-filled afternoon, you'll just have to take my word for how much fun it really can be."
September 11-13, 1987 — Pope Fest
Pope John Paul II visited New Orleans for a 36 hour extravaganza. The Olympia Brass Band greeted him at the airport. He then rushed over to the St. Louis Cathedral to celebrate Mass with clergy members, 3,000 clergy members, then popped into the Popemobile to ride through the quarter to the Superdome. Hopefully he didn’t get stuck behind those mule drawn tour
carts. At the dome, John Paul II was the keynote for events dedicated to Black Catholics, Catho-lic educators, and young people. He closed out the weekend with a Mass before 130,000 rain-drenched people at the University of New Orleans.
As a whole, the Pope’s visit was not a raging success. First of all, the schedule was much too tightly packed with various events so that the faithful decided which they would attend and which they’d skip. The Pope and his posse visited on a weekend when their were home games for the three major football teams, the Saints, the LSU Tigers, and the Tulane Green Wave. Clearly his people were unaware that football is the real religion in America.
Finally, there was the weather, the last fragments of Summer. In addition to the torrential rain at the outdoor Mass at UNO, the rest of the weekend hovered in the mid to upper 90s. Hundreds of people were treated for heat-related problems and a few dozen were carried by ambulance or medical helicopters to local hospitals for treatment. Outside the Dome, vendors sold Pope-Sick-les to the sweltering crowds.