“…Gas? GAS! GAAASSSSSS! MASKS ON! MASKS ON GODDAMN IT! OH GOD TOO LATE!!!!”
~Residents of Irwindale, CA
The American Evolution Of Seasoning and Spicy Foods
As multi-national media conglomerates run by rich, attractive, magnanimous Americans have mentioned in the past, Americans eat spicy food now more than ever before. We’re not statisticians or scientists, and we haven’t run any studies or anything, which is why we can feel like we’re not lying to you when we say that Americans eat exactly one billion percent more peppers-enhanced meals than at any time in our nation’s history. That includes the 1960’s, when hippies everywhere would eat hallucinogenic jalapeño peppers while watching Jimi Hendrix tour with the Rolling Stones at Woodstock in Camden Y ards, which is another thing we can absolutely say without feeling like frauds because we’re not historians either.
There are many reasons why we as a society have evolved from a collection of teetotalers asking for and actively preferring the Taco Bell mild sauce to become enlightened beings that only use the “hot” sauce because, goddamn it, it’s 2AM and all the drunk people before you raided all the “fiery” for themselves. The bastards. But the main reason for our shift away from “wimpy wimpy wimpy” to “hefty hefty hefty” in the spiciness department can be seen through the varied ways, through our history, that we as a people have gone about making boring food taste good.
You see, food toys with us. It exists as both one of the best things ever while having the sadistic ability to become terrible really easily. If you’re not mincing up raw beef to get Wisconsinites sick (which, less face it, is the only way to know 100% that your food will be delicious) every year you encounter hundreds, if not thousands, of food decisions that can turn from delicious to awful with the gentlest breeze. Chicken can taste pretty damn amazing, or it can be boiled into a bland flavorless hunk of protein that your doctors force you to eat after your latest heart episode. Just about all of us love candy, but some people insist of giving us candy that’s been filled with fake strands of coconut mashed together as a way to prove they’re monsters. Steak is wonderful, but a well-done steak is the chef’s way of punishing you for being the worst kind of person and ordering a well-done steak.
“Sir, this is compliments of the chef. He says, go fuck yourself with the front end of a rake, you worthless, steak-ruining piece of shit.”
For as long as we’ve had taste buds that could differentiate between more than just “poop?” and “probably not poop” we’ve needed ways to even the culinary balance and make up for the fact that, honestly, most of us can’t make good food worth a goddamn, but all of us can cover a dish with enough salt that it’ll shrivel down into a giant bar of sodium, which will attract deer, which you will shoot and eat and turn into venison jerky by curing it with more salt. That’s how hakuna matata was created, and that’s why humanity (which, naturally, reaches its apex with America) has been adding seasonings and glorious, delicious sauces to make up for our foods’ flaws since the dawn of time.
For eons, we’ve used natural seasonings and chemical flavor enhancers to fool ourselves into thinking that our spouse’s cooking (and the oh-so-cute-and-oh-so-futile baking attempts of husbands everywhere) tastes good enough to prove to all the naysayers that you’re a successful, responsible, fully-actualized adult, even though you’re 19 years old, just got your girlfriend pregnant, just quit your job at Dairy Queen to elope in Reno (can’t afford Vegas), and now you the two of you are holed up in a Motel 6 sprinkling allspice into an unheated can of Spaghetti-O’s on a bed that vibrates if you put a quarter in it.
Nothing says “prostitutes have done it on this bed” better than this simple box.
First, we discovered salt. A naturally occurring mineral that’s been used in the preservation of food for well over 6,000 years, salt can be found on tables all across the world, a testament to the fact that mankind once dropped a hunk of meat onto a random big ass white rock and said, “Well, fuck, I mean, it’s still good right?” and ended up liking it more than the original hunk of meat. That is the story of how we invented both cured meats and the five-second-rule. After dropping food on every other kind of rock imaginable to no avail, we eventually began grinding up random plants and dried up berries that smelled good, with cinnamon, herbs, and pepper being traded as far back as 2000 BC. There were vast arrays of spices to choose from, but the discovery of the New World brought forth a cornucopia of new, delicious ways to enhance your food. Chocolate, allspice, bell peppers and vanilla all were suddenly available for much of the civilized world, but one ingredient proved the most important of all—chili peppers.
Seen here, drowning a man who made the wrong enemies.
The beautiful thing about chili peppers is that they’re just chock-full of capsaicin, which, apart from proving that when nature tells us, “don’t eat this, it will hurt you” we will eat it anyway, just out of spite, actively is addictive. Spicy food is a lot like hoppy beers, or that first, relaxing cigarette smoked by five -year-olds in the 1950s (this article sponsored by Chesterfield cigarettes, 1954’s number one doctor recommended cigarette brand). At first, most (though, admittedly, not all) find it to be wildly disagreeable. It burns your mouth, runs through your digestive tract like Usain Bolt cranked out on PCP, and causes your eyes to water, which you will then rub with the very same hands you used to eat your spicy food (because no, lovebirds, you two are not adults yet, your parents were right, Jesus Christ, why would you eat raw peppers you just found in the trash?) which will then cause you to feel like you’ve gotten on the bad side of a UC-Davis University police officer.
