Why Do Black People Love Hot Sauce So Much?

“I got hot sauce in my bag, swag,” Beyoncé sings in “Formation.”
“I got hot sauce in my bag, swag,” Beyoncé sings in “Formation.”

First it was Beyoncé’s “Formation” video and halftime performance at Super Bowl 50. Then there was Hillary Clinton’s recent radio interview.

Clinton got a lot of grief for having (or claiming to have) hot sauce in her bag, an apparent reference to the lyrics (swag!) in Beyonce’s “Formation” that some saw as pandering. The truth is, Clinton has been talking about eating chilies for years, so I see her and Beyoncé’s public displays of affection for hot sauce as a sign of a kinship with millions of African Americans, including me. In short, we put hot sauce on everything. But why? The answer combines West Africans’ longtime love of piquant spices, an enduring belief in food as medicine and the marketing genius of a white dude in a colonel suit (and not the one you think).

First, let’s sort out some terminology.

A “hot sauce” is a liquid condiment with the key ingredients of spices, vinegar and some type of chili. “Chili” derives from the Aztec word for the pungent fruit of plants in the genus Capsicum, which are native to the Americas. Hot sauce gets its name because capsaicin, the active chemical ingredient in chilies, causes a burning sensation when it’s eaten or comes in contact with the skin. This condiment is often called “pepper sauce” because chilies were mistakenly called peppers by Christopher Columbus and the other Europeans who tasted the spicy, foreign fruit and gave it the name of a more familiar hot spice: black pepper (Piper nigrum).

Hot sauce comes in many forms, but African Americans traditionally have favored two thin sauces: pepper vinegar and Louisiana-style hot sauce. The former is the ultimate in DIY condiments. You fill a bottle with chilies, pour vinegar over until the chilies are submerged, then seal the bottle until the liquid reaches your desired level of heat. Pepper vinegar is also a renewable resource. When the bottle is empty, you just replenish the vinegar until it’s spicy again. In contrast, for Louisiana-style hot sauce, the chilies are usually processed in some way (cooked, mashed and strained) before being mixed with vinegar and spices. The sauce is bottled and further aged until the flavors meld and it gets spicy enough.

For people of African heritage, though, such a sauce was not always the only way — or even the preferred way — to give their food a little kick.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post
Adrian Miller