Confessions of a Tabasco
It’s a thin line, isn’t it?
No doubt some regular readers of this website can identify with the dilemma of distinction when it comes to cast iron. Most who are really “into” cast iron would like to think of themselves as aficionados, but deep down they know how strong the pull of “just one more piece” of the black iron can really be.
In the end, I opted for aficionado because addict has such negative connotations. An addiction to something often results in very negative results for the person directly involved and for those around him or her. I’ve never known my predilection for Tabasco to be harmful for myself or anyone around me. I don’t use enough to cause stomach ulcers. I’ve never accidentally splashed Tabasco in the eyes of the person sitting next to me at dinner. No one’s ever caught me drinking it straight from the bottle (I assure you, I’ve never done that!).
And yet, I nearly always carry it with me. Stop me any day of the week and I usually have a miniature 1/8 oz. bottle (or two) in my pocket. During winter months when I can wear a jacket, I usually carry a full 2 oz. bottle. Besides carrying it on my person and having it in plentiful supply at home, I keep a bottle in my filing cabinet at my office and during cooler months when there’s no danger of it going bad (Tabasco turns brown when it’s old or left in a hot vehicle for days), I keep a bottle stashed in my truck. In fact, my truck has its own “I Love Tabasco” sticker on the bumper. I have one bottle that always remains on my stovetop (you may have noticed it in some of the pictures on this site), and a completely separate bottle for the dinner table.
On a rare occasion away from home when I don’t have a bottle on me or if my miniature bottles are empty, I’m not beyond stopping at a supermarket or convenience store to grab a bottle before meeting a friend for lunch even knowing I have brand new, unopened bottles at home. When buying a bottle from a convenient store, I carefully open the box and hold the bottle up to the light to determine if the hue of red is just right. I’ve learned the hard way that sometimes a grocery item can sit on a convenient store shelf too long to be of quality.
Further, I’m always careful not to run out of Tabasco and keep a solid supply in stock at home. Below is a photograph taken in April of my current supply at that point. You may or may not know that Tabasco comes in six flavors. Although I prefer what is often referred to as the “original red,” every variety is represented in the picture along with Tabasco flavored soy and teriyaki sauce.
The picture above doesn’t even account for my current stock of about 50 miniatures that I have in the freezer. I keep them in the freezer because I usually buy them in large supply and I’ve noticed that the miniatures seem to expire faster than Tabasco in larger bottles.
How long have I been a Tabasco aficionado? I don’t know. That’s hard to say. That’s like asking someone when he or she started liking chocolate. I do remember as a child watching my father add Tabasco to the ketchup he ate his French fries with. I picked that habit up quick enough. Probably it was some point in the nineties that I discovered the miniature bottles and began carrying Tabasco with me regularly. But I often carried it on occasion a decade earlier. I know by college (twenty years ago), I often carried it with me--perhaps not quite obsessively as I do today. But I distinctly remember sitting around a table with some friends and one of girls said, “Rick, please put the lid on that Tabasco. It’s burning my nose!” I also remember a Texaco station (of all places!) in my hometown of Ruston, Louisiana, that offered the best biscuits and sausage gravy I could find anywhere. One day I discovered while adding black pepper to my gravy that taking a bite of the food, followed by a quick chaser of black coffee created the most unusual and exquisite sensation in my mouth. It wasn’t just taste--as good as that was--it was somatic, a physical sensation. I knew I could make my new gravy “crack” even better. The next day I came back with a bottle of Tabasco in hand. Rather than adding black pepper, I added Tabasco. Incredible! Words cannot properly describe the ecstatic sensation of Tabasco-laced biscuits and gravy with black coffee. To this day, I will only eat biscuits and gravy if Tabasco is handy.
At this point, you may be wondering a couple of things (at minimum). You might wonder why I would carry bottles with me when most restaurants carry Tabasco. Well, I’m surprised at how often some people just don’t know the difference between Tabasco and other hot sauces. Not too long ago, I was in one particular local eating establishment that serves Louisiana food, and as I looked around the tables, while I found a variety of hot sauces, there was no Tabasco to be seen. I asked the waitress, “Do you have ‘real’ Tabasco?” She looked at me dumbfounded and said, “What do you mean? All of them are real.” In her mind any hot sauce was Tabasco--no doubt a misconception that the McIlhenny Company, the makers of Tabasco, would highly object to. Some restaurants simply don’t take such things as seriously as they should. Some will opt to buy a case of whatever hot sauce their supplier sells the cheapest. And I’ve also had occasion to ask for a bottle of Tabasco in a restaurant only to be handed a bottle which although contained the Tabasco label, was filled with a noxious looking brown liquid--a telltale sign that the bottle is quite old.
Tip: if you’ve ever had your own bottle of Tabasco go brown, throw it out and buy a new bottle. I recommend that most people keep Tabasco in the refrigerator. It will definitely last longer. I don’t have this problem--even with keeping a bottle on the stove next to high temperatures. I tend to simply use it long before it would go bad.
