(BPT) - Spicy is not a word that comes to mind when describing American cuisine.
But historical gastronomist Sarah Lohman disagrees.“It's nonsense that Americans don't like spicy food.”Lohman mapped out the flavors used in American kitchens throughout history and outlined them according to ingredients, shifts in popularity, and origins. She found that thirty were popular and distilled these down into the eight most significant ones in her book, "Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine."
Lohman's work at the Living History Museum birthed her passion for all things flavor in American gastronomical history. The absence of vanilla before 1840 was a shocking revelation for her that set her on the trail of discovering what flavors were part of America's history of food.
Rosewater was used in dishes before vanilla became the popular flavor in the early 19th century. Rosewater was the standard flavoring for desserts and baked goods in colonial America. Through her research, Lohman discovered it was a fad like other flavors that came and went as American tastebuds shifted.
Black pepper was a popular ingredient in American recipes in 1796. Lohman's book pegs it as the oldest flavor in her book. It was used in sweet dishes like cookies. Martha Washington had a recipe for Six Month Cookies that kept for... six months. The spiciness of pepper in cookies has since been replaced my flavors like cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg.
Pepper is a staple on American dinner tables today. Lohman discusses the history of black pepper in her book and touches on its disappearance after the Revolutionary War and its resurgence in popularity after explorers found it in Sumatra. Black pepper has its roots in America so it's difficult to imagine how a Vietnamese sauce has become a popular flavor in America today.
Black pepper is the oldest flavor in Lohman's book and the hot, new taste is Sriracha. Hot pepper sauces became popular in the early 19th century. Tabasco sauce emerged in 1868 proving that Americans were enjoying food that was hotter and spicier.
Less intimidating and less hot than Tabasco is Sriracha. Lohman says it's embraced by a wider audience. The literal hot item has carved its presence in America's tastes since 1980.
David Tran was a Vietnamese refugee who was a chili sauce making master in his native Vietnam in 1975. After the United States granted Tran and his family refugee status, he did what he knew best: He made hot sauce. While his goal was to give a taste of home to his local Vietnamese community in LA, his sauce spread like proverbial wild fire.
As Americans took a liking to Pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup, it came with an affinity for Sriracha. This pairing was the beginning of what was to become a landmark flavor in America today.
The Center for Culinary Development has five phases of the journey a taste goes on from unknown to ubiquitous.
Phase one is for the food to be found at exclusive foodie dining establishments. Then phase two involves getting featured in high-end gourmet magazines. Phase three is when the flavor or food has trickled down to a broader, mainstream audience, followed by phase four which is being featured on recipe websites and in magazines that aren't focused on food.
Sriracha made its way from Momofuko's tables to the pages of Cooks Illustrated and Bon Appétit to becoming a dipping sauce at Applebee's. And then Sriracha was seen in Martha Stewart Living and on the Food Network blog in 2011.
The last stage, phase five, is when a food or flavor has landed in major chains and retail stores. Sriracha checked that box when it became available for purchase at Walmart, a flavor in Subway's sauce, and a potato chip flavor of Lay's.
Lohman says, "Sriracha is a fully American flavor now."
The hot sauce named after the coastal city Si Racha in Thailand has arrived. America now has Sriracha-flavored popcorn, lollipops, hummus, mayonnaise, ice cream, chocolate bars, and even baby food, among other foods, candies, and condiments.
Lohman concludes, "We now have a broader idea of who an American is. Stop thinking about America as New England and being white."