Book Burn ...
"Happily, the University of North Carolina Press saw fit to reprint this little classic in 1999, and it remains readily available to anyone interested in the history of American hot sauce, as well as in a thoughtful portrait of a rapidly changing segment of American Southern culture," writes MM Pack. Find out why.
Hot Peppers: The Story of Cajuns and Capsicumby Richard Schweid
University of North Carolina Press, 171 pp., $16.95, (revised; paper)
Richard Schweid writes my favorite kind of books. He has intense curiosity in a wide range of directions, an accomplished journalist's tenacity for research, involvement, and getting it all straight, and a real talent for telling stories. A Nashville native who has lived and worked in Barcelona for the past decade, he has written books on topics as diverse as catfish culture in the Mississippi Delta, cockroaches around the world, the mysteries of eels, and modern life in Barcelona.
Hot Peppers, initially published in 1980, was Schweid's first book. The title both is and is not misleading: It does indeed tell the fascinating story of the history of capsicum frutescens in southern Louisiana, the rise and fall of its economic significance there, and its cultural role for the peoples of Acadiana. But it is also the tale of one young man's love affair with mouth-heat, and the resulting transformational visit he made in 1978 to New Iberia, the heart of Cajun country and the old-time capital of the U.S. hot sauce industry. This slim volume is biology, agriculture, foodways, travelogue, and anthropological study, all intertwined and entertainingly packaged.
For much of the 20th century, growing and processing hot peppers was a major economic factor in southern Louisiana, providing income in a region where other jobs were scarce. In 1938, with 4,000 acres planted, Louisiana led the nation in hot pepper production. But by 1998, there were less than 100 acres left. With the advent of oil industry jobs in the 1970s, it became almost impossible to induce people to painfully handpick the fragile crops, so commercial pepper growing has moved to South Texas and Latin American countries.
While perambulating around the area, Schweid talked to many people who grew up in the pepper business. Stella Larson told him, "When we picked those tabasco peppers, we would burn our hands. And I do mean burn, cher. Have to lay 'em in a bowl of cool milk at night ... but I could pick more'n anybody else." I'll certainly never view a bottle of Tabasco sauce in the same way, now that I know the effort required to grow and pick the peppers. Not to mention the fact that the pepper mash is aged in salt for three full years before being strained, mixed with vinegar, and bottled.
As might be expected, an important element is the story of the McIlhenny family of Avery Island, home of salt mines, oil, tropical gardens, and McIlhenny's Tabasco Sauce. The first McIlhenny introduced Tabasco peppers to Iberia Parish in 1868, and the family and the business has been a defining aspect of the area ever since. "M'sieu Ned" McIlhenny, an ornithologist and conservationist, is credited with saving the snowy egret from extinction in the 1890s. (He's also awarded the dubious distinction of introducing nutria to the local marshy environment)
Along his journey, Schweid introduces a grab bag of more general information about hot peppers, including a brief but comprehensive history of their amazingly rapid spread from Mesoamerica to the rest of the world. He discusses the medicinal and culinary uses of capsicum among the ancient Maya and Aztecs, the pepper practices and beliefs in Indonesia and Thailand, and surprisingly, its documented use by a New Hampshire farmer/herbalist in 1832. As a lagniappe (a little something extra), he includes some classic Cajun recipes, and the bibliography is a useful list of pepper literature written before 1980. Happily, the University of North Carolina Press saw fit to reprint this little classic in 1999, and it remains readily available to anyone interested in the history of American hot sauce, as well as in a thoughtful portrait of a rapidly changing segment of American Southern culture. -- MM Pack