SOME LIKE IT HOT
It’s the most American of success stories.
A boy, in this case 16-year-old Thad W. Garner, foregoes youth’s sweet bloom and carves out an existence marked by hard work and determination. Garner drove a school bus and delivered newspapers; he scrimps and saves – for college, you understand – and ends up blowing half his life savings, about $300, on a barbecue stand in Winston-Salem. And it could have ended there – an outstanding barbecue hut in a place that loved barbecue. Maybe ol’ Thad might’ve branched out to Greensboro or Charlotte, or maybe even gone into franchise overdrive. But the Dixie Pig Barbecue Stand was just the beginning. For his 300 bucks, Garner got the stand and everything in it, including a handwritten recipe for barbecue sauce. And it was good. This was in 1929, before barbecue sauce was bastardized into sweet, smoky ketchup. This sauce was thinner than what we use today, more savory, intended solely to slather atop pork as it cooks over an open fire. People began asking for it, so a production line was created in Garner’s mother’s kitchen, and his father began taking cases of the stuff out on the road and selling it until North Carolina was saturated with Garner’s Backyard Barbecue Sauce. Here’s where it gets interesting: Customers began requesting a hotter sauce. Rather than tinker with the original recipe, Garner, who by now had enticed not only his parents but two of his brothers into the business, developed a basic pepper and vinegar sauce intended as an additive to the barbecue sauce. According to family legend, the brothers had agreed on a name for this fiery hot sauce: Mexican Joe’s. But at the insistence of their father, who felt the product should bear an American name, they changed the name to Texas Pete, after the hot-sauciest state in the union and brother Harold, who for some reason was nicknamed Pete. The product sold well, particularly in the Southeast, where more hot sauce is consumed than anywhere else in the nation. And then, more than 50 years after the company began, the niche industry hit a boom. Mexican sauce sales went up 79 percent between 1985 and 1990, due to a growing national trend of salsa consumption. By 1992 salsa had outpaced ketchup as the best-selling condiment in the United States. And hot sauce went along for the ride. “They’re both symptoms of people’s tastes changing towards hotter, more adventurous kinds of foods,” says Glenn Garner, Harold “Pete” Garner’s grandson and current director of marketing at Garner Foods. He’s sitting in the conference room of the TW Garner Food Company’s headquarters in an industrial quarter of Winston-Salem. There are charcoal placemats by each chair and at the center of the long table are three 12-ounce bottles of Texas Pete in various stages of consumption. There’s the original, which is still made pretty much the same way it has been for 70 years, and two newer blends – one with a touch of garlic, and another that is about three times hotter. It’s a casual Friday in the office, and Garner, 35, wears a guayabera shirt, distressed designer jeans and comfortable loafers. But he still speaks boardroom lingo fluently. “We’ve more or less stuck to our core competence: our hot sauce,” he says. “[The garlic sauce] came as a response to our food service customers that wanted to switch to Texas Pete but needed a hot sauce with garlic. And then, some of our regular customers who loved Texas Pete were asking us, ‘When are you gonna come out with a hotter one?'” In relation to the overall hot sauce market – and there are hundreds of brands in the US alone – Texas Pete is considered rather mild. It is made from the cayenne pepper, which is actually slightly hotter than the tabasco pepper and way hotter than the jalape-o, but is aged and rendered in such a way as to temper the capsaicin. Capsaicin is what makes hot sauce hot, makes the nerves on your tongue tingle and dance. It is technically an irritant, and besides making your chicken wings taste delicious, capsaicinoids are used to treat shingles, cancer and strokes, applied as a topical anesthetic and act as the main ingredient in pepper spray. Here’s how it works: Capsaicin triggers trigeminal cells, pain receptors in the mouth, nose and throat that react biochemically as if they’ve been exposed to heat or abrasive damage. That’s where the burn comes from. Different peppers have different levels of capsaicin; the habanero is hotter than a Bahamian pepper, which