First it was Beyoncé’s “Formation” video and halftime performance at Super Bowl 50. Then there was Hillary Clinton’s recent radio interview.
Clinton got a lot of grief for having (or claiming to have) hot sauce in her bag, an apparent reference to the lyrics (swag!) in Beyonce’s “Formation” that some saw as pandering. The truth is, Clinton has been talking about eating chilies for years, so I see her and Beyoncé’s public displays of affection for hot sauce as a sign of a kinship with millions of African Americans, including me. In short, we put hot sauce on everything. But why? The answer combines West Africans’ longtime love of piquant spices, an enduring belief in food as medicine and the marketing genius of a white dude in a colonel suit (and not the one you think).
First, let’s sort out some terminology.
A “hot sauce” is a liquid condiment with the key ingredients of spices, vinegar and some type of chili. “Chili” derives from the Aztec word for the pungent fruit of plants in the genus Capsicum, which are native to the Americas. Hot sauce gets its name because capsaicin, the active chemical ingredient in chilies, causes a burning sensation when it’s eaten or comes in contact with the skin. This condiment is often called “pepper sauce” because chilies were mistakenly called peppers by Christopher Columbus and the other Europeans who tasted the spicy, foreign fruit and gave it the name of a more familiar hot spice: black pepper (Piper nigrum).
Hot sauce comes in many forms, but African Americans traditionally have favored two thin sauces: pepper vinegar and Louisiana-style hot sauce. The former is the ultimate in DIY condiments. You fill a bottle with chilies, pour vinegar over until the chilies are submerged, then seal the bottle until the liquid reaches your desired level of heat. Pepper vinegar is also a renewable resource. When the bottle is empty, you just replenish the vinegar until it’s spicy again. In contrast, for Louisiana-style hot sauce, the chilies are usually processed in some way (cooked, mashed and strained) before being mixed with vinegar and spices. The sauce is bottled and further aged until the flavors meld and it gets spicy enough.
For people of African heritage, though, such a sauce was not always the only way — or even the preferred way — to give their food a little kick.
Before chilies entered their diet, West African cooks had a long history of using piquant spices to season their food. Their favored local spice was melegueta pepper (also known as grains of paradise), but they also used foreign spices introduced by Arab traders, such as black pepper, cardamom, ginger and nutmeg. All have chemical compounds that create a burning sensation similar to that of capsaicin but with far less of a punch. West Africans were so used to mouth-warming spices that their palates were already hard-wired to appreciate the taste and heightened piquancy of chilies when they were introduced by European traders traveling to Africa from the Americas during the 1500s and 1600s. When enslaved West Africans arrived in the Americas, they encountered indigenous chili-eating traditions and preparations like the ones Columbus had observed in 1493.
The Aztecs, Incas and Mayans were the first to use chilies to treat a variety of ailments. Often the peppers were merely mixed in with some food or liquid that was to be consumed as part of a typical meal. One observer in the Jamaica colony, circa 1700 A.D., noted that “Indians and Blacks” made a “pickle” of cayenne chilies, vinegars and salt to treat a variety of tropical diseases. Does that combination sound familiar? Word soon spread to the North American mainland, and as early as 1882, pharmacists in the United States were prescribing a gargle of hot sauce to cure mouth, throat and digestive ailments.
At first, white elites could stomach the idea of hot sauce as a medicine but not as a condiment. In the 19th century, eating spicy food was considered vulgar by polite society because it upset the dominant French-informed sensibility that food should have balanced flavors and seasoning. Thus, eating really spicy foods or adding hot sauce was strongly associated with those at society’s margins: poor whites, ethnic immigrants (mainly Asian and Latino) and African Americans. One 19th-century man, however, manage to use hot sauce to create an interesting intersection of class, food, medicine, race and respectability.
Col. Maunsell White, an Irish immigrant, slave owner and entrepreneur, operated a large plantation in Louisiana. During the late 1840s, a cholera epidemic struck the Lower Mississippi Valley, killing thousands of blacks and whites. White’s enslaved workers, just like their counterparts on other plantations, were seasoning their food with readily available cayenne chilies. In an effort to thwart the epidemic, White decided to experiment by planting the seeds of a new chili brought to the United States after the Mexican-American War (1846-1848): the Tabasco. White successfully cultivated it, substituting it for cayenne, and then shared the chili with fellow Louisianans — along with results of medical trials showing it proved effective in stemming the cholera epidemic.
Compared with cayenne, Tabasco chilies are hard to grow and have limited yields. White decided to stretch the chilies by using them in a sauce instead of whole. Eventually, he began bottling the sauce and selling it commercially, and Louisiana-style hot sauce was born. Ever the booster — and foreshadowing Beyoncé and Clinton — White reportedly always brought along a bottle of his own sauce when he dined in New Orleans oyster saloons. For decades after his death in 1863, Louisiana-style hot sauces featuring Tabasco chili dominated the market and sold at a premium, in large part due to the success of the McIlhenny family of Louisiana’s Avery Island, which started building the Tabasco Brand Pepper Sauce empire in 1868.
Over time, a flood of competitors entered the bottled hot sauce market with inexpensive imitations that substituted much cheaper cayenne chilies for the Tabasco variety. Even today, Tabasco brand hot sauce, ounce for ounce, is more expensive than many other name-brand Louisiana-style hot sauces that use cayenne.
The commercial sale of bottled hot sauces — whether as simple, clear-colored chili vinegars or as red-hued condiments — created a new world of culinary possibilities. Hot sauce consumption was no longer provincial and became portable. As millions of African Americans migrated from the American South after the Civil War, they took this piquant “taste of home” with them to locations far and wide. One such place was Virginia City, Nev., where, in 2002, archaeologists excavated a 130-year-old bottle of Tabasco Brand Pepper Sauce (the oldest known in existence) from the remains of a black-owned saloon.
Though hot sauce started out as medicine, African Americans have had that beloved condiment in their bags for a very long time.
Miller is the author of the James Beard Award-winning book “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time.”