Saturday, July 26, 2014

Tabasco Sauce

Since I wrote about Worcestershire Sauce last week, it seems only fitting that I finish the conversation and discuss the history of Tabasco Sauce.

Where Worcestershire Sauce was a legacy of the Roman Empire, Tabasco Sauce actually got its start from several American wars and an Irish immigrant named Maunsel White.  White came to America at the age of 13 and settled in Louisiana.  Most of his early history is lost, but he seems to have drifted into the local militia (like a lot of immigrants did), and by 1814, he was a captain in the militia, reporting directly to General Andrew Jackson.  He also participated in the last great battle of the War of 1812: the Battle of New Orleans.

By the time the war was over, White--now a Colonel--had excellent business and political connections in New Orleans and the surrounding countryside.  He started a bank, bought a sugar plantation, and generally prospered. 

Following the Mexican-American War, soldiers returning from the invasion of Mexico arrived in port at New Orleans.  One of these returning soldiers gave White the seeds to a fiery red pepper.  There are differing stories about how the plants came to be called “Tabasco Pepper” but it is possible that the name was simply picked at random from a map of Mexico.  However the name came about, by 1850, the New Orleans Daily Delta published an article stating that “Col. White has introduced the celebrated Tobasco (sic) red pepper, the very strongest of all peppers, of which he cultivated a large quantity with the view of supplying his neighbors, and diffusing it throughout the state.”

White was even making a 'pepper sauce' and bottling it, but he considered the concoction to be a remedy for cholera.  Other people must have enjoyed his sauce, because several old recipes mention it.  As late as 1879, a riverboats dining menu listed the sauces available for patrons of their dining room.  Just below “Lea and Perrin Sauces” is a mention of something called “Maunsel White.”  This sauce was manufactured for over 20 years, but seems to have stopped production somewhere before 1900. 

White's sauce was neither prepared like nor tasted like the present Tabasco Sauce, but one of his neighbors and a fellow banker was a man by the name of Edmund McIlhenny.  As a banker, McIlhenny had heavily invested his banks bonds in Confederate War Bonds, then had retired to Avery Island, a plantation owned by his wifes family.  Avery Island is located over a salt dome and during the Civil War, salt became a valuable commodity, so when the Union Army seized the island, the McIlhenny family fled to Texas--unable to profit from it.

When the war was over, McIlhenny was financially ruined: the plantation was wrecked, his bank was gone, and his war bonds were worthless.  (Really worthless!  If you believe the House of Romanov will rise again and cast the likes of Putin out of the Kremlin, you can still buy bonds, issued by the Czar—at greatly reduced prices, of course.  There are exchanges that will still sell such junk.  You can even buy bonds issued by the German Kaiser.  But it is illegal to trade in Civil War bonds or currencies for anything other than as an antique curiosity.  The South aint gonnarise again!)

What McIlhenny did have, however, was a warehouse full of empty perfume bottles, an island full of salt, a few acres of pepper plants, and a wrecked sugar cane plantation.  However, the ingredients of Tabasco Sauce are fairly simple: pepper juice, salt, and vinegar.  (McIlhenny made his vinegar out of fermented sugar cane juice.)  His first commercial sale, bottled in those little cologne bottles, was in 1869.

The sauce was a success, of course.  The McIlhenny Company is still owned by the descendants of Edmund McIlhenny, and Tabasco still has only three main ingredients.

Like Worcestershire Sauce, the military has taken Tabasco Pepper Sauce around the world.  In 1898, Lord Horatio Herbert Kitcheners troops took it with them on the British invasion of Khartoum in the Sudan.  That same year, McIlhenny's son--the second president of the company--left his job to join Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders and took the fiery red sauce to Cuba.
When the US military decided to end the border depredations of Pancho Villa, General Blackjack Pershing's Punitive Expedition took it along on the 1916 invasion of Mexico.  Tabasco was present in both World Wars, in Vietnam, and is currently issued inside of military MRE rations.   Recognizing the simple necessity of the sauce, both England and Canada now issue Tabasco in their military rations.

