Trying to create a new and exciting salsa in the marketplace can be about as challenging as trying to recreate the wheel. Skeptics will tell you that there are only a finite number of potential ingredients and their combinations are also similarly limited. Such nay-saying is totally lost on the fine folks at the Big Orson Sauce & Salsa Factory, Inc. who have dedicated themselves to making salsa that is both tasty and a lot unique. Jason Clabaugh is their stogie-chompin’ pitchman and all-around Cajun salsa guru who offers up some interesting facts about the origins of the company, life in New Orleans (or as some would say, N’awlins), and how mango salsa can be as good or better than tomato salsa:
Tell us a little about your background and how the creative process of making salsa has evolved from your humble beginnings
I don’t have any formal training in the culinary arts, but it is one of the big passions of my life. This particular product was born as part of my courtship of my wife, who happens to be a full-blooded Cajun. I was trying to make something to impress her and my local grocery put mangoes up for their weekly loss-leader sale. The salsa I made was such a hit that by the end of the sale, I was buying the mangoes by the case and friends and family were telling me that I should look into putting the salsa into commercial production. The next year when mangoes were on sale again, I posted a thread on a bulletin board I belong to that I was going to make a batch and within one weekend, I had orders for well over 250 pints. Clearly this had some commercial potential, but with no background in the food business, I had no idea how to go about pursuing it. It wasn’t until after Katrina that I had the time and financial means to try.
Has anyone famous tasted your salsas, and if so, who? If not, what is the farthest you’ve sent your salsas?
I don’t really know any famous people. It’s possible someone famous has tried it but I’m not aware of who they are. As far as furthest distance that I’ve shipped salsa, I mailed a case of it to somebody in the Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq just a couple of weeks ago. From what I’ve heard, it was quite a hit with the troops.
We see that you’ve trademarked the term SweetHeat™ and describe it as a group of flavors that can be expected from your products. Is SweetHeat™ akin to a roux that is made separately and added to all of your products?
SweetHeat™ isn’t really a ‘secret ingredient’ but instead refers to how the salsa has four distinct layers of flavor that present themselves in order on your palate. First you taste the sweetness of the mangoes, then then the tangy-ness of the Vidalia onions as the second layer of flavor arrives. Then, the ginger surfaces in the third layer of flavor and finally, the heat of the habaneros blooms in the back of your throat. It’s almost magical the way that the flavors wash across your palate. That’s the real secret of SweetHeat™.
What was your job previous to Mr. Mom & hot sauce producer?
Before Hurricane Katina, I was an assistant director of Xavier University’s Library in downtown New Orleans. Turns out the bachelor’s and master’s degrees I completed weren’t as necessary to my career as I had planned. As a librarian, I don’t know an awful lot about any particular subject, but I know how to look it up.
Hurricane Katrina seemed to completely change plans with you and your family, as with many others. With the growth of your company and your wife’s ability to get a good job in Atlanta, do you consider your relocation as one of the more positive things to come out of that particular tragedy?
I think it was John Lennon that once said “Life is what happens to you while you make other plans.” Although my family was fully prepared for what to do if a hurricane threatened New Orleans (which, as we found out was get out quickly and early), but we hadn’t really given much thought as to what we would do after it might actually happen. We had offers to re-locate in a number of places with friends and family, but chose to explore Atlanta first. My children took immediately to the schools they were enrolled in, my wife found that the market for her skills was so great here that she could earn more by herself than we had earned combined in New Orleans and living expenses were considerably lower as well. This sort of left me in a position—seeing as the market for library administrators isn’t nearly as wide open as it is for specialty nursing—of not only being there to provide domestic support for the family, but also the luxury of learning a lot about what I didn’t know about the food business without a hard and fast deadline for completion. Atlanta is a good place to raise my family and that’s really important to me at this point in my life.
Have you ever considered moving back to New Orleans, and why?
New Orleans is truly a one-of-a-kind place. Don’t get me wrong, you really have to love the place to live there and put up with a lot of the minutiae that goes along with (even before Katrina) dysfunctional city and state governments. But at the same time, there is a spirit of life there that is so pervasive through the culture that you could almost describe it as addictive. I use that word not because it is like a disease, but rather once you get it into your blood, there really isn’t any other place in America that satisfies you. The holidays that are specific to the region (such as the Carnival and Lenten seasons), the availability of really fresh seafood, the music, the cuisine…it’s really like another world compared to the suburban life I lead now and I really do miss it terribly. But, the levees still aren’t up to the level they need to be and won’t be for many years yet. Until they are, the city’s in just as much danger as they were before Katrina. I will move back someday, but not likely before my children are grown. It’s just too great a risk for them.
What is YOUR favorite way to use your salsas?
My favorite way to eat it is with a bag of good quality tortilla chips just like a tomato salsa. The flavors really sparkle in that format. Out of the recipes I’ve created using it, the Zesty Seafood Spread is my favorite and if you use fat free cream cheese it’s actually healthier for you than the cracker you spread it on.
For someone who’s not yet tried your salsas, what would you tell them is different or better about your salsa compared to others that might be similar?
