How A-1 Got Its Name, And Other Tall Tales

No meme is safe.

“So in the middle of the Civil War,” it says, “someone was like, You know what this country needs? A delicious steak sauce.”

And therein hangs a tale.

See, back in the day, the armies didn’t generally carry enough food with them, and there was no department tasked with growing, slaughtering, curing, and then transporting meat. Folks bid on government contracts, and would haul pickled beef in barrels down on wagons. Thing about government contracts is, they all went to the low bidder. Now, there’s lots of ways to get the low bid on providing barrels of beef, and none of them improve the quality of the steaks and roasts. There’s stories of finding a horse’s harness in the cask, though I find that hard to credit: good tack was expensive.

At any rate, some bright spark got the idea that you could eat anything with a spicy enough sauce. This one was manufactured in England; someone had invented it back in 1831, and so they began importation. It did about half the job; spoiled beef went down easier, but it still sometimes refused to stay down — or it just kept right on going, only faster. Either way it wasn’t a grand experience for the soldier boys. Memorable, but not pleasant.

The beef, it should be mentioned, came in casks marked BEEF, SALT and GRADE A-1 FRESH — hence the name of the sauce, since that was the only way to force A-1 beef down. Some of the company wits offered to hold out for the Grade B beef on the theory that they weren’t fancy eaters, but nobody believed them.

Well, the Southern boys had the same problem only worse, as it happens, since they mostly ate captured Northern beef — the same, only that much older. But John Bell Hood’s troops hailed from Texas and thereabouts, where chili had been invented in the prison system in order to… well, to extend the shelf life of rough-cured beef, as they might say. Chilification worked fair enough, but without the A-1 sauce, the taste just wasn’t worth the effort of chewing, not either time it passed by.

Now some of the boys were from Louisiana — the Louisiana Tigers, they were called; right devils in battle, and none too well-behaved outside of it. And they’d heard of a farmer named Maunsel White from out by Ayers Island who brewed a sauce from Tabasco peppers.

They had some shipped up from home with the next train load of replacements, and it was a treat on the march north toward Gettysburg. Reports have it that it worked an almost magical cure on the meat, which eventually stopped its twitching and laid down flat for the cooks. Unfortunately for them, they returned south with such unseemly haste that two full casks of the sauce were left on the northern bank of the Potomac down at White’s Ferry.

Now, the official company history will dispute the source of the recipe, but nobody contests that, when Maryland native Edmund McIlhenny returned to Louisiana after the War, he started manufacture and distribution of Tabasco sauce straightaway, and it was quite popular among returning veterans.

But the poor Union boys had to make do with A1 sauce, which somehow (God only knows how) stayed in production until Kraft bought the license some years later.

As you can see, the “1862” is a bit of a fib, but like most tall tales it’s mostly true. At least in the parts that count.


The Not Fake News runs on Grade B coffee these days, and no sauce on earth helps.

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