During the Vietnam War, Brigadier General Walter S. McIlhenny issued the Charlie Ration Cookbook.  The small booklet came wrapped around a 2-ounce bottle of Tabasco and taught soldiers how to make a C-ration almost edible.  Among the recipes were Combat Canapés, Cease Fire Casserole, and Breast of Chicken under Bullets.

Tabasco has been everywhere!  It is served on Air Force One in special bottles, it was standard issue on the space shuttles, and it has been to both Skylab and the International Space Station.  It can also be seen in the Charlie Chaplin movie, Modern Times and it is already listed on the prototype menu for the first Mars trip. 

A hundred years from now, I have no idea where people will have ventured.  But, I'm willing to bet they take Tabasco with them.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Worcestershire Sauce

Once, I was a "poor starving student."  Amazingly, we still use that phrase at Enema U, but today it means a student who has a two-year-old smart phone and has to settle for only a tall mocha crapochino instead of the venti. 

But a few decades ago (quite a few) "poor" meant that I had trouble buying enough to eat.  I worked as a night security guard at a hotel that had large restaurants.  Unfortunately, they were closed by the time my shift began, but the empty restaurants had loads of little baskets full of cellophane-wrapped saltine crackers.  More than one night, I made a meal of out of those crackers.  I discovered that with a little imagination, a cracker soaked in Worcestershire Sauce until it turned brown could remind you of meat--sort of.  If you don't understand this, you need to remember that hunger is the best sauce.

Since then, I've always had a certain fondness for Worcestershire Sauce, and not just because it makes crackers taste good--it also has a history.

Previously, I have written about garum, the anchovy sauce that seems to have been used throughout the Roman Empire, and I described how a student of mine tried to follow the ancient recipe to make a sauce that would have made Caesar proud.  (Or, perhaps just hungry.)

The student's project was a total failure, and the EPA has designated his former home as a potential superfund site.  The resulting toxic sauce was securely sealed in a Mason Jar and buried at the Happy Farm (the same place where I used to take my children's pets when they were so old they had to go live where they could run and play in the sun everyday--you know: a hole dug in the backyard).

Evidently, things do not ferment correctly in the desert almost a mile above sea level.  Which may be just as well, since now, if you really want to try it, you can buy authentic garum from Amazon.  (It's getting hard to think of something you can't buy from Amazon.)  Or, you could just sample the modern day version that is sitting in your kitchen.

As the Romans conquered the known world, they took with them their methods of war (Stick the pointy end into the other fellow.), construction (We need another thousand slaves!), and food (Add enough salt and rotting fish sauce and this tastes pretty good.).  And when garum sauce eventually made its way to India, it stayed.  And stayed.  In fact, it outlasted the Roman Empire.  Over time, a few more spices were added and the flavor became a little less dependent on rotting anchovies. 

Eventually...the British arrived.  (Yes, that was a rather long interval...Several hundred years, in fact...Think of this as the blog equivalent of a dramatic pause.)

Though there are several versions of this story, here's the version I prefer:  In the 1830's, the wife of a British Colonial Official returned to England from India after many years of living "in country."  Her years in India had changed her palate and she found it difficult to adjust herself to British fare.  Once one has sampled curried lamb and vindaloo chicken, it is rather difficult to enjoy a traditional English meal of cold lard balls swimming in a butter sauce.  (I don't know what that meal is called, but I was served it more than once in London.)

Hoping to recreate a little bit of India in England, she took a recipe for a favorite sauce to the establishment of two spice merchants in Worcester.  (For the benefit of the Americans reading this, you pronounce this as 'Wooster."  It should rhyme with rooster.  So the sauce is pronounced "wooster-sure" sauce.  It should not sound as if you are asking for something like  "Winchester Shire" sauce."  (Although, that would make an excellent name for a gun oil.)

