I met Andre Springer, 35 in his Brooklyn apartment on a warm sunny day sometime in January. Springer opened the door in a plain white t-shirt and red basketball shorts; his hair worn short and a three day beard on his face. Before the interview, the only images I had seen of him were from his professional Instagram account dressed as Shaquanda, the drag character who is the face of his Barbadian hot sauce. The person I had in front of me looked very different from the one I saw on my phone wearing a red headpiece, blue eye shadow, bright red lipstick, hoops earring and a Mexican flower dress.
The smile and the warmth with which he greeted me did however align with the Carmen Miranda look-alike I had previously seen. He served me a cup of tea and we sat in his living room, out of the window you could see pots ready to be filled with dirt and herbs. When the weather allows it, he grows sage, chives and tomatoes. His family used to cultivate their own vegetables in their backyard, “It’s very common in BedStuy”, he said. “And we were also lucky to have a big ass backyard.”
Although he grew up in Brooklyn, Springer’s family is originally from Barbados. In the eighties, after having seventeen children, his grandmother decided to move to the States. She was working as a personal chef in Barbados and had her own catering business. When she moved she decided she didn’t want to cook professionally anymore but food was always a central part of the household. His family would never go out to eat. Restaurants were out of the question. They believed that if you don’t know the intentions of the person who cooked the food, it’s better not to eat it at all. “You don’t know what someone is putting in their food, not just physically but also emotionally. So when you are eating from someone, you are actually eating a part of them in some interesting way”, he explained.
As many children of immigrants, Springer grew up hearing stories of Barbados and was raised in a neighborhood where all the people around him where from some Caribbean island. He has deeply bathed in that culture, yet, he basically never had been there until he turned 30. Like many, the food was his only way of really connecting with the land of his ancestors.
When he finally went, he was confronted to a different reality than the one romanticized by his mother but he still felt a strong connection; especially when it came to food. One of his favorite dishes from Barbados is called Coucou, which consists of cornmeal that has been cooked with Okra and forms a thick porridge-like paste. It is very similar to Fufu from West Africa. Another variation of the dish is Shrimps and Grits, which comes from the Gola Islands in the US. “Coucou is a way to talk about history through food. Lot of us Caribbean American, we have this loss of understanding of where we are from. But what we have maintained as a culture is food. Food is a story that you can trace back, the longer you trace back the more you get closer to the soul of food and the soul of food is where people came from. Recreating the food is like recreating a story that has been passed down from generation to generation.”
This was his mindset when he decided to develop his product. He started to experiment with hot sauce about six years ago, by harvesting and pickling with rum and vinegar the peppers that grew in his family’s backyard. The idea to commercialize it grew about three years ago when a friend who organizes a drag festival called Bushwig, asked him to perform. He said he would only do it if he were to perform in people’s mouth instead of on a stage. “The kick starts to build from the sides of your mouths to the back of your throat where Shaquanda is aiming to hit”, he explained laughing.
For the sauce he uses a traditional Barbadian base, which includes mustard, turmeric, scotch bell peppers, salt and vinegar. He then adds horseradish to the mix. He also noticed that most store bought sauces have cornstarch, which gave an off flavor to the product. He wanted to create something as clean and sustainable as possible. His solution to maintain the sauce’s thickness was simply to add onions. “I like full flavors”, he said. “And another thing about Barbadian food is that we really love onions, we cook with raw onions, powder onions, pickled onions.” It seemed like a natural solution for his problem.
He makes his sauce in a commercial kitchen that he shares with two friends of his who coincidentally decided to make a tomato sauce, called City Saucery, around the same time. They suggested he shared their kitchen with him and the friendship evolved into a mentorship. “I call them my fairy saucefathers.”He laughs, “it’s all handmade love, two queens and a drag!”
This whole adventure would’ve not been possible either without Dominic, his business partner and best friend. They met while studying at Parson’s School of Design about 10 years ago in New York City. The hot sauce is a real teamwork. They go back and forth on decisions regarding branding and packaging but Dominique has the final say when it comes to anything related to graphic design. “He is a creative genius in that way.”
Basing his hot sauce on his drag character came from a very conscious decision to bridge the gap between day and night. When he was performing as a drag queen, Springer would in parallel often work in restaurants so there was always this connection between performance and food. “It was food during the day and performance at night, I now have found a way to bring them together.”
The name Shaquanda is a way to honor the girls he went to school with and who had his back when he was growing up as a queer man from a minority. His drag character all together is a way to recognize the women who mattered in his life. “Shaquanda is a celebration of my childhood friends which are the ones who saved me. They are the home girls who took the time to take care of me. You know I went to school with a Shaquanda, I went to school with a Laquanda and Layisha, Tashika. All these powerful young girls who were strong, sassy, nerdy, rambunctious, etc…
Going into drag, I wanted to emulate a history of fucking with gender so I took parts of these childhood memories, parts of where I came from and created this subverted character of Shaquanda.”The character, which started off as ratchet and sassy, eventually evolved into more of a celebration of the women who inspired him, especially his grandmother. “I have memories of this matriarch in the kitchen, and I wondered how can I emulate it, make fun of it, celebrate it and tell a story with it.” The character moved from night to day.
In the future Springer wants to continue to develop his business. Hopefully by the end of the year he will be able to leave his second job and work full time on Shaquanda’s hot sauce. He is already on the verge of launching three variations of the sauce, Original, No Shade and Sassy. While other hot sauces vary in level of spiciness, he wants to create a variation of flavors. “Shaquanda hot pepper sauce is more an all purpose sauce with earthy notes. No Shade is more vegetable heavy and Sassy is like a milder more rounded sauce that is perfect for fish or seafood.”
One of his priorities is also to make his product as sustainable as possible. At Parson’s he studies Integrated Design, which basically meant taking different art and design fields and connecting them to sustainability. He is already applying some of this knowledge to his product, for example by using a glass bottle, having a wrapper that is bio degradable, using ingredients that are as clean as possible but he would like to find ways to push this even further.
In the end, Shaquanda’s hot sauce is more than just a food product; it is Springer’s way of trying to make a positive impact on a rather one-dimensional racial and gender landscape. “I want to inject queer culture to food culture to increase visibility and hopefully acceptance. My dream is that maybe some kids will feel represented, will have something to relate to and will feel confident in whom they are. That’s where I am with this product.”