On January 20th, 2019 I had the pleasure of visiting Avery Island, home to the factory that makes the world famous Tabasco sauces.
Curiously, Avery Island isn’t actually an island at all. Heck it isn’t even land. It’s a subterranean salt dome the size of Mount Everest that plunges down into the Earth’s crust about three miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, and it is completely encircled by a sizeable river that lends it a distinct flavour of island-ness. Island or no, it is the place where old Edmund McIlhenny started producing his famous sauce from a recipe that he (much less famously) stole from a gentleman named Maunsel White*.
Regardless, about 150 years ago McIlhenny started growing peppers on Avery Island (creating a true salt & pepper island) and bottling his spicy juice, and to this day every bottle of Tabasco sauce on the planet is created there, and it’s still run by old Edmund’s descendants.
All this info was gleaned from the first stop on the factory’s self-guided tour, which was a room full of info panels and artifacts. The rest of the tour offered much less education, relying more on glimpses into a small greenhouse housing peppers at various stages of maturity, the mash room where the peppers were crushed in one of a hundred large, shiny cauldrons, the barrel room where barrels of mash topped with a layer of salt (mined from beneath our feet) were stacked in rows that seemed to stretch to the horizon and were stored for three years, the mixing room where the aged mash was mixed with vinegar, and of course the bottling room, which was a vast space littered with a quagmire of conveyer belts and remarkably fun-looking bottling machines.
I’m sure if I had been lucky enough to visit on a workday the bottling room would have been a hands-down favourite, but as it was a Sunday the room was still as death, which made the highlight of the trip…
…the gift shop! It probably comes as no surprise that the Tabasco people are excellent marketers, on a level that approaches the elongated advertising fingers of corporate favourites like Harley Davidson and Jack Daniels, companies that somehow managed to transform their brand into a lifestyle.
What might come as a surprise is the fact the Tabasco regularly makes seven (seven!) kinds of hot sauce (regular and jalapeño, which can be purchased at any store in the world, plus East Asian sweet, habanero, garlic, chipotle, and Buffalo wing style). They occasionally make special batches too, so we tried family style (super hot), scorpion sauce (super-duper hot), and raspberry chipotle. Oh, and they make Sriracha too. And habanero ice cream which is much, much better than it sounds. Unless you’re really into that sort of thing, in which case it was just as great as it sounds.
Of course travelling as I do with only carry-on luggage prohibits me from flying with a bottle of anything bigger than 100ml, but gazing around the large, cluttered gift shop I decided in about no seconds flat that I’d be checking a bag on the way home. I grabbed a cart and quickly filled it, walking out of there with almost $100 in product. Consider that a large bottle of hot sauce was priced at $4.10 and I think you’ll appreciate just how much stuff I bought.
In addition to almost every type of sauce available I found myself walking out of there with a few jars of spiced jalapeños and pickled okra, a couple of postcards and a t-shirt (I didn’t buy any ice cream, but only because getting it home would have been impossible), all of which I placed gingerly into the back seat of my rental car (in the end I added a few bottles of my #1 favourite hot sauce purchased from Pepper Palace in New Orleans and together all of this yumminess did indeed take up the entirety of my checked piece of luggage).
When I finally, somehow dragged myself out of the Tabasco gift shop I started on the second leg of the two-part Avery Island experience, the dramatically less-famous and vastly less-interesting Avery Island Jungle Drive.
Basically, the Jungle Drive is a self-guided cruise through the grounds of an old southern gentleman millionaire’s estate, where McIlhenny kept his aviary, where he built a huge boathouse specifically so his boat-travelling buddy could visit, and where he put his 12th century buddha statue, a gift from a pair of likewise wealthy pals from New York. It was okay but I could have easily done without the Jungle Drive, which cost extra (though I saw a couple of trees laden with perched vultures, which was pretty cool).
The rest of the day was spent cruising around New Iberia, Louisiana until m’lady and I ended up at a Chili’s (the irony just now occurs to me) to watch the highly anticipated Saints/Rams NFC Championship game. Of course the match ended with one of the most notorious and infamous non-calls in the history of the NFL, which robbed my newly beloved Saints of a trip to the Super Bowl.
*Yep. McIlhenny’s buddy Maunsel White created (but didn’t market) a hot sauce he called “tobasco” (note the first “o” in place of the “a”) about two decades before McIlhenny introduced his Tabasco sauce. I find it curious that his first name is “sel” (the French word for “salt”) and “maun” (an old Norse word for “man”). Which leads me down the mental path of imagining that if the originator of the tobasco recipe had purchased Avery Island to mass-produce his concoction then the huge salt mound would have been owned by White Salt Man.