A history lesson: Three of America’s most beloved sauces

Sunday, 25 August, 2019

It’s all in the sauce! Pulled pork with BBQ sauce. A cheesy quesadilla with a side portion of salsa. Beautifully charred chicken wings with hot sauce. Each dish would taste good on its own, but it’s that extra little kick only the right sauce can deliver. 

In American food culture, having the right condiments and sauces is quite customary. BBQ sauce is a grill-season staple, salsa is a must in Tex-Mex dishes and a hot sauce is always a good one to have on hand when scovilles need to be elevated. But where do these classic sauces actually originate from? Who was the first person to bring BBQ sauce into the world? And what did the first salsa sauce consist of? These and more questions will be answered in this article. Let’s dive into the history of American’s most beloved sauces: BBQ sauce, salsa, and hot sauce.


The journey of BBQ sauce as we know it today

The history of BBQ sauce is a bit tricky, as no one quite knows when and where it came to be. Rumor has it that Christopher Columbus brought it back from Hispaniola, after seeing it used to give Alpaca meat more flavor. Once it developed a repertoire in America, South Carolina was the first state to pick it up. They created four different BBQ sauce ingredient styles, namely mustard, vinegar and pepper, light tomato and heavy tomato. The mustard-based version came from the Germans that ended up in South Carolina when it was a British colony. They brought the idea for mustard, or in German “senf,” with them and started commercially producing and selling it.


Scottish migrants in South Carolina came up with the vinegar and pepper version. In the 1900s, people started adding ketchup to the mixture to make it sweeter. This was the light tomato version. Over time, the amount of ketchup used increased and the heavy tomato BBQ sauce was born, containing more tomato. This type of BBQ sauce became a US favorite.


The origin of salsa sauce and how it made it to America


We’ve got the Incas, Mayans, and Aztecs to thank for the goodness that’s called salsa (the Spanish word that literally means “sauce”). Though salsa sauce comes in all sorts of shapes and consistencies these days, the sauce was originally based on chillies and tomatoes, and any other spices one might have liked to add. For the original birth of salsa sauce, we have to travel back all the way to the beginning of the 1500s, sometime between 1519 and 1521. The Spaniards stumbled upon the sauce after they saw the Aztecs combining tomatoes with chilli peppers and ground squash seeds (and sometimes beans). They used it to spice up dishes like turkey, lobster, and fish.


Bernardino de Sahagun was the first one to write about salsa in his books. He was a Franciscan missionary who lived among the Aztecs after they were conquered in 1529 by Hernando Cortes. In his work, Florentine Codex, you can read about his experiences and how the Aztecs spend their days. Salsa is something that was mentioned in there. That being said, the mixture was nameless for years until the Franciscan priest and grammarian Alonso de Molina gave it its official name in 1571: Salsa!


It then took until 1916 before this flavorful sauce ended up on American plates. New Orleans resident Charles E. Erath produced the first “salsa” and started selling it in bottles, naming it “Red Hot Creole Peppersauce” — made from fresh, ripe hot peppers, salt, and distilled vinegar. After this, it didn’t take long for other American states to get curious about salsa. Salsa came to LA in 1917 and some years later two new salsa flavors were manufactured in Louisiana.


In 1941, people started experimenting with different flavors and new salsa ingredients (think garlic, cilantro, cumin and onions). Henry Taklage got creative with red and green salsa and was the first to introduce salsa hot sauces to the American people. From there onwards, salsa became a sauce that was sold as “enchilada sauce” or “taco sauce.” Finally, in 1975, salsa became a commercial sauce that many households kept in their cupboards. Many believe that Austin is the first state to bring salsa on the market, as a salsa manufacturer there brought it to the people.