I’m also a Tabasco purist. All those other brands simply don’t cut it for me. The McIlhenny family has been making Tabasco essentially the same way since 1868. There are only three ingredients in original red Tabasco: tabasco peppers, salt, and vinegar. There’s no “xanthan gum” (whatever that is) or food coloring added like in many other hot sauces.
While most food companies from the 19th century (such as Heinz) have been sold long ago to large corporations, Tabasco is still made by the same family. In addition to the quality of the product itself, there’s something very attractive to me about the fact that the family still runs the company, that a person can still go to Avery Island, Louisiana, to see how the sauce is produced. It’s very much like another company I admire for similar reasons: Lodge Manufacturing in South Pittsburg, Tennessee. They are the only US based cast iron foundry left, and they are still run by descendants of their founder.
You may also be wondering what my wife, Kathy, thinks of my obsession with Tabasco. A few weeks back, without her knowledge, I ordered a six-bottle Tabasco caddy--the same kind you might see in a restaurant--and put it right in the center of our dining room table before she got home.
A few years ago, before Kathy came home from work one day, I placed a lime green iMac on kitchen counter next to the bread machine. I figured it would be handy for recipes, checking email, or looking up something quickly on the internet. I created a screensaver that rotated a few hundred family pictures. I wasn’t sure what she’d think, but I was almost certain she would say, “That’s not staying in my kitchen!” However, to my surprise, when she walked in and saw it, she exclaimed, “I love it!” It’s still there to this day.
So when Kathy saw the six-bottle Tabasco caddy in the middle of our dining room table, rather than saying “That’s not staying on my dining room table!” she instead declared, “I love it!”
No, Kathy is not the Tabasco aficionado I am. While I often cook with Tabasco--something Kathy never objects to--you won’t ever see her adding an extra dash of Tabasco to her eggs on Saturday morning. In fact, the only variety of Tabasco I’ve seen her use to any significant degree is the new Tabasco Sweet & Spicy sauce. It happens to be the mildest of all the Tabasco varieties. It’s very good with Asian food or as a dipping sauce. Other than that, Kathy doesn’t use a lot of Tabasco.
Now, you may thinking “That Rick--he really likes hot food.” Really, that’s not true. I’m not a chili-head. I can’t stand to eat food that’s been spiced so much all of its flavor is lost. Believe it or not, I like the “mild” sauce at Taco Bell, simply because I prefer its flavor over the hotter varieties.
Yes, I admit that I’ve got a higher tolerance for spicy food that some. Adding Tabasco to one’s food for most of one’s life will do that. But that’s not the point. I don’t put Tabasco on everything. We made breakfast at home this past Saturday morning, and while I added Tabasco to my eggs (eggs just don’t seem right otherwise), I didn’t add them to my grits. I did, however, add cayenne pepper to my grits. What’s the difference? Well, the vinegar in Tabasco would offset the flavor of the grits, but the red pepper by itself added a little kick without overwhelming the taste.
Historically, I rarely ever add original red Tabasco to Mexican food, although I have discovered that the new Chipotle Tabasco is quite good and have added it lately. But I can’t imagine the aforementioned eggs without Tabasco. A tuna fish sandwich not flavored with Tabasco? Well, you might as well leave out the tuna as well! I find Tabasco greatly enhances any food with cream--whether clam chowder or the dressing for a Caesar salad.
Here’s the thing--Tabasco brings two qualities to food: flavor and spice. For me, I use Tabasco instead of black pepper in my food. Yes, that’s right--the same way you add pepper to your food, I simply add Tabasco. You will not see me seasoning my food first with pepper and then with Tabasco. That’s overkill. Early advertisements for Tabasco a century ago often referred to it as “liquid pepper.” That’s exactly how I use it.
There’s a scale for measuring how hot a pepper is known as Scoville units. Original Red Tabasco sauce measures only about 2500-5000 on this scale. Compare that with habanero-based sauces which can measure almost twice that (there is a habanero-flavored variety of Tabasco who indeed do like their food extremely hot). Regular Tabasco is not hot enough to hurt anyone when used properly in normal amounts. There may also be health benefits to it as seen in one recent study (scroll down to the sixth paragraph).
And here’s what’s interesting, if you read a book like Shane Bernard’s Tabasco: An Illustrated History, notice than none of the early advertising for Tabasco was about how spicy Tabasco might be, how hot it was. For me, and I believe historically for the product, Tabasco is not about heat so much as it’s about flavor. In fact, looking at the historical ads in Shane’s book, I don’t know if the McIlhenny Company ever promoted Tabasco as something hot until the famous Superbowl mosquito commercial.
I like Tabasco so much that I considered creating another website devoted to Tabasco. However, keeping two websites current is enough for now. Instead of yet a third site to write for, I believe I’ll simply add the occasional Tabasco post here on Cooking in Cast Iron. After all, the subjects of Tabasco and cast iron are certainly not mutually exclusive.
For more information on the history of Tabasco I suggest the following:
• Shane Bernard’s Tabasco: An Illustrated History
• Tabasco.com: “History Tent”
Want to discuss Tabasco more? Want to share your own experiences? Feel free to leave your thoughts or ask questions in the comments below, or you can contact Rick directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.