In Praise of Tabasco Sauce

This post is cobbled together from a couple of different entries at my Livejournal back in 2009

Leigh Callaway, wherever you are, I owe you dinner.¹

The year was 1965, I was 14, and it was my senior year at Camp Wildwood in Bridgton, Maine.²

In this my 4th year at camp, the pinnacle of the year was, prophetically, travel. I sucked at team sports – still do – but loved traveling, camping, the woods and individual challenges; in short, I lived for tripping. Not that kind. Shut up.

My yearbook blurb quoted, “However unorganized his body of knowledge may be, he still is a source of many bits of information and despite his mere 85 lb. bulk, was one of our most energetic and determined trippers.” By the dessicated skull of Mogg’s grandfather, how prophetic was that?

After a 5-day canoe trip to Rangeley Lake early in the summer, six of us, accompanied by several counselors, took another 5-day trip in canoes from Lobster Lake down the Penobscot River to Chesuncook Lake in Maine. It was a trip never to be forgotten.

The Rangeley Lakes complex in western Maine

What does all this have to do with Tabasco Sauce? Hush. We’ll get to that.

The year, as I mentioned, was 1965, and inland Maine was still pretty untouched in most places. It was five days of canoeing, camping, 20 miles of river, camping, 4 miles of rapids, camping, portages, camping, woods, camping, absolutely glacial pools and waterfalls which we reveled in as a test of manhood, more camping, and breathtaking scenery.

Are you starting to see a pattern?

When you camp, you cook whatever you have along. That means a lot of dehydrated chicken soup and noodles carbonara and canned stuff and interesting stuff and things you might never fix at home.

One of the counsellors that accompanied us on this trip was a young man named Leigh Callaway.

Now to a 14-year-old, all our counselors were ageless. If they were counselors, they were adults – so I can’t tell you how old he was at the time, but he was probably not much more than a kid himself. So all I can tell you about him was that he was extremely kind to me (huge points!) and had a BMW motorcycle (more huge points), and that I worshiped the ground he walked on. And he could cook.

One night, whether out of inventiveness or desperation, Leigh fried up a huge cast-iron skillet full of rice until the grains were golden brown, and then filled the pan with water. When the rice was cooked soft, he threw in a can of tuna or three, sauteed it up a bit longer, and then seasoned the whole thing with Tabasco™. Lots and lots of Tabasco™.

Now my mother, bless her soul, took me to many ethnic restaurants in New York while I was young, and one of our favorites was this little Aztec-Mexican hole in the wall called Xochitl.³ They had a hot sauce there that would rival much of what Blair offers (certainly not their 16-million scoville pure capsaicin insanity, but highly effective nonetheless.) I remember that a tiny drop of this stuff on a toothpick, applied to the tongue, was enough to bring tears to the eyes. So I was no stranger to odd and savory foods. (Hm. How that I’m thinking of it, perhaps I should give Mom some credit at my Banquet from Hell.) That said, cooking at home was pretty basic meat-and-potatoes fare, and there wasn’t a lot of exotic stuff around, so I had never used Tabasco™ before.

Well, anyway. When you’ve been paddling a canoe for 12 hours, and you’re exhausted and starving, it doesn’t matter much what’s on the fire. I think if Leigh had fried up a beaver tail, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash. As it was, we had fried rice and tuna with Tabasco™ – and I tucked in like a trencherman. Mogg’s teeth – it was so good. It would be easy to say that my enjoyment was born of famine, but given that I have prepared this concoction and many others like it many times in my life thereafter, I can discount that theory. Simply put, I was hooked on Tabasco™.

Now, I like Frank’s Original Red Hot too – it’s got a nice flavor, and I always keep a bottle of it handy, but there’s something about Tabasco™ that just can’t be matched.⁴ Yes, I’m well and truly addicted.

So Leigh, wherever you are, know that you made a huge impression on me that summer, and your influence is still being felt *mops brow* 44 years later.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

PS – I still remember the taste of black coffee sweetened with maple syrup, too…


Footnotes

¹ Leigh, bless his heart, saw this post and actually responded with a bit of information about his subsequent experiences. He recommended that since I loved Tabasco I should try Sambal Oelek, an Indonesian chili paste that apparently puts Sriracha to shame. I was grateful for the recommendation, but would have loved some hint about how to contact him. Which he did not provide, the rascal. I would have loved to renew the acquaintance and catch up in person.

² Camp Wildwood is a superb boys’ camp run – at the time – by Leo Mayer and Ed Hartman, which is still operating in Bridgton, Maine, although it has passed through other owners since then.

³ Another one was “La Fonda del Sol”, a very upscale place which I loved eating at. Now gone. *snif* But there are some memories here.

⁴ In fact, as I was typing my earlier post at Livejournal and thinking about a nice dish of fettucine with tuna and hot sauce, my ears were burning and I was experiencing all the symptoms of a good solid capsaicin flush. Which confirmed my theory. I love hot food; there’s nothing like a good capsaicin burn. The last two times I had prepared spicy foods, though, I had a very unusual experience – the flush to the face began as soon as I had opened the bottle of hot sauce – and hadn’t even eaten it yet. The first time it happened, I thought I was “imagining things.” But it happened again… as I was liberally lacing some burritos with Tabasco, I started getting the burning and vascular dilation that I always experience with certain peppers – very much like a Niacin flush, if you’ve ever experienced that. And, what’s even stranger, I experienced a repeat as I typed this. Just thinking about it was sufficient to recall the physiological response.

Now that’s just weird. Maybe if I salivate enough, I can get my doorbell to ring. 

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