Ten years later, the Mexican sauce saw an increase of 79% in sales. Many businesses jumped on the bandwagon to commercialize the tomato mixture and by 1992, Americans now had the opportunity to choose between many different brands. This year, 36% of American households bought salsa compared to 16% in 1988. Today you’ll find salsa sauces in many different forms — hot or cold, chunky or smooth and cooked or raw. A lot of Americans also love to prepare their own salsa. The process is fairly easy and you can make your salsa completely unique by adding different spices and add-ons.

Hot sauce and its spicy history

When you think about a hot sauce bottle, you probably think about chilies. Though many probably assume chillies were introduced to the Americans when someone brought them back from traveling, it was actually not someone but something that was responsible for its distribution: birds! Birds are immune to the spiciness in wild chillies (caused by capsaicin, a chemical) and flew them over from Bolivia. They were available in Tehuacan Valley but didn’t spread much further. Which is why chillies still needed to be imported, mostly from Brazil, Mexico, and the Carribean.


Though chillies were available, there are no real records of when hot sauce officially became a thing to spice up a dish. There might have been a bottled cayenne sauce in Massachusetts and a pepper sauce in Sacramento around the early 1800s that started the hot sauce hype, but it’s hard to say for sure. The hot sauce history story that defines the birth of commercial hot sauce is one that happened not too long ago and right in New York City.


In 1830, Jane McCollick teamed up with the young Seaman Lichtenstein. She advised the boy, who was 11 at the time and selling newspapers on the street, to start a more lucrative business. Namely, to clean up the butcher’s meat scraps and sell them. The smart kid followed her advice, became successful with the idea and learned a lot. The two kept in touch and exchanged business lessons. Eventually, they teamed up as partners. The duo manufactured and sold sauces, jams, syrups, jellies, and catsups. One of them was a hot sauce also known as “bird pepper.” This exact sauce, made from chiltepins, became the first commercially sold hot sauce in the history of America.


In the following years, a new type of pepper also gains popularity: tabasco. Responsible for this was Colonel Maunsel White, who started growing pepper in his plantation in Louisiana in 1849. As tabasco was so hot, there was only a tiny bit needed to spice up an entire dish. Tabasco couldn’t be preserved by drying, so instead, it was poured over strong vinegar after boiling and then made into a sauce. Still, in this form, a small drop of tabasco would be enough for an entire dish. From that moment, tabasco evolved into the mixture as we know it now. Chilli peppers were aged with salt in wooden barrels, then mixed with vinegar and finally bottled up in small quantities.


A new wave of hot sauce popularity happened again in the early 1980s. Restaurant owner Chip Hearn went on a mission to create his own hot sauce. At first, he wanted to all do it himself, but due to infrastructure problems, he had to come up with an alternative. Hearn contacted a well-known hot sauce manufacturer and asked them if he could pay them to buy unlabeled bottles of hot sauce. Around the same time, more restaurants had the idea to sell their own branded hot sauce. Tapatio emerged in Maywood, California in 1971 and Sriracha was made by the Vietnamese immigrant David Tran in 1980. Hot sauce expanded into people’s households with TV commercials promoting different brands of hot sauce.


Getting used to the spicy flavor, the 1990s were all about experiments and going just a little more extreme. Super hot sauces were introduced, mostly packaged with flames coming out of someone’s butt, the word “ass” in it and keywords such as “insanity” or “death sauce.” Hot sauces were originally not made to attract people in restaurants, but rather the opposite: to get rid of unwanted eaters. With 90,000 to 250,000 Scoville units, they took spiciness to a whole new level. Surprisingly, it didn’t turn people away but they instead got excited about it!


Finally, hot sauce gained new momentum around 2012. Though the reason for this is unclear, many companies simultaneously started bringing out new types of hot sauces. They used a variety of peppers, such as ghost peppers, the Carolina reaper (named the world’s hottest pepper in 2013) and Trinidad Scorpions. Nowadays, hot sauce is still a beloved way to add some (or a lot of) excitement to dishes. Find out more about the MAGGI Taste of Americas Fiery Hot Sauce which showcases an amazing balance of heat and flavour brought out by a combination of aged chillies, vinegar and garlic.