The world's most successful condiment is of dubious origins and universal appeal

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Pacific Northwest Magazine
With its singular, tangy, sweet, fruity, spicy saltiness, Worcestershire sauce is unique among condiments. It also stands alone in its almost universal appeal - it has been popular around the world for well over a century. Some 25 million bottles a year roll off the assembly line in Worcester, England, and countless more are reconstituted from concentrate shipped from there in barrels to licensed plants all over the world.
Steak Pierre
Serves 2

Peter Canlis developed his signature take on Steak Diane even before he opened Canlis Restaurant in 1950. The sauce relies heavily on Lea & Perrin's original Worcestershire Sauce.

12 ounces beef tenderloin
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 tablespoons vermouth
3 tablespoons Lea & Perrin's Worcestershire sauce
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
4 tablespoons cold butter, cut into bits
2 tablespoons chopped parsley

1. Cut the beef into four rounds and pound these into 1/4-inch thick filets. Season the filets generously with salt and pepper. Sprinkle the flour over one side of the seasoned steaks and shake off the excess.

2. Put a large black iron frying pan over high heat and add the olive oil, swirling the pan to coat the inside. Place the filets, floured side down, in the hot pan and cook three minutes. Add the vermouth, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice and chopped garlic. Turn the filets and cook one minute longer.

3. Move the steaks to warm plates and let the pan juices boil for a few seconds longer to become concentrated. Whisk in the butter and parsley and pour the sauce over the steaks. Serve at once.

Commander's Worcestershire Sauce
Makes about 3 cups

The original Lea & Perrin's sauce is never cooked, but Jamie Shannon boils a batch of simple ingredients to make this Worcestershire facsimile at Commander's Palace in New Orleans. With vodka and tomato juice, it makes a mean Bloody Mary.

1 tablespoon olive oil
6 ounces fresh horseradish, peeled and chopped
2 medium onions, diced
2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and chopped
6 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
3/4 teaspoon freshly cracked black peppercorns
2 cups water
4 cups white wine vinegar
1 cup molasses
2 cups corn syrup
1 ounce anchovies
12 whole cloves
1 tablespoon salt
1 lemon, peeled and chopped
1 tablespoon tamarind pulp, optional

1. Heat the olive oil and saute the horseradish, onions, peppers and garlic for five minutes or until soft and translucent. Add peppercorns, water, vinegar, molasses, corn syrup, anchovies, cloves, salt, lemon and tamarind, if available, and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 1 hour, or until the mixture coats the back of a spoon.

2. Strain and discard the solids. Continue to simmer until liquid is reduced to half its original volume. Use the sauce anywhere you would use regular Worcestershire sauce. Store, covered and refrigerated, for up to one month. (Adapted from "Commander's Kitchen," by Adelaide Martin and Jamie Shannon.)

"Lee & Perrin's bottles, with their characteristic long necks, designed to make it easy to Shake Well Before Using," noted R.W. Apple Jr. in a recent story for The New York Times, "have turned up in shipwrecks, encrusted with barnacles; in the forbidden city of Lhasa, Tibet; and in the excavations at Te Wairo, New Zealand, which was buried by a volcanic eruption in 1886." Apple himself happened upon bottles of the sauce in Dalat during the Vietnam War, and at a bar in Samarkind when it was part of Soviet Central Asia.

First manufactured in 1835 by Lea & Perrin's apothecary, the sauce was promoted in its early years as an aid to digestion. For a long time a story was circulated that the formula came from India, where a certain Lord Sandys, who was a governor of Bengal, procured the recipe. According to the legend, Sandys passed the list of ingredients to Lea and Perrin, the local chemists, and those men produced the first batch of the stuff. A blend of vinegar, molasses, sugar, salt, anchovies, tamarinds, onions, garlic and spices, it supposedly looked, smelled and tasted horrible. So the pharmacy sealed it in a stoneware crock and left it in the basement for some indefinite length of time. When it was rediscovered, it had fermented into something piquant and lovely, and the rest is history.

The story was recently recorded in Alan Davidson's "Oxford Companion to Food" (Oxford University Press, 1999). But, according to a privately published history of the Lea & Perrin's firm by a former employee, "No Lord Sandys was ever governor of Bengal, or as far as any records show, ever in India." And according to R.W. Apple, a spokesman at the Lea & Perrin's plant admitted last summer that the long told saga "may not be God's own truth."

Oh, well. The story may be apocryphal, but it is a good one, and it enhances the mysteries of this peculiar sauce which has plenty of mysteries with or without doubts about its origins. No one seems to know, for instance, just how to pronounce its name. When I was a kid we roughly abbreviated it to "Wooster" sauce. A friend tells me that when he was a kid they all called it jokingly "What's dis here sauce." The Japanese call it "ustasasu." But no matter how its pronounced, everyone seems to know what it is.

In "Herbs, Spices, and Flavorings" (Overlook Press), Tom Stobart says that the sauce has been made in the same way for so long, and been used by so many chefs in so many recipes, "one could almost say that it has graduated as a basic natural ingredient." Well, hardly natural, but basic. In Vancouver's best dim-sum houses, it comes in little dishes like soy sauce to accompany certain bite-sized snacks. Every steakhouse has a bottle available upon request and no bar in America would open without a stash of it on hand for Bloody Marys. It is slipped surreptitiously into everything from the most exotic Southeast Asian sausages to the most commonplace middle-American meatloaf.

America as a nation uses more of the stuff than any other people on Earth. My mother, like her mother, kept a bottle of it on the turntable in the middle of our kitchen and on a fairly regular basis we shook dashes of it onto bowls of soup, mostly Campbell's bean with bacon, which never tasted complete without it. Once, my sister dared me to eat a soupspoon full of the stuff at once and I did so, bravely, fearing the worst, but found to my surprise that it wasn't too bad. She soon followed suit, and so I had another. We matched each other spoonful for spoonful until the two of us were busted and forced to stop.

When I started cooking professionally I forgot about Worcestershire sauce for a while, eschewing it as part and parcel with the whole jumble of processed food that I abandoned when I left home. But when I came into the time warp that was the Canlis restaurant kitchen as a consulting chef a few years ago, I found a case of the stuff in storage and quickly became reacquainted with the world's favorite condiment. It was of course presented upon request to any diners wishing to splash some of it on their grilled steaks, but it was also kept on hand for a half-century old recipe for "Steak Pierre," Peter Canlis' distinctive interpretation of Steak Diane.

In other restaurants, Worcestershire sauce is just as much a staple. Commander's Palace in New Orleans uses gobs of the stuff in their famous barbecue prawns. A Cajun dish whose origins are as murky as those of the sauce that flavors it, barbecue prawns never come anywhere near a grill or a smoker but derive their tangy barbecue like flavor from a mixture of Worcestershire sauce and butter.

Commander's Palace started making their own version of the sauce when TV chef Emeril "Bam Bam" Lagasse was chef there. Now, executive chef Jamie Shannon has included a recipe for Commander's Worcestershire in "Commander's Kitchen," (Broadway Books, 2000), which happens to be one of the more interesting restaurant cookbooks to roll off the presses this year. If you ask me, the sauce is too sweet and too thick to be any sort of substitute for Lea & Perrin's, but it is good, and I think of the formula as a starting point for developing my own version someday. But I know that anything I come up with will never match the strange and original sauce from Worcester.

Greg Atkinson, Canlis executive chef, is the author of "In Season" (1997) and "The Northwest Essentials Cookbook" (1999) from Sasquatch Books.