The two merchants, Mr. Lea and Mr. Perrins set about making a batch of this in a small wooden barrel.  Not every ingredient was available and some substitutions had to be made.  When finished, the two gentlemen sampled the concoction and immediately labeled the sauce as horrible.  History has lost all record of exactly what was said, but I think Mr. Perrins turned to his partner and said, "I wouldn't let a cow drink from that barrel."  (Well, I have no idea what he actually said, but that's what a Texan would have said.)

The two men wrote the concoction off as a total loss, hammered the lid back down on the barrel, and moved it to the basement.  (They were probably waiting for a moonless night, so they could dump the contents into a nearby canal.  I've run a boat down that canal and somebody has dumped quite a few suspicious things into it, some of which looked a lot like lard balls in a rancid butter sauce.)

Several years later, someone trying to find a little extra space in the basement came across the barrel and decided to sample it.  (He probably wanted to get the taste of lunch out of his mouth).  Surprisingly, the concoction now tasted excellent.  What the two spice merchants had not realized was that the sauce needed time to ferment.

Of course, the sauce has been on the market ever since.  In England, the same company still makes it, while in America, a different company has licensed it and makes it under the same name: Lea & Perrins'.  And today, the company still ages the sauce in wooden barrels for a minimum of three years. (This is after they age the salted anchovies in barrels for three to five years.)

As I discussed last week, the British Army has been all over the world, and everywhere it went, the British Mess included Worcestershire Sauce.  Archaeologists have uncovered these distinctive bottles at the remains of almost every old British fort and military encampment.

At this point, you might be asking yourself, "Why?  Why did the British Army take this sauce everywhere they went?  It doesn't taste that good."

The answer has to do with British military rations.  The British army shipped canned beef to its soldiers all over the world and some of the preservatives used turned the meat a pale green!  Even Englishmen found it hard to eat green canned beef.  Besides adding flavor, as we all know, Worcestershire Sauce will paint almost anything a dark brown color.  You can make almost anything--even green beef--look like "normal" meat. 

So, it's not just for crackers.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Fight

There is a new movie out that posits the question: "What would the world be like if the United States of America had never existed?"

As you can imagine, that generated a little discussion among some people here at Enema U.  A few people are of the earnest opinion that America would have been a much nicer, more civilized, and all-around cultured society had we remained under the enlightened rule of the English.  Other people were sober.

Engaging in this kind of speculative history is a mental curse that, if not stamped out immediately, will lead to madness.  If we had not fought the British, would the colonies have stopped growing at the Appalachian Mountains?  If Napoleon had not sold Louisiana, would today’s Texans speak French?  If my Aunt Sally had been born with wheels, would she have been a tea cart?

I have tried to ignore this “counterfactual speculation.”  (This is what academics call it when they sit around bullshitting each other.  Other than the name, the only real difference is that when you do it, you’re probably thinking:  “I wonder if I can get Chuck to give me another beer.”  When an academic is doing it, he’s thinking:  “I wonder if I can get the NEA to give me a grant on this?”  This is why you can NOT leave serious history to amateurs—they just don’t think big enough.)

What I can NOT stop thinking about, is the nonsense about the "enlightened" and "beneficial" society that would have come about if the colonies had just  remained under the leadership of gentle, non-violent, and all around peaceful England.  England???

Peaceful Ol’ England is mean enough to hunt bears with a hickory switch.  Now, don’t get me wrong--I really like England.  (Except for the food!  I think the national dish is pork tartare.) I probably like England because she is NOT peaceful. 

Hell, compared to England, the United States is Mother Teresa.  England has invaded--at one time or another--over 90% of the Earth.  At last count, of the 200 odd countries that make up our planet, England has invaded all but 22 of them....So far.  And most of those 22 were spared because they were landlocked (and it was considered too difficult to put wheels on the British Navy!).