This pain you feel after munching on a jalapeño you found nestled under a coffee filter in your Motel 6’s lobby (you slobs. Call your parents, they’re worried sick, you don’t have to go home, just let them know that you’re okay) also releases serotonin and endorphins, which noted neuroscientists refer to as the “Awww yeah, this feels fuckin’ great” chemicals. Once the magical ability of spiciness became apparent, cultures slowly began introducing it to their cuisine. While it grabbed its most visible foothold in South America and Asia, America has had a horse in the spicy food race since 1807, when the first commercially available hot sauce appeared in Massachusetts. While these sauces were moderately popular, they never really were a definitive part of American cuisine, until one fateful day in 1868, when we were granted a magical elixir so delicious, so potent, that we had no other choice but to pour gobs of it onto a slice of pizza and eggs and oh God stop teasing just show the picture already it’s so beautiful.
Now pour two dozen eggs in there, and scramble it all up, and pour it into a skillet and *drools*
To paraphrase The Wire, while Tabasco didn’t change the game, it done made it more fierce. Louisiana has always been America’s strange, sorta quiet cousin who, in an exotic kind of way, is actually pretty hot wait stop you can’t say that it’s ILLEGAL and WRONG oh come on now we’re not saying it sexually, just maybe like, we have nice genes so it’d make sense that they no stop that thought right there you’re wrong and bad for even thinking of it. While most of America takes their cues from European or Hispanic ancestries, Cajun and Creole culture has made Louisiana a culinary hodgepodge combining French, Native American, Caribbean, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and African tastes and traditions which was quick to embrace the joy of spicy food.
Louisiana became one of the best places to find and grow peppers in America during the 19th century, both due to its growing conditions and to its proximity to Mexico and Central America. So when Edmund McIlhenny came across some seeds for Capsicum frutescens, he planted them on Avery Island in South Louisiana. Once they grew, he put them in discarded cologne bottles (new and unused, thankfully) with some vinegar and salt to create what we in the word-making business call, “Ohhh my Godddddd oh man, it’s like, ohhhhh mannnn.” The marketing folks at the time decided that was too many words to fit on a bottle, so they called it Tabasco.
At this point, we’re required, by website charter, to point out that Edmund’s son, John Avery McIlhenny, took over the business in 1890 only to hand the business off to his brother, Edward Avery McIlhenny, to join Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.
Because of course the man in charge of Tabasco would be an unbridled badass who shot guns with Teddy Roosevelt.
From there, Tabasco ruled supreme, though other hot sauces flooded the market, with some legitimately spicy examples (that, by law, have to have jackass names, we guess). Of course, with advent and popularization of Buffalo Wings in the 1970s, and the inclusion of spicy recipes seen in an influx of ethnic cook books later in the decade, spicy food remained more of a niche an America that still was struggling to toss off their “meat and potatoes” culinary reputation.
Then, in 1980, lightning struck.
Sriracha, everyone’s favorite hot sauce and flavor enhancer, is named after the coastal city of Si Racha, located in Eastern Thailand, and was first produced as a paste of chili peppers, vinegar, garlic, sugar and salt to flavor dishes served at local seafood restaurants. Wait, this is America dammit, we’ll die before we let some damn foreigners take credit for something we perfected. Let’s start again.
Sriracha, everyone’s favorite hot sauce and flavor enhancer, was invented (invented, goddamn you) in 1980 by David Tran, a Chinese Vietnamese farmer who had just moved to Los Angeles following one of the first migrations of the Vietnamese boat people following the Vietnam War. He spent the next three years perfecting the recipe for his Sriracha sauce, which of course was a regional hot sauce he was previously familiar with, since he spent much of his life growing chilies and making a sauce in a village just north of Shanghai he invented in America and named after his best American friend, Steve Earl Racha, a college football player who had a particularly good pie recipe that his grandmother gave him. The resultant recipe, being made since 1983 by his company Huy Fong Foods, has never been changed save for a switch from Serrano peppers to red jalapeño peppers, which are obviously far more American.
The rate of Sriracha usage among Americans has grown exponentially since it started. By 2001, the company was selling 6,000 tons of chili products. By 2010, it was selling 20 million bottles a year. In 2012, they saw sales figures five times higher than just a decade prior. Why has it launched into America’s favorite condiment, which we discuss in more reverent terms than we do our own loved ones? It’s difficult to say, mainly because when you encounter perfection, it’s nearly impossible to transcribe it to words. Those who like spicy food are required by law to have a bottle of it in their kitchen at all times, and those who don’t like spicy foods have to live with the knowledge that their experiences in life will be less rich and fulfilling than their sriracha embracing brethren. Explaining the wonderment of Sriracha to the uninitiated would be like describing why steak is delicious to a vegetarian—you’ll get halfway through a series of jumbled, “Oh my God, how could you not have had this it’s so…” statements before finding yourself incredibly saddened at what your conversation partner is missing out on, at which point you just sort of trail off and try to suppress the urge to grab a pillow and smother them like the end scene of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest to put them out of their misery as humanely as possible.
“Shh, shh. It’ll all be over soon. May you find peace and functioning taste buds in the next life, my life.”
Sriracha has never once advertised their sauces, which means that it’s so good that word of mouth alone has accounted for a 20% sales increase every year, and millions of Americans somehow managing to spell “Sriracha” correctly on the first try despite the fact that it’s the only word in existence that crams together an S and two Rs in its first four letters. Now, many people (often referred to as “people with impeccable taste”) put the rooster sauce on everything imaginable, because we’ve yet to create a food dish that doesn’t taste better with some Sriracha squirted on top of it.
With Sriracha exploding in popularity, more and more Americans are embracing spicy foods, which means that more and more Americans are being awesome. So, from Tobasco to Sriracha, we as a nation thank all of you enterprising “oh God my mouth is on fire” product inventors. You keep America spicy.