Along with goggles and gas masks, U.S. soldiers in Iraq are carrying another item into battle -- minibottles of Tabasco sauce, packed in their food rations.
The fiery pepper sauce, produced since 1868 by the McIlhenny Co. on Avery Island in Louisiana, has spiced up military meals for more than a century.
"One of my distant cousins sent a case of Tabasco to Ulysses S. Grant when he was president," says Paul McIlhenny, company president. That still counts, because Grant was a Civil War general, he says.
A great uncle who served with Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders "made sure he had a bottle of Tabasco at San Juan Hill," McIlhenny says.
Presumably, "thoughtful parents" during World War I and II and the Korean War shipped the condiment, named after a coastal region in Mexico, to their sons, McIlhenny says.
In a marketing stroke of genius, the company kicked up its efforts during the war in Vietnam. The armed forces stationed there received thousands of copies of the Charley Ration Cookbook with recipes for jazzing up C rations with Tabasco sauce, wrapped around bottles of the sauce in waterproof canisters.
During two tours of Vietnam in the late 1960s, as an infantry officer and an adviser with the military assistance command, George Creighton of Bowie, Md., doesn't remember getting the sauce from McIlhenny. But it did come in packages from his wife.
"The rations get boring, and you just need something to liven them up, and Tabasco does that," says Creighton, 65. He'd use it to tweak his bland beef and peas and spaghetti. On steak, it also "worked very well."
Sometimes, the troops would mix up their C rations and water-buffalo meat "like a mulligan stew with rice and put in Tabasco sauce and add flavor to the whole mix," says Creighton, an active member of state and national veterans legislative affairs committees.
By the time Operation Desert Storm ended in 1991, Tabasco sauce had become a staple in the Meal Ready-to-Eat. Today, troops stationed around the world receive a 1/8-ounce bottle of the incendiary sauce, made simply of peppers, vinegar and salt, with each MRE.
The tiny bottles are filled with sauce shipped from Avery Island to a Brooklyn, N.Y., packer. From there, the bottles go to facilities around the country where MRE components, from towelettes and burritos to matches and M&Ms, are assembled into MRE packets. The packer is "producing over a million minibottles a week," according to McIlhenny.
By request, his company will also provide troops with the newly republished MRE cookbook, more of a morale booster than a literal guide, the company president says.
E-mails are flowing in from troops involved in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Afghanistan to the company, whose product line includes marinades, sauces, pepper jellies and souvenirs with logos. They're demanding McIlhenny's "chipotle" and garlic-pepper sauces as well as its standard sauce. With their military address, McIlhenny will send it free.