• Lillian Fu

A Dip in to Black History: The Story of Hot Sauce in America

Updated: Mar 1

As part of our celebration of Black History Month at Gift Good Co., we not only wanted to highlight a favorite Black-owned business (read our full review of Cutino’s Sauce Co. here), but also share a short history of their main product: hot sauce.

Zoomed-in picture of a lot of red chili peppers
red hot chili peppers (in a generic sense)

Chili peppers are native to the Americas, becoming domesticated in present-day Mexico over 6,000 years ago. In the 15th and 16th centuries, they were spread across the world both as food and as medicine.

According to Adrian Miller, author of Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time, because of a “French-informed sensibility that food should have balanced flavors and seasoning,” spicy foods and hot sauce were not popular among white elites, and became more strongly associated with “poor whites, ethnic immigrants (mainly Asian and Latino) and African Americans” in the 19th century. (See: How did hot sauce get in so many African Americans’ bags, anyway?)

The popularization of hot sauce in America appears to have started on a plantation in Louisiana, where enslaved people farmed, harvested, and experimented with different types of peppers and ratios of pepper to vinegar to create “pepper sauce”. After the passing of the 13th Amendment, many Black Americans took their hot sauce and recipes as they resettled around the country as part of the Great Migration, further spreading the usage of hot sauce as a condiment across the nation. (See Sawyer Phillips’ A Brief History of Hot Sauce in the African American Kitchen)

More recently, during Jim Crow, Black Americans often were not allowed to dine in at many establishments, and often needed to bring their own utensils, serving dishes, and condiments, including hot sauce. Beyonce’s line in “Formation” —“I’ve got hot sauce in my bag, swag” —seems to nod at this history and use it as a celebration of Black culture.

Today, Americans of all backgrounds continue to enjoy hot sauce. In her Hot Sauce in Her Bag article, Mikki Kendall describes hot sauce as “essential a condiment to the Black Southern table as salt.” Hot sauce not only helps food become more flavorful, but is also a way to carry on culinary traditions and foodways and celebrate cultural heritage.

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