Have you ever noticed that little bottles of Tabasco
Sauce are found in restaurants all over Thailand? The sauce fits right in
with the Thai love of chilies. We’ve asked for, and received, Tabasco in a
myriad of locations and the company says the sauce is distributed to 160
countries worldwide. Amazing since it’s development was accidental, and
the pepper crops from which it is made are regularly exposed to the
hurricanes that plague coastal Louisiana.
pose in front of the Tabasco factory.
Sometime before the American Civil War, a soldier
returning from Mexico gave a small gift of dried peppers to New Orleans
banker Edmund McIlhenny. McIlhenny tried them on his food, liked the spicy
taste, and saved the remaining pepper pods and their seeds. His wife’s
family owned a salt-mining business on Avery Island west of New Orleans in
the heart of Cajun country, so he planted the seeds in her garden there.
Chinese style pavilion houses an ancient Buddha image.
The American Civil War forced the family to move from New
Orleans to Avery Island, and in a round about way was responsible for the
development of Tabasco Sauce into a worldwide enterprise. When Union troops
invaded the island and took over the salt mine, the family fled to Texas.
After the war, they returned to Avery Island but found their plantation
ruined and their mansion devastated. The crop of capsicum frutescens,
McIlhenny decided to turn the peppers into a family
business, and mixed mashed ripe peppers with salt mined on the island and
vinegar. Family legend has it that the first attempts were so bad that the
sauce was sent to the cellar. It was discovered there three years later, and
had developed into the delightful pepper sauce we use today. Whether that is
true or not, we do know that the first pepper sauce was bottled in perfume
bottles that were excavated from the ruins of the plantation.
The formula, not the bottles, remains the same. Peppers
are picked at the height of their ripeness, then chopped and mixed with a
small amount of Avery Island salt the same day. The pickers use un petit
baton rouge as a guide, a little red stick that is painted the exact
shade of red as a perfectly ripened pepper. Then the mash is poured into
used oak whiskey barrels, the lid is put on, and a thick layer of salt is
applied to the top. As the mash ferments, bubbles of gas escape through the
layer of salt along with a little of the liquid. The salt forms a hard,
protective layer. The mash ages for three years, then is mixed with vinegar,
stirred for about a month, strained and bottled. A member of the McIlhenny
supervises every step of the way.
assortment of old Tabasco bottles and implements used to stir the mash
arranged on the factory wall.
At one time, 700 acres on Avery Island were planted with
the peppers but now only about 30 acres are cultivated there. The rest of
the peppers are grown in Central and South America, where the year ‘round
warm temperature allows continuous planting. The barrels full of mash are
shipped to Avery Island for aging and the final mixing.
If you go to Avery Island to tour the Tabasco factory,
don’t forget that there are other attractions there. The island itself is
the largest of five major salt domes located in coastal Louisiana. The
massive rock salt dome was discovered on Avery Island in 1882 and quarrying
began, the first in the U.S. The quarries are now leased to Cargill Salt.
Two and a half million tons are mined annually with a purity of 98.9
blue heron stretches its wings in preparation for flight, no doubt after
spotting the alligator.
Avery Island is also home to The Jungle Gardens, the
200-acre tropical gardens and bird sanctuary created by Edmund McIlhenny’s
son, Ned. Thousands of snowy egrets nest there in a protected environment
each year. On the brink of extinction because their feathers were prized
decorations for ladies’ hats when Ned captured seven young birds in 1892,
the birds have come back strongly thanks to this sanctuary. On a hot summer
day, our group also spotted great blue herons, a white-tailed deer and –
oops! – alligators.
Away from the water, and the alligators, you will be
delighted to see a peaceful and beautiful Chinese Garden. A large Buddha
image, circa 1125 was looted from a temple in China a hundred years ago by a
Chinese rebel general and sent to New York for sale. It was purchased by
friends of the McIlhennys and presides gracefully over the Chinese Garden.
And don’t worry, www. hotsauceblog.com assures us that the McIlhenny
Company is operating normally and the production of Tabasco products was
unaffected by the recent hurricane.