Most salsas are tomato-based. Most fruit salsas are still tomato-based products with a little fruit tossed in as an afterthought. Believe me, I’ve tried most of the ones available. My salsa is precisely the opposite. It’s completely fruit-based with tomato added for color and texture. It costs a lot more to make salsa that way, but the results are really worth it. It really is unique among fruit salsas because it’s all fruit. That also makes it a versatile ingredient that can be used in grilling, it makes a fantastic cocktail sauce served with cooked shrimp or raw oysters, and a condiment you can eat with many other dishes.
Are the heat levels you have for your current lineup of salsa pretty expansive, or do you see yourself making milder and/or hotter ones?
That really depends on what the consumer wants. If there’s enough demand that I can meet a minimum batch run, I’m more than willing to formulate other versions. The Very Hot contains thirteen and a half times as much habanero as the Mild does. If there’s enough demand for an even hotter version, I’ll make it.
What sort of new stuff can we expect from Big Orson in the future?
One trend that I see in the food business is that high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is about to become the new dietary trans-fat—that is, the next big evil of processed foods. I don’t know if you’ve ever been a label-reader, but trying to avoid HFCS in your diet is really hard. It’s in everything from whole-grain crackers to spaghetti sauce. The HFCS industry is even running commercials stating that their product is safe if used in moderation. What other industries have we seen using that language? Citizen Cajun contains no HFCS (or any other added preservative) and I plan for all of my products to be HFCS-free. With my love of flavor contrasts, you can look for more products with a sweet and peppery kick. I’m currently reverse-engineering my VooDooCue New Orleans-style barbecue sauce to be HFCS-free. It’s a molasses and worcestershire-based sauce with a habanero kick. I’m also developing a chile-infused worcestershire sauce and a line of fruit and habanero grilling sauces. You never know where the next hit recipe is going to come from.
Citizen Cajun Hot
Ingredients: mangoes, onions, green and red bell peppers, water, tomatoes (tomatoes, tomato juice, salt, calcium chloride, citric acid), cane sugar, ginger, cilantro, dehydrated garlic, lime juice concentrate, salt and habanero powder
Review: Let me start out by saying that I adore the taste of this salsa. The ‘hot’ version of this salsa has a nearly perfect blend of heat and flavor…so much so that I actually forgot that it was a fruit-based salsa rather than a tomato one. Just enough heat to get your attention (to me, about a 5/10 or so at best), this salsa is incredible well balanced. Not too chunky but not too blended either, it is a perfect consistency for either chip n’ dip eating or for culinary uses. I cannot use the word “balanced” too much with this product, as the mixture of sweetness and heat are simply outstanding.
It was hard to get this jar away from me and the tortilla chip bowl, as I felt this was the better of the two salsas for snacking. However, this was my jar of choice for my egg scramble as well as for use with grilled meats, especially chicken and fish. No matter how I used it, I liked it.
Citizen Cajun Very Hot
Ingredients: mangoes, onions, green and red bell peppers, water, tomatoes (tomatoes, tomato juice, salt, calcium chloride, citric acid), cane sugar, ginger, cilantro, lime juice concentrate, habanero powder, dehydrated garlic, and salt
Review: Almost without fail, cranking up the heat in a given lineup of products almost guarantees that I will like them more. Not true with this salsa, as I thought the taste was a better balance with the hot version. However, this salsa is no slouch and will carry a wider appeal to those who just plain like their salsas with enough heat to make ‘em sweat. The heat is further up the scale, perhaps a 7/10, and reaches a nice simmer on your tongue after a few mouthfuls. The mouth feel of this salsa was different than the hot, and in some ways I did like this salsa better, but rather with cooking as opposed to snacking. Heck, I used this salsa like a condiment…poured over or dipped into by lots of food. See the picture below? While salsa ain’t mustard as far as hot dogs go, this Extra Hot salsa made one heck of an addition to our Memorial Day hot dog cookout with our Hebrew National franks! I could easily see this used with ribs or other strong meats, and mixing into something like egg or tuna salad would finally give those bland concoctions a little sweetness and heat to make you really crave them.
We would be remiss in our duties if we did not point out the fine review by our friends over at Taste the Fear, who just reviewed these salsas a few days before us:
There are several recipes on the website, all of which look really good and are located HERE. We like the simpler ones best, such as this one for a truly yummy egg scramble:
Citizen Cajun Scrambles
* 4 eggs
* 1/3 C. milk
* 1 T. Butter or margarine
* 2 T. Citizen Cajun salsa
Melt butter or margarine in medium size skillet over medium heat. Beat eggs with milk. Add egg mixture to skillet and scrape from edge to center of pan as eggs cook. Just before eggs are cooked through, add salsa and cook through. Excellent when served with toast or warm tortillas, bacon or sausage and hash browns.
Overall recommendation: Now this is how a fruit salsa should be, not some of those sugar-laden wannabes that you find in the marketplace these days. The acme of balance of sweetness and heat, you will simply want more after you finish a jar of either of these salsas. A hearty thumbs-up from this reviewer. Enjoy!