As an example, I give you the British invasion of Argentina.  (No, I am not talking about the Falklands War.  It is not an invasion when you take back your own island.  And even if it were, that would have been the third British military invasion.)

In 1806, Commodore Sir Home Popham was given command of a fleet and sent to attack Cape Town and drive the Dutch out of South Africa.  Taking 1600 soldiers 6,000 miles from home is a difficult task, but Sir Popham was eager to distinguish himself.  Unfortunately, by the time his British force arrived in South Africa, the Dutch had already been driven out, and the area was firmly under British control. 

Poor Sir Popham!  He had an army that was all dressed up and had nowhere to fight.  So...he invaded Buenos Aires.  Wrong country.  Hell, wrong continent! The invasion was not authorized, and was a gross over-stepping of his orders (a hanging offense in those days).  Fortunately, for Popham, he was successful.  The Spanish army ran away as the British troops came ashore. 

When word of this unexpected victory reached London, the people rejoiced.  With Britain simultaneously at war with France, Spain, and the Netherlands, the war news lately had been rather grim.  Napoleon was in control of most of Europe and a lot of people weren’t really sure where Argentina was (or just why England needed it), but they had won something!

Unfortunately, the joy was short-lived.  While the Spanish had run, the people of Buenos Aires had not.  Under their own leader, they organized an impromptu militia, counter-attacked, and captured a large portion of the British forces.  Sir Home Popham was forced to retreat to Montevideo, in present-day Uruguay.  He was recalled, and while a court martial condemned him, the merchants of London presented him with a sword for opening up a new market.  

While England had not planned on a war in Argentina, now that its military honor (I guess since it's the English, it should be ‘honour’) had been insulted….Well, a second invasion had to take place.  This time, the English would do it right.  In 1807, they sent 10,000 troops.  Unfortunately, they also sent Lieutenant General John Whitelocke. (That's pronounced, "Leftenant General", since he was English, of course.)

When Whitelocke arrived, he seemed to believe that he was fighting just a few pro-Spanish fanatics.  However, what he was actually fighting was a city full of fiercely independent Argentines who, after they were successful with this second invasion, went on to establish the first independent nation in Latin America.  (The consensus in Argentina was: The Spanish ran from the British, and we beat the Brits…Why exactly do we need Spain?)

Whitelocke could have won.  Unfortunately, in the face of a superior enemy, he decided to split his forces.  There is an iron-clad military rule about this: "If you are a general and feel the need to split your forces, you are supposed to pull out your wallet and check your driver’s license.  Unless it says your name is Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, or Robert E. Lee, don’t do it."  (In England, this is known as the Montgomery Rule.  There is a Montgomery Martini that is fifteen parts gin to one part vermouth.  Supposedly, Monty would never attack without those odds.)

Whitelocke attacked in two wide columns separated so far apart that neither column could support the other.  The people of Buenos Aires, armed with the guns from the first British invasion, fought from behind barricades made from large leather bags filled with sand.  After a day of fighting, Whitelocke had lost a third of his men--killed, wounded, or captured.  Forced to seek terms, the general agreed to withdraw.  At his subsequent court-martial, he was declared, “totally unfit and unworthy to serve His Majesty in any military role whatever.” 

Today, in Buenos Aires, the British embassy is located on the Calle Reconquista.  Just around the corner at the Santo Domingo church, you can see the captured British Battle Flags.  England will get them back about the same time Argentina gets the Falklands.

And what of Sir Home Popham who started all this?  He continued to serve in the military and had a distinguished career in the Napoleonic Wars.  His failure in Argentina was the sole blemish on his record, and that was primarily due to poor communications with England. Ironically, his greatest triumph was also in communications: He developed the semaphore system that is still the basis of the flag system used by navies around the world.

Shortly after he created the flag system, it was most famously used for the signal, "England expects that every man will do his duty" that was sent just before the Battle of Trafalgar, the battle that ruined the navies of both France and Spain.

