A hot story

By Franz Scheurer


Imagine a world without Tabasco sauce?


There must be thousands of chilli sauces on the market, but only Tabasco earned the right of a permanent space on the kitchen bench in my kitchen. I cannot even begin to think of what would happen if I were to be deprived of this range of condiments.


Here is the TABASCO story:


In the mid nineteenth century, New Orleans was one of North America’s biggest cities. Strategically situated near the mouth of the Mississippi River, it was a wild and exiting place, populated mainly by the Creoles, descendants from the French and Spanish colonial settlers.


New Orleans restaurants rivalled the best in Europe, specialising in wild duck, goose, rail, snipe and woodcock, complimented by the abundant Louisiana seafood.


In 1841, Edmund McIlhenny, a fourth-generation American of Scotch-Irish descent, moved to New Orleans and became the agent for the Bank of Louisiana. He worked his way up from bookkeeper to independent banker, purchasing five branch banks in 1857, located throughout the south and central Louisiana. A bon vivant, Edmund enjoyed the good life to the fullest. 


In 1859, he married Mary Eliza Avery, daughter of a prominent Baton Rouge jurist. The Averys owned a sugar plantation on an island, at the time called Petite Anse, after the bayou, which nearly encircled it. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the Averys and McIlhennys sought refuge on the island. One of five islands rising atypically well above the flat Louisiana coastal marshes, is a geological oddity. Lush subtropical flora, venerable live oaks draped with wild muscadine and barbe espagnole (Spanish Moss) cover the roughly 2200 acres of the island, which sits on top of solid rock salt thought to be more than 8,000 metres deep. Geologists believe this deposit is the remnant of a buried ancient seabed, pushed to the surface by the sheer weight of surrounding alluvial sediments. Although covered with a layer of fertile soil, salt springs may have attracted prehistoric settlers to the island as early as twelve thousand years ago. Fossils suggest that early inhabitants shared the land with mastodons and mammoths, giant sloths, sabre-toothed tigers and three-toed horses. 


Salt production dates back to about 1000 A.D. judging from recovered basket fragments, polished stone implements and shards of pottery, left by Indians.

In 1862, John Marsh Avery discovered the solid rock salt about sixteen feet beneath the island’s surface. Quarrying began immediately to supply the blockaded Confederacy with the mineral essential for curing hides, preserving meats and warding off disease in livestock. In 1962, Union gunboats launched an unsuccessful assault on the island. In April next year, a Union land invasion resulted in the island’s capture and the destruction of the mining buildings and equipment.


The families fled to Texas and Edmund spent his years in exile as a civilian employee of the Confederate army. After the South’s defeat, the families returned to the island, renamed it Avery Island, and recovered the sugarcane fields and reorganised the salt mining business. Edmund went alone to New Orleans, to look for employment in the by now crippled banking industry. Although unsuccessful, he met a traveller recently arrived from Mexico, a certain Gleason, according to family lore, who gave Edmund a handful of pepper pods, advising him to season his meals with them. Although, at the time seemingly inconsequential, this small gesture would change the family fortunes and culinary customs forever. 


Edmund saved some of the pods and planted them in the Avery’s garden. In 1866, he began to experiment with making a hot sauce. He started to crush very ripe red peppers with rock salt from the island and aging the concoction in barrels for 30 days. He then added French white wine vinegar and maturing the mixture for another 30 days in crockery jars, stirring daily. After straining, he bottled the sauce in perfume bottles, corked and sealed them with green wax. Included with each bottle was a separate sprinkler fitment, which consumers fitted after opening the bottle.


The “Famous Sauce Mr. McIlhenny Makes” proved so popular with family and friends that Edmund decided to market it, growing his first commercial crop in 1868. In 1969, he send out 658 bottles at one dollar each wholesale to grocers around the Gulf Coast. The public responded and in 1870, Edmund secured a patent for his fiery invention.  In the early 1870s, Edmund formed an alliance with the nation’s largest food distributors, E.C. Hazard and Company of New York, City and the sauce spread across the United States and was on sale in Europe by the end of the decade.


When Edmund died in 1890 at age 75, his eldest son, John Avery McIlhenny took over the Tabasco sauce business with his mother’s assistance. He travelled far and wide to promote Tabasco sauce, pioneering billboards for his promotions and even hiring an Opera Troupe to perform a “Tabasco Opera”. When the Spanish American War broke out in 1898, he joined the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, better known as “the Rough Riders”.  John was there when Theodore Roosevelt stormed Kettle Hill and was appointed as one of only three U.S. Civil Service Commissioners in 1906. With John’s involvement with the army, Edward (Ned) Avery McIlhenny took over the running of the Tabasco business. Ned, a visionary conservationist who single-handedly set up a world class bird sanctuary for egrets on the island and donated land to the State of Louisiana as a Wildflower Sanctuary also managed to expand the Tabasco business and winning several court battles to protect and preserve the exclusive use of the Tabasco trademark.


Tabasco sauce has literally travelled to the world’s highest mountains and deepest oceans, and even into orbit. In the Himalayas, climbers rewarded their Sherpa guides with bottles of the condiment. Archaeologists recovered an intact bottle of Tabasco sauce from the 859-foot flying aircraft carrier USS Macon, which plunged into the Pacific in February 1935. NASA sent Tabasco sauce up to the Skylab space station when astronauts complained that the food was too bland, and is still used in the Shuttle Missions and on the new space station.


Edward (Ned) McIlhenny Simmons, great-grandson of Edmund McIlhenny, grandson of Edward Avery McIlhenny, a biologist by education, now serves as chairman of the McIlhenny Company. Having joined the company after graduation Ned continued the family tradition of personal involvement in the sauce’s manufacture. Each fall he selected the best seed for future crops, walking the pepper fields, row by row, and draping a piece of twine over each plant that passed his scrutiny. (In the old days, his grandfather used Spanish Moss instead of twine) Seeds from selected plants are stored in a New Iberia bank vault as insurance against crop losses. Ned passed on his duties to Harold Osborn, Director of Agricultural Operations for McIlhenny Company and fifth-generation family member, who now oversees the day-to-day duties.


All peppers are still picked by hand. Because peppers in various stages of ripeness grow on the same bush, only an experienced picker can determine which are ready for harvest. Each pepper plant is picked several times during the harvest season. Pickers are aided by the ‘petit baton rouge’ a stick painted in the shade of a perfectly ripe pepper. At each day’s end on Avery Island, pickers are paid on the spot and the peppers are mashed with the Avery Island salt and put into new oak barrels to begin the aging process.


In 1990 McIlhenny Company expanded their range and added Tabasco Green Pepper Sauce, Tabasco Garlic Pepper Sauce and Tabasco Habanero Pepper Sauce. In 2001, Tabasco Chipotle Pepper Sauce joined this line.


Avery Island welcomes more than 100,000 visitors each year, to its Visitor’s Centre, the Tabasco Country Store, Jungle Garden and Bird Sanctuary.


For more information visit: http://www.TABASCO.com