A Brief History of Hot Sauce in the African-American Kitchen
Updated: Oct 8, 2020
by Sawyer Phillips
Chili. Vinegar. Garlic. Salt. Four simple ingredients with an anything but simple history.
If you can manage to shift through all of the myths and legends surrounding hot sauce, you will find that this condiment has always been intertwined with African American history, culture, and cooking. Before hot sauce became the ideal sidekick to soul food dishes (and anything else that needs a little punch), it had a long history in the slave trade and slavery in the United States.
Dr. Frederick Douglass Opie is an author and professor of History and Foodways at Babson College in Massachusetts. According to Opie, one must journey back to Africa to trace the love affair between African-Americans and hot sauce. The people of West and Central Africa were familiar with aromatic spices such as black pepper, cardamom, malagueta pepper, nutmeg, and ginger. These spices were used to not only flavor foods but also as a way to treat various ailments.
“In general, people who come from warm climates, whether it be Africa or Asia, consume spicy foods—foods that what we would call cause gastrointestinal sweating…” says Opie.“By eating hot spicy foods, it causes your body to sweat and naturally cools your body.”
Although West Africans were accustomed to peppery spices, they were introduced to chilis by Europeans in the 1500s and 1600s, which contain the chemical compound capsaicin. The chilis were also used for medicinal purposes and were integrated into food or liquid. West Africans’ and Central Africans’ palates were already prepared for the powerful punch of chili peppers. As enslaved Africans were brought to America and the British colonies, chilis were made into a hot sauce by people from India and West Africa by removing the seeds and pickling them in vinegar and salt.
Adrian Miller, food historian, author, and self-proclaimed ‘soul food scholar,’ writes in his book Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate At A Time, how some southern slave masters incorporated cayenne and tabasco chili concoctions into their slaves’ food because of its supposed health benefits. Following folkloric medicinal practices was a lot easier and less expensive than hiring a physician during outbreaks in the slave cabins. Slaves also used the chili concoctions to flavor bland plantation food.
Hot sauce still had yet to transition from its primary role as medicine into a full-blown condiment. Its popularization is partly credited to a white Louisiana slave owner named Colonel Manusel White. This antebellum entrepreneur began experimenting with making the sauce out of the tabasco chili, which was more oily, hotter, and arguably less flavorful than the cayenne chili base for most hot sauces in Louisiana. Soon White began marketing hot sauce as not only a medicine but also a condiment.
However, the real key to Colonel White's success was due to the work of his slaves. The farming, harvesting, and experimenting was all done by African-Americans on White’s plantations. Although African-Americans were surprisingly given some credit during Colonel White’s era, few people today know of the history of in the United States.
“I think at that time there was credit given, but there’s certainly not now. I mean, no one would think about the slaves' connection to hot sauce,” says
Miller, “It’s just the...American dynamic of not crediting people who actually do the work and it’s most acute with enslaved people...Maunsel White was unusual that he actually gave a shout-out but other hot sauce purveyors I just don’t see any record of that.”
Eventually, White’s hot sauce business significantly gained popularity. White’s pepper sauce was being sold in restaurants across the country and was even served to the former president Andrew Jackson. After White passed away in 1863, Edmund McIlhenny began selling a tobasco chili-based concoction that closely resembled White's recipe. However, the McIlhenny family claims it is their original family recipe. It is not clear if White's heirs sold the McIlhenny family the recipe. Today, the McIlhenny family owns and operates the company simply known as Tobasco.
Still, Tabasco was never as prominent as traditional Louisiana cayenne based hot sauce in African-American cuisine. One of the reasons for this was the farming of tabasco chilis was more expensive and intense with a lower harvest than cayenne chilies.
After the passing of the 13th Amendment, African-Americans took hot sauce and recipes to resettle with them in the North and other parts of the country. There were also more economic opportunities in the North, including opening restaurants and saloons where they sold bottles of hot sauce.
As Reconstruction ended and Jim Crow became the law of the South, stereotypes about African Americans and hot sauce also began to develop.
Some say that the idea or stereotype that African-American’s keep hot sauce in their bag traces back to the days of Jim Crow. Mikki Kendall, a writer for Eater, explains in her article "Hot Sauce In Her Bag" that Black people could only take out food from restaurants and were often required to use their own utensils, plates, and condiments. Thus, Black folks sometimes kept a bottle of hot sauce in their bags while on the road.
Dr. Opie says this practice is not exclusive to Black culture.
“I think it’s just the fact that you know how you like your food. You know we have kids at Babson [College] from Asia. They go in the cafeteria with all kinds of stuff to recreate or take what’s in the cafeteria, and any shape and form make it taste like home. It’s no different from black folks carrying hot sauce.”
Hot sauce in the United States was popularized and developed by African-Americans. It’s also evolving with the influence of the plethora of cultures and ethnicities in the United States.
“There may be different styles of hot sauces on the table [at soul food restaurants]...I think the fact that there are Mexican and Asian style hot sauces is a nod to white people who are coming to these spots because the cayenne based ones are still largely popular in the African American community,” says Miller. “I don’t see it ever being replaced. If that’s the case, I think that soul food has jumped the ship.” he continues.
As soul food and African-American cuisine changes and evolves, it seems hot sauce is a consistent favorite. It’s a condiment that has maintained its vigor through slavery, Jim Crow, and still graces restaurants (and bags) everywhere.