No--I don’t think the United States has anything to teach England about aggression.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Barbed Wire Fence

The two old ranchers, Mike and Kent, were mending a barbed wire fence along the highway.  Well, mostly they were talking about nothing much.  Both of them were moving as slow as lame mud turtles, but it wasn't exactly like either of them was on the clock.  No, at their age, they were "gentleman" ranchers.  Or, as they say in Texas:  "Big Hat-Small Cattle."

"Did you get the name of the idiot who broke the barb wire," Ken asked.  The top two strands of the wire fence had snapped.  It wasn't hard to figure out how this had happened, as the skid marks on the road led to the muddy ruts that stopped within four feet of the fence.

"No," Mike answered.  "Some damn fool went around that corner too fast and skidded off the road into the fence.  I guess he didn't think that the chance of a steer getting out and wandering onto the highway in the dark was a problem he should report."

Mike carefully backed his pickup up perpendicular to the fence until the trailer hitch protruded just above the remaining wire.  Kent attached one end of the come-along winch to the trailer hitch and the opposite end to the fence post past the break.  Now that the top two strands of wire had broken, the old fence post was leaning at a 45 degree angle.

"I suppose it was some damn fool teenager racing down the road in the dark," said Mike as he carefully used the fence pliers to untwist the broken ends of the wires.

"Ah yes, the Flower of American Youth," Kent said as he slowly worked the come-along until the fence wire was taunt and the post was upright again.

"Yep," said Mike.  "If by 'flower,' you mean a blooming idiot."

Kent pulled off a leather work glove and stared at a red welt on his thumb.  "Damn," he said.  "Why is it you lose the good gloves immediately, but the ones full of holes hang around forever?"

"Maybe you ought to buy gloves that cost more than $2 a pair," answered Mike.  "Good gloves are kind of like oats.  Good fresh oats are fairly expensive, but if you'll settle for poor quality--the kind of oats that have already been through the horse once--they come a mite cheaper."

"Hey, that reminds me, did you hear that Ol' Gertie, Bill Lloyd's mother-in-law, was buried last week?"

"No.  Hadn't heard anyone mention her in a month of Sundays, not since she went to live with her son, George, over in Azle.  Hand me those sleeves next to your foot."

Kent bent over and found the paper bag of wire sleeves in the grass and handed it to Mike.

"Never saw a mother-in-law who will be missed less.  That woman was equal parts mean and nasty," Mike said as he reached into his back pocket for the fence pliers.

The fence sleeve was a small metal cylinder, and once the strands of wire from both sides of the break were inserted through the sleeve, and the wires bent backwards, the pliers could crimp the sleeve flat, making a permanent repair.

"Yeah, I heard living with her other child didn't improve her disposition any.  No matter where she went, she was about as welcome as a skunk at a prayer meeting.  Want me to ease the tension on the come-along?"

"Yeah," Mike answered.  "Back it off about half a foot and let me make sure the tension's the same on each side of the post.   You know, it didn't help any that she didn't have the brains God gave most bait.  How' did she die?"

Kent eased the tension on the come-along and the post moved neither left nor right,  but continued to point straight up.  "Looks good to me.  She was chasing her fool cat through the corral and George's mule kicked her in the head."

"Surprised it killed her!  I didn't think there was anything under her bonnet but hair.  I think this fence will hold--at least long enough for it to be my son's problem when it breaks," Mike said.

"It was a real big funeral.  Must have been two hundred people come from all over the county.  Bill said people he didn't even know drove up from Stephenville," Kent said as he unhooked the come-along from the pickup truck's trailer hitch.

"That's a surprise," Mike said.  "She couldn't have had that many friends.  You don't suppose people were coming to make sure she was actually dead?"

"Nah," Kent replied.  "According to Bill, most of the men who came just wanted to buy that mule."