In my previous life I was the bland sore thumb in a world of powerful flavor, sheepishly bowing out of the chili cook-offs and the hot wings feasts at bars and game-day parties like a feeble-stomached whelp. Those moments spent watching my friends & family partake in an indulgence that was both alien and hostile, deriving endless pleasure from the smoke-from-the-ears hotness.
I joined a press trip to New Orleans earlier this year for much the same reason I was game for the Beefeater/Plymouth Gin trip last year: I had a strong sense of it's-not-you-it's-me-ism, a need to overcome my own shortcomings in the palette of taste. And hey, free trip!
After a week in the depths of Tabasco's homeland, I have come away a dedicated, die-hard fan of the world-renowned hot pepper sauce. I've reached absurd levels of dedication to the legendary concoction, and have since discovered a world of Tabasco brand sauces and products I never dreamed existed, let alone believed would become one of the cornerstones of my culinary world.
Looking back, there are several possible causes for my rapid transition from bland spice-wimp to fire-breathing Tabasco fiend. Maybe it was our stay at the historic Marsh House on Avery Island, the nineteenth-century homestead of the Avery/McIlhenny clan – the originators of Tabasco and the McIlhenny Company that makes it. Every meal at the Marsh House involved the spicy red pepper sauce, from the local-cuisine breakfast delights of eggs benedict with crawfish, all the way to the wonderful dessert discovery that is Tabasco ice cream. Far less daunting than it sounds, the unlikely ice cream mix produces a slight burn in the back of the throat to establish a flavor base, while every following spoonful is a soothing juxtaposition volley between cream and spice.
Perhaps, instead, it was the humidity, the heavy moisture in the air that set my smog-lined California palette on edge. Or it could've been the airboat rides, navigating around gators in the bayou swamps, giving each of us an up-close reference for the local wildlife. Perhaps it had something to do with the forearm-sized giant oysters at Shucks Oyster House in Abbeville, a freak-of-nature delicacy we drowned in Tabasco before devouring.
My belief, however, is that my conversion lies in an unfortunate moment of overenthusiasm while touring the Tabasco Factory/Barrel Warehouse. Led by the endlessly affable overseer Took Osborn, VP of Agricultural Operations at Tabasco, our group witnessed the process of opening barrels of Tabasco pepper mash that had been stored for months, with painstaking care, to concentrate flavor prior to the water dilution and mixing process that produces the final sauce. Hundreds of times stronger than the finished product we're all familiar with, the mash is an incendiary blend of pepper power that sent our group running for the water fountains after a single-drop taste.
Leaning forward too far as the scoop entered the barrel, my own carelessness resulted in a blast of this fiery Tabasco mash shooting into my right eye. Like the proverbial radioactive spider that spawned a super-sensing web-slinging hero, that shot of explosively hot mash wracked my system with electric jolts of… of what, I wasn't sure. But it was one of the most painful experiences of my life. And once the pain subsided, rather than call it a day and retreat to the Marsh house to perfect my permanent hot-sauce scowl, I headed right back to the barrel.
I wanted to taste more. I couldn't get enough.
Something changed that day, and a new appreciation was born that saturated the rest of my journey with explosions of taste and delightful spice. Our final night in New Orleans included dinner with Paul McIlhenny, President & CEO of McIlhenny Company, at Chef John Beshʼs Restaurant August in a private upstairs room that from which we could overlook the city making Mardi Gras preparations. The meal was one of the finest I ever had, but I found that I kept reaching for the Tabasco. A force of habit, or a refined palette? Was I bitten by the power of the concentrated mash and given a new resistance to the red pepper fire? There seems to be no other explanation…
Now, having returned home, I find myself using the Tabasco Garlic Pepper Sauce on my eggs, in my tuna fish, on hot dogs, nachos, wings and more. The Tabasco Soy is perfect for adding a little non-wasabi spice to rice or a sushi experience, while the Tabasco Buffalo Sauce is perfect for fried chicken and buffalo wings. Then there's the Teriyaki, the Sweet & Spicy Sauce, the Chipotle and so on. I'm an absolute fiend for hot sauce now, and it's entirely because of Tabasco.
For some amazing Tabasco recipes (buffalo wings, sweet & sour chicken, marinades, etc.) and to order from the variety of amazing Tabasco sauces, head to Tabasco.com. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a spicy chili cook-off to prepare for.