American food is bland—so goes the stereotype, at least. But the truth is, we’ve been eating hot bowls of fiery chili and cayenne-pepper-laced curries for more than two centuries, and now there’s a bottle of Sriracha in nearly every fridge. America has a long history with heat: we went from spicy-food lovers to haters and all the way back again. And our relationship with spicy food—which involves native cuisines, immigration, and the domestic-science movement—speaks to our complicated identities as Americans.
Much of what we view as American identity is English: pilgrims and Plymouth, pumpkin pie and pot roast. It’s seasoned with at most a few herbs, perhaps a few imported spices. It’s from this English heritage that much of our stereotype of being lovers of bland food comes from. But by the early nineteenth century, American cookbooks had begun to move away from pure British cuisine, reflecting America’s multiculturalism with increasingly fiery food. One of America’s earliest cookbooks is also considered one of the most influential: The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph, published in 1824. As food historian Karen Hess points out in her introduction to the 1984 reprint, Randolph’s recipe selection illustrated “an elemental change in palate” from somewhat tame English dishes to highly spiced regional cuisine. Randolph’s book contains half a dozen curry recipes and a homemade curry powder that uses a full ounce of cayenne pepper, as well as turmeric, coriander, cumin, ginger, nutmeg, and mace. The recipes reflected not only her British forebears’ love of curry (which also bucks the bland-food stereotype) but also a common trait of American port cities: a love of spicy cuisine from the Far East. Indigenous American foods are reflected in the recipe “To Barbecue Shote”: the origin of barbecue is the native word and cooking technique barbacoa, and in this recipe a “fat, young hog” is dressed in a sauce that includes garlic, black pepper, and highly seasoned mushroom ketchup (a soy-sauce-like concoction made from salted fermented mushrooms and spices). Enslaved black cooks brought dishes and spicy seasonings from the Caribbean like pepper pot, a tripe soup that includes whole dried chilies in Randolph’s recipe. Based on The Virginia Housewife, it would be safe to say that America in the first half of the nineteenth century was a very spicy place.