25: Leah Chase tells the story of President Obama’s visit to Dooky Chase’s during the 2008 campaign. He was served a bowl of her classic gumbo, and immediately started sprinkling hot sauce into it. Leah saw it, and took the future President to task, chiding him for adding hot sauce without tasting the gumbo first. Adjusting the seasoning before tasting the food is considered a faux-pas, of course, but in the world of soul food, splashing on some hot sauce is a reflex action for many.
Or how about this one: In her book, Hallelujah! The Welcome Table, a collection of recipes and food-related anecdotes, Maya Angelou (1928-2014) tells a story about her life in Paris in the 1950s as the lead dancer in Porgy and Bess and an after-hours nightclub blues & calypso singer.
On one occasion, the young Maya tried to cheer up fellow cast-member Miss Annabelle Ross, who was in her sixties, by taking her to an elegant French restaurant. When the main course was served, veal medallions, Ross opened her purse, took out a small bottle, and, to the horror of the French wait-staff, proceeded to shake a few drops of Tabasco sauce on her meat, whereupon she declared it “right perfect.”
Homestyle cooking in the north and the south overlap considerably. If we ask what the difference is, generally it has to do with flavor. Southern foods tend to be more richly seasoned, which largely reflects the impact of the enslaved African Americans in the Big House kitchens. If we then ask what might distinguish soul food as an ethnic cuisine from southern regional cooking generally, one might well point to the liberal use of hot sauce, not just on meats and soups, but even on dishes such as greens.
There are hundreds of sauces, and they don’t all taste the same. Some are milder than others. Some hit the tongue in different places than others.
Some people have a favorite sauce, and won’t use any other. I like different sauces for specific uses; for instance, I like Texas Pete on fried chicken, and is the one that belongs in the glove compartment of my car…just in case. I like Crystal for catfish and my bbq baked beans. I’ll use Louisiana in my chili. Franks is almost everyone’s choice for buffalo-style chicken wings.
Of course, many other cuisines use hot sauce as well. If we’re talking Mexican food, I want a Mexican-style hot sauce like Salsa Huichol or Cholula. Likewise, if we’re talking southeast Asian, then by all means grab the Huy Fong Sriracha. I haven’t found many uses for Tabasco, the original commercial hot sauce, because it doesn’t have much flavor, just a lot of heat.
When we speak of hot sauces in connection with soul food, what we have in mind are the ones consisting of cayenne, vinegar, and salt. This is a sample from my own working arsenal, including Texas Pete, Louisiana, Crystal, Trappey’s Red Devil, and Frank’s. The other sauces and picantes are in various ways more complex.
By the way, “Texas Pete” has nothing to do with Texas. It’s a Louisiana-style sauce (1929), but it’s from Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Adrian Miller devotes a chapter of Soul Food to hot sauce, and details the history. The chili pepper is a New World plant that European traders spread around the world. Cayenne, for instance, is named for the city of Cayenne in French Guinea. The chili pepper was valued first for the medicinal properties of its active ingredient, capsaicin, and it is still used in cream form as a topical pain reliever (analgesic)
At the time of the Columbian Exchange, in West Africa the people were already using the milder melegueta, called a “pepper” though it’s more closely related to ginger. The chili pepper caught on quickly, so that by the time enslaved Africans arrived in America, they were already familiar with growing and using cayennes and other chilis in cooking.
The map above presents a highly stylized summary of the flow of foods (and diseases) between the Old World and the New World in the 1500s-1600s. Peppers appear just off the coast of Nova Scotia.
Obviously, the map both minimizes and distorts the roles of Africa and South America in the flow. It simplifies the actual path of certain items, such as peanuts, which went from South America to Africa and Europe and then back across to North America. And of course, it omits perhaps the most crucial dimension of the exchange; namely, the forced migration of large numbers of enslaved Africans into South America and the Caribbean, and then into North America.
Breeding, growing, and eating extremely hot peppers has become a hobby in some circles. The “heat” of a pepper may be expressed in Scoville Heat Units (SHU), but the heat of individual peppers is influenced by a variety of factors, and the best we can do is to give an approximate range. For instance, serrano peppers, usually considered hotter than jalapenos, generally range from 8,000 to 22,000 SHU, but the hot end of the jalapeno range may in turn reach 8,000 SHU. Some charts show the habanero as hotter than the cayenne, while other charts will rank it cooler.
Why do people like hot peppers and hot sauces made from them? It seems counter-intuitive, but one reason hot peppers and sauces are so common in very hot climates, from Thailand to India to Africa to the Caribbean is precisely because they make us sweat. Peppers don’t actually increase body temperature, but they do trick the brain’s pain receptors into thinking that we’re hot, and that in turn tricks us into sweating. That then cools us off as the perspiration evaporates. In other words, if you want to cool off on a hot day, eat something spicy.
Researchers also found that the capsaicin in peppers has strong antibacterial and antifungal properties. It can kill off, or at least slow down, as much as 75% of the bacteria in food, and thus slowing down the spoilage of food, especially in hot climates.
In any case, across the country, wherever you go, from a bottle of the restaurant’s own brand at Sylvia’s in New York…
…to a bottle of Crystal at Tanya Holland’s Brown Sugar Kitchen in Oakland…
…if they’ve got soul food, they’ve probably got hot sauce on the table.