For 125 years or so, Americans were happy enough with the chili sauce made by Edmund McIlhenny, a Maryland banker who moved to Louisiana in 1840 and started growing peppers from seeds someone had lugged home from Central America.
He called it Tabasco, after the Mexican state.
While McIlhenny’s concoction still commands 18 percent of the market, it’s now just one of thousands of fiery American sauces, a collective $1 billion industry with growth of 150 percent since 2000, more than mustard, ketchup and barbecue sauce combined.
You’ve heard of Zombie Apocalypse, perhaps? Or maybe Ass Reaper? Blair’s Megadeth Sauce with Liquid Rage? They represent the latest trends in hot sauce manufacturing – fresh, all-natural ingredients, unique flavor profiles, local produce and a ton of heat, many produced in small batches like the craft beer or bourbon.
A dozen or so brands are proud to do it on Long Island.
“People are into pushing the limits of heat right now, and trying different flavor combinations, whether it’s fire-roasted pepper blends with ginger and Vermont maple syrup or ghost and scorpion peppers with Cabernet wine and blueberries,” said Heather Suter, who owns the North Fork hot sauce and cigar shop Greenport Fire with her husband Dale. “It’s all about creativity.”
They call him Mr. Peppers
Among the local sauces is a small-batch company run by 71-year-old Giovanni Muscat of Plainview. The retired chef, who often peddles his sauce at local farmer’s markets around the Island, goes by the nickname “Mr. Peppers.”
Born in Tunis, Muscat immigrated to the United States when he was in his teens. The son of a chef and grandson of a meat cutter, he brought with him an early knowledge of food.
“My mother had me right there on the butcher block,” he said.
Muscat has a variety of products for sale including both red and green habanero sauces, a mild jalapeno sauce and, perhaps the star of the show, a homemade harissa sauce based on one of his grandfather’s recipes.
“Take a whiff of that,” he said, holding up the jar. The aroma of garlic, olive oil, chili peppers and spices spilled out. “This is my best seller.”
Muscat makes his sauce from scratch whenever the demand calls for it. He rents from the Kitchen Co-op in Amityville, a 1,400-foot commercial kitchen that offers space to local food entrepreneurs, mostly craft bakers. Last year, he produced about 200 bottles of sauce, which he sold at farmer’s markets and a few retail locations across the Island.
In addition to preserving his family’s culinary traditions, it’s a fine retirement gig.
“I don’t play golf,” he said, “that’s not for me.”
On the road, again
By comparison, High River Hot Sauce founder Steve Seabury sells his products in more than 1,000 retail locations and has scooped up first-place prizes at the Easton Chile Pepper Festival, the New Orleans Chile Pepper Extravaganza and the World Championship Golden Chile Awards.
He started out making small batches in his Garden City Park apartment in 2011, mostly for the bands he toured with.
“I always loved food and cooking, and this was just a fun thing to share,” he said. “We were on the road eating Taco Bell, whatever other garbage, and this made it a little better.”
Now a music industry executive by day, Seabury’s greatest hits include Tears of the Sun, which blends fresh habaneros peppers with peaches, papaya, pineapple and brown sugar, and Grapes of Wrath, a mix of habanero and ghost peppers blended with grape juice, cabernet wine, blueberries, strawberries, red cabbage and ginger.
“I still develop all of the recipes in our kitchen, with peppers I grow in my garden,” said Seabury, now a Kings Park resident. “It really is a labor of love, a passion of mine that’s paying the bills.”
“It’s almost like High River is my new band,” he said. “I get to create something and tour the country, meet people. It’s a lot of fun.”