I always keep several different kinds of hot sauce on hand. At the moment, I have both regular and chipotle Cholula, Tabasco, chili-garlic sauce, Sriracha, Thai hot chili sauce, and a can of chipotle peppers in adobo. I consider this a paltry assortment, and I wish I had more. I need green chile habanero sauce, red chile habanero sauce, West Indian jerk sauce, Jamaican Scotch bonnet sauce, La Victoria, Crystal, harissa, Tapatio salsa picante, a few specialty small-batch hot sauces with names like Butt Twister and Viper and Slap Ya Mama and Pain is Good, Pickapeppa spicy mango sauce, Matouk’s Calypso sauce, Valentina, red chili oil, Sambal Oelek, and more. When the new kitchen gets renovated, I plan to put a Lazy Susan in the middle of the dining room table and stock it with hot sauces and avail myself of any and all of them at every meal.
There are those, I know, who sneer at people who cover their food in hot sauce. They think it wrecks the nuances of the flavors or something. I don’t care. In fact, I disagree. Nuance be damned. Hot sauce is exciting. It releases endorphins and cures colds and peps up blandness and augments deliciousness. It might be an aphrodisiac for all I know. (I suspect very much that it is.) Everything tastes better to me with hot sauce: chicken soup, pea soup, lentil soup, Caesar salad, frittatas, steamed vegetables, steak, shrimp, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, corn fritters, meat loaf – I’ll happily shake big splashes of scorching pepper sauce on any and all of it.
If I had to go to some hypothetical desert island where you’re allowed to have only five things in addition to the most basic necessities, plain food and water and shelter, Tabasco would be in my shipwreck suitcase along with the collected works of Bach, rioja, Tres Generaciones tequila, and a clawfoot bathtub with unlimited hot water. Other, more distinctive hot sauces fill a niche, usually geographical – Mexican, Thai, Vietnamese, Southern, and so on — but Tabasco is that versatile accessory that can go with anything, anywhere, uptown or downtown, black-tie or picnic, emeralds or bathrobe or both at once. Tabasco has a vinegary, piquant, clean, robust flavor whose clarity amps up subtler flavors without drowning them. It can go on anything, is what I’m saying, but I like it best on food that’s bland and plain and simple: red beans, scrambled eggs, chicken, polenta, steamed broccoli, boiled potatoes, cooked lentils. It also makes bad food edible, mediocre food good, and good food even better. There’s a good reason it’s the most popular and ubiquitous hot sauce on the planet.
Last fall, when we were in Louisiana, Brendan and I made a pilgrimage to Avery Island. We toured the McIlhenny factory, which meant we got a 10-minute tour of the Tabasco Museum, then we looked through a long plate-glass window at the assembly line, and then at the end we watched a short video about how Tabasco peppers are grown and harvested and packed into oak barrels with vinegar and left to cure, then tapped, bottled, and sent far and wide all over the world. It was a quiet day there, and we were among only a handful of other visitors. After the unintentionally hilarious promotional film, we collected our tiny little bottles of all the varieties of Tabasco – regular, jalapeno, habanero, chili-lime, chipotle, buffalo, garlic-pepper, and sweet & spicy. Then we went over to the gift shop to try the free Tabasco ice cream. It was damn good, but I wouldn’t want to eat it on a regular basis.
After we were done with the factory and gift shop, we took a little hike over the grounds. We wandered through the “jungle garden” (which resembled neither a jungle nor a garden but was rather a sort of bare wild expanse of trees and shrubs) by a bayou and wended our meandering way through little paths to a huge Buddha shrine on a hill, then to a lookout tower over a swamp where in the proper season one can evidently watch a massive group of snowy egrets going about their birdly business. On that overcast, almost-chilly, windless October afternoon, there was not bird one. The only wildlife around were a vast and aggressive population of gigantic mosquitoes who dive-bombed us and bit the hell out of us and a sudden startled pack of deer who sprinted like one being in several long, muscular pulses away from us into deeper cover.
Avery Island, as I recall from the tour and brochure, is an enormous deposit of rock salt. There are salt mines on the island, the oldest and deepest in the country; the salt is used in the production of Tabasco to seal the lids of the oak casks. One McIlhenny brother, the enterprising one (and I’m betting the firstborn), invented the hot sauce and planted the pepper fields and built the factory, and the other, dreamy, artistic, spiritual (I’m betting younger) brother designed and created the gardens, the paths, the Buddha shrine, and the bird-watching tower and sanctuary. Tabasco chiles are harvested when they turn a particular shade of red: when the workers are in doubt, there’s a red stick they use as a gauge, painted the proper shade, a literal baton rouge.
Just before it all closed for the night, we left Avery Island and drove to the nearby town of New Iberia, where Brendan lived for a couple of months in 2007. He was hired to shoot the behind-the-scenes footage, the “making of” In the Electric Mist. He lived with his father, who was the film’s producer, and the editors in a large, airy house on the Bayou Teche. After a driving tour of the town, we had a manifestly unspectacular dinner at a restaurant on the main drag. I took one look at my plate of steak, potatoes, and broccoli, and then I reached for the Tabasco and gave everything a red, savory, hot bath.
The other night, when I thought there was nothing in the house and it was time to rustle up some dinner, I found a package of Andouille and a package of boneless skinless chicken thighs in the freezer, unearthed some wild rice blend and a box of chopped tomatoes from the pantry, and discovered most of a box of chicken broth in the fridge, and then it was obvious what had to be done. (I’m not an enormous fan of shrimp in jamabalaya, so I didn’t care that I had nary a one.)
Saute a Cajun mirepoix in plenty of peanut or sunflower oil: chopped garlic, minced onion, celery, and Bell pepper. Add salt, cayenne, cumin, smoked paprika, a couple of bay leaves, black pepper, oregano, and thyme. Add a dash of Worcestershire sauce, a cup of chopped tomatoes, a cup of wild rice blend, and a package of Andouille sausage, chopped into half-discs. Stir until the rice is well-coated and it all starts to smell really good. Add 1 ½ or 2 (depending on the rice directions) cups of chicken broth and bring to a boil, then cover and lower to a simmer. Meanwhile, run 3 chicken thighs under the broiler in a broiling pan. Broil until just cooked and very tender, then turn and broil the other side. Cut up, reserving juices. Stir the chicken and its juices into the jambalaya. Taste and adjust seasonings. Cover and continue to cook. When the rice is perfectly done and has absorbed all the broth and chicken juices, serve heaping platefuls with a big bottle of Tabasco, and sprinkle it on every bite.