in turn is hotter than a Thai pepper. The naga jolokia pepper, a chile from India, is reputed to be the hottest in the world, measuring 855,000 to 1 million Scoville units. And a few words about the Scoville scale, or the Scoville Organoleptic Test, a neat little piece of pseudoscience developed in 1912 for Parke Davis pharmaceuticals by a man named Wilbur Scoville. Scoville blended ground chilis with sugar water in varying levels of dilution and had subjects drink the water, registering the dilution point at which the mixture no longer burned the subjects’ mouths, giving it a Scoville rating. Pure capsaicin measures 16 million Scoville units; police-grade pepper spray rates 5.3 million. Commercial hot sauces top out at around 1.5 million. The hotter Texas Pete blend goes at about 3,000, while the original carries from 700 to 1,000 Scoville units. I’ve got a few bottles in front of me now: the original, the hotter version and the one infused with garlic. I’ve also got an egg sandwich with bacon and Swiss cheese on an English muffin. It’s a magnificent pairing. I’m familiar with the original Texas Pete’s, and I dump a teaspoon or so on a corner of the sandwich. Then I take a bite. The sauce is thick, but not too, and a pepper flavor comes through with a soft, lingering bite. The garlic version tastes a bit more vinegary, but that could be my imagination. Also, it carries a subtle garlic flavor and that same soft afterburn. A teaspoon of the hotter hot sauce is a darker shade of red, with a slightly thinner viscosity. A taste brings the heat to the back of my throat and my soft palate; the pepper flavor comes across initially but it is quickly obliterated by the heat. As a control, I take a bite of sandwich without sauce. It’s disappointing. I cover the rest of it with the original blend and take it down. “The single best retail skew is probably the twelve-ounce, original Texas Pete hot sauce,” Garner says, “but the wing sauce is running a close second.” There are a few other products in the catalog: canned chili and chili sauce, and also a line of jams, jellies and preserves that the company began to manufacture in the ’40s at the behest of Ft. Bragg for their mess halls. But here it’s mostly about the sauce – the hot sauces, of course, and the original barbecue sauce, which is sold mostly for commercial foodservice. Plus they make Worcestershire sauce, honey mustard, seafood cocktail sauce, a green pepper sauce (which is little more than tabasco peppers suspended in vinegar) and Buffalo wing sauce. The wing sauce sales tap into culinary legend as well. Their story goes back to Buffalo, NY, of course, in the mid 1960s when, depending on who you believe, either the Anchor Bar or John Young’s Wings & Things began frying the cheap cuts, soaking them in hot sauce and butter and then serving them with celery and bleu cheese dressing. Soon every bar in Buffalo was serving them, and by the 1970s wing joints began cropping up in Boston and south Florida, brought down by retired snowbirds. In 1980 the national food press began to spread the Buffalo wing’s notoriety through articles and recipes. By 1983, the first Hooter’s was operating in Clearwater, Fla. And according to Garner, it was Garner Food Co. sales manager Jim Frank who brought chicken wings to the South. It’s a natural fit. The South loves its chicken, particularly when it’s fried. And spicy food has always played a large role in Southern cuisine. Frank set up a series of meetings with Dominic Bellisimo, owner of the Anchor Bar in Buffalo. These were the planning stages of a marketing blitz. “The first thing we did, we started putting a wing sauce recipe on our hot sauce bottle,” Garner says, in the early ’80s. “We came out with a wing sauce by the mid-eighties, and by the late eighties every restaurant in town had wings on their appetizer menu. Now, of course, there are a dozen different chains devoted to nothing but wings.” Food trends come, but rarely do they completely go. The hot sauce boom of the late ’80s lives on in flavored chips, websites, trade journals and merchandise. There are vestiges of it in the ’90s wasabi craze and the current fascination with exotic curries. Spicy chicken wings, gourmet salsas and blackening seasoning will be with us always. And hot sauce itself, the pure unadulterated heat, has cemented its position on the American condiment table.
To comment on this story, e-mail Brian Clarey at firstname.lastname@example.org.