Hungry for Spice: The Story of Hot Sauce in America

Beth Kaiserman


Walk into your average American diner, and along with eggs, bacon and coffee, you’ll likely see a bottle of hot sauce right next to the ketchup, mustard, cream and sugar. It’s probably Huy Fong Foods’ sriracha or Tabasco, and it will probably give an excellent kick to your morning eggs.


America’s dedication to spicy foods has skyrocketed in the past decade. Hot sauce production increased and strengthened even through the economic crisis. According to market research from IBISWorld, hot sauce production increased annually at 3.6 percent in the past five years and 3.5 percent in 2014.


Huy Fong Foods, which produces the most popular sriracha sauce (the one with the green cap and the rooster on the bottle) saw its sales at 20 million bottles in 2012, and the numbers continue to rise.


Declared the “ingredient of the year” by Bon Appetit magazine back in 2010, sriracha is now ubiquitous on the American palate. But what’s next for spice lovers looking for a kick?


History of Hot Sauce


The love for hot sauce in America stems from its celebrated use in the South and from the continuing influx of international cultures in America. Hot sauce in America is a $1.1 billion industry. Spicy food is here to stay.


Chili peppers have existed for over 6000 years in Mexico, Central and South America. When Christopher Columbus landed in the Caribbean, pepper sauces were being used to preserve meats, according to The Great Hot Sauce Book by Jennifer Trainer Thompson.


The first bottled cayenne sauces appeared in 1807 in Massachusetts, and the oldest surviving commercial hot sauce is Tabasco. The first recorded crop of Tabasco chiles was in 1849 in New Orleans on a plantation owned by Colonel Maunsell White, who advertised a hot sauce using the chiles in 1859. He then gave the recipe and seeds to his friend, Edmund McIlhenny, who began planting on Avery Island. Production was halted due to the Civil War, and the McIlhennys relocated to San Antonio, Texas. Operation picked up again in 1868, and the sauce sold for $1 per bottle. The sauce was patented in 1870.


In 1898 former McIlhenny employee B.F. Trappey began growing tabasco chiles and created a sauce called “Tabasco.” This of course began a feud, and the McIlhennys trademarked their brand in 1906.


Other hot sauces began springing up, including Frank’s Louisiana Red Hot Sauce in 1920 and Crystal Hot Sauce in 1923.


Hot, Hotter, Hottest


Hot sauce contests and festivals have popped up all around America. Americans love competitive eating, and chile peppers are obviously a big hit on the competition circuit.


The Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival is the largest in the world. It started in 1990 and draws around 15,000 people and over 350 entries per year. It’s one of Austin’s biggest celebrations and is a significant fundraiser for the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas.


The National Fiery Foods & BBQ Show will celebrate its 27th year this March in Albuquerque featuring over 200 exhibitors.


The Chile Pepper Festival at Brooklyn Botanic Gardens was held for the 22nd time this past September. It features a chile pepper farmers’ market, live international music, artisanal hot sauce and spicy chocolate treats.


The third annual NYC Hot Sauce Expo will happen this April, including a bloody mary mix-down contest with NYC bartenders.


The eighth annual North Carolina Hot Sauce Contest this past September brought 10,000 hot sauce heads to Oxford, North Carolina.



The Faces Behind the Heat


David Tran, CEO of Huy Fong Foods, is seemingly the coolest guy in hot sauce. But who are some other up-and-coming contenders eager to make you red in the face?


Kuldip Sahota paid a recent visit to New York to promote his family’s East London-made Mr. Singh’s hot sauce. His goal? “To eventually conquer America in the same way Tabasco and Frank’s has done in the UK,” he said.


Based off a recipe his father Hardev Sahota created in the ‘80s, Mr. Singh’s chilli sauce packs the heat. When Scotch Bonnets and Habaneros are the first two ingredients on the bottle, you know it’s serious. (That’s the case on the brand’s BBQ Chilli sauce.) The sauce is currently available in Fairway Market in New York, and the brand is looking to expand.


Natchez, Ms. is a small town with a big personality. Walking down Main Street, you’ll find a friendly sign offering hot sauce samples and gumbo on Fridays. Inside is D’evereux Foods, a fresh artisan hot sauce shop turning out some delicious spicy sauces.


“It’s a dream come true as far as I never have a day that I don’t want to go to work,” owner Ashleigh L. Aldridge said.



The one-year-old company started when Aldridge’s dad, Courtney, decided to experiment with some peppers he had been canning to entertain his son on a rainy day. Family and friends loved the recipe, and a business was born.


On rainy days, Aldridge shuts down the shop and starts making the sauce. A sign outside will read “If you have a pepper emergency, call me.”


“On days where it rains, moisture in the air keeps the spices weighted down so they don’t fly into your nose and eyes and stuff like that,” she said. “Making it is the funnest part. I wear a crazy respirator mask and put crazy music on in the back.”


Aldridge is dedicated to keeping the company gourmet.


“I want to know what goes in every bottle. I don’t want someone else doing it and putting our label on it,” she said.


Natchez will soon have its own brewery and distillery and already has a winery.


“For such a small town we’ve got a lot going on,” she said. “A lot of the restaurants here have us on the table and then they sell it at the front.”

With new tastemakers and America’s thirst for the hottest hot sauces, the industry will no doubt continue to deliver fresh and exciting sauces to turn up the heat.


Author Bio:


Beth Kaiserman is Highbrow Magazine’s chief food critic.

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Wikipedia Commons; Google Images
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Natchez--is that the little shop that we wandered into and tasted around in?

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