Last night my wife and I were having dinner at a local Mexican restaurant when, just after we sat down, they placed a basket of chips and a bowl of salsa in front of us. Salsa is one of my basic food groups. I can’t seem to get enough of it. As I was powering down this staple of life, my wife Kerry asked me if I knew the origin of Salsa. And I actually did, at least a great deal of it.
I should first note that the word salsa is generational. If you’re my age, where your odometer has gone around quite a few times and is beginning to rust up, Salsa is a food. If you’re young, it’s a dance with origins from the Cuban Son, circa 1920s, and the Afro-Cuban dance.
Salsa is the Spanish word for sauce and has its origins in Central America. It was thought that Salsa was first used by the Incas, but the Aztecs and Mayans also used it at least as far back as the 1500s. Salsa back then consisted of a combination of chilies, tomatoes, and other ingredients, such as squash seeds, which were available at the time. It was used as a condiment which people would put on their food to give it flavor and spiciness.
Chilies, one of the main ingredients of most salsas, have been around for quite some time, becoming domesticated in Central America around 5200 B.C. Tomatoes, another ingredient, and used as the base for most salsas, also have a long history of being grown in Central America, becoming domesticated around 3000 B.C. Tomatoes are native to western South America and Central America and were first brought back to Europe by the Spanish because they looked good in their gardens, and not for eating purposes. Over time Europeans began cultivating tomatoes for consumption and they have been a staple in many European countries ever since.
The rest of the world first learned about the use of Salsa from the writings of Bernardino de Sahagun, a Franciscan missionary who lived among the Aztecs after they were conquered in 1529 by Hernando Cortes. For over 60 years de Sahagun compiled a body of work about his experiences among the Aztecs. When his Florentine Codex was finally published, it documented many things about Aztec life, including every food common to their culture, along with its method of preparation. This included salsa.
The use of salsa didn’t begin to spread outside of Central America until the Spaniards arrived and conquered Mexico, between 1519 and 1521. However, salsa wasn’t called salsa back then. It wasn’t until 1571, that Alonso de Molina, a Spanish priest, missionary, and grammarian gave it this simple name.
Even though the United States is in close proximity to Central America, and has geographical and melting-pot commonalities with that area, salsa and hot sauces were not popular in the U.S. until after the mid-1800s. In fact, hot sauce wasn’t commercially introduced as a food product in the U.S. until 1807 when cayenne peppers were processed into a sauce and bottled in Massachusetts. Nothing much happened until six decades later when, in 1868, Edmund McIlhenny made a sauce from aged Tabasco peppers, packaged it in used cologne bottles, and sent it to prospective buyers. His Tabasco sauce proved to be a tremendous hit and started a competitive wave of hot sauce products.
Following on the success of hot sauces in the United States, salsa was a natural extension for consumers. Salsa began to be manufactured in the U.S. in 1916 when Los Angeles based La Victoria Foods teamed with Charles Eraths Louisiana Pepper, Red Hot Creole Sauce, and began the first commercial production of salsa in New Orleans. However, the pepper sauce that was produced would be too thin to be considered a dip by today’s standards. Nevertheless, the product proved to be successful and, in 1917, Victoria foods began to manufacture Salsa Brava in Los Angeles.
In 1941 Henry Tanklage, a representative of La Victoria Foods, formed La Victoria Sales Company and launched a new line of salsa geared towards Spanish dishes. His red and green taco sauce and sweet enchilada sauces proved to be very popular with the American public and inspired a nationwide craze. In fact, his products proved to be so successful that in 1946 Tanklage took over the entire La Victoria operation.
Competitors soon followed. In 1947 Margaret and David Pace founded Pace Foods and began to manufacture a line of Picante Sauces. However, production of salsa was still relatively small until 1955 when La Victoria Foods recognized the immense potential of salsa and became the first mass producer of salsa and salsa-related products. El Paso Chili Company, a competitor, didn’t begin manufacturing until the early 1980s.
Salsa is considered, at least by manufacturers, to be a condiment. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, the best-selling salsa in the U.S. is Tostitos Chunky Salsa, Medium, accounting for 37% of the $764 million spent by Americans on Salsa.
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