Throughout my childhood, my paternal grandmother was constantly armed with a bottle of Tabasco. Bland food was the enemy, and there was a lot of it around back then in restaurants, the occasional hospital room and church suppers. In her mind, it all needed correction. She’d reach into her purse for a standard issue 60 ml. bottle of Tabasco, and start dousing. Fast food fries would go from pale beige to orange in a matter of seconds.
That tradition stayed with me when I left Georgia at 18 for college in Washington, D.C. This was forever ago, when dining halls produced food that was crazy tasteless, and I took great pleasure in taking out my own secured bottle of Tabasco. Maybe all that Tabasco love was foreshadowing, because I ended up going to graduate school at LSU soonafter, and then finding myself never able to leave Louisiana.
But in all these years of food writing from Baton Rouge, I’d never written about Tabasco. I was thrilled a few months back when I got a magazine assignment on the McIlhenny family that granted me a behind-the-scenes tour of Avery Island and the Tabasco plant.
What an incredible institution this condiment is.
10 interesting facts surrounding Tabasco:
1. The Family
Most family business don’t make it to the 2nd generation. Tabasco is now being run by the 5th generation, with the 6th generation already working for the company and waiting in the wings. While only a few family members actually work for the company, most of Tabasco’s shareholders are family members who return regularly to Avery Island for meetings.
2.Where peppers are grown
Most of the peppers grown to produce Tabasco sauce are not grown on Avery Island any longer but in South and Central America and in Africa. The reason for this is capacity, as well as simple preservation of crops. The peppers that are grown on the island are primarily used to produce seed stock for distribution to partner growers. The seeds are derived from the original Capsicum frutescens plant grown by Tabasco founder Edmund McIlhenny. So, the peppers grown for Tabasco sauce are considered an heirloom variety.
3. Three ingredients
Distilled vinegar, red pepper mash and salt. That’s it.
4. Aged in whiskey barrels for three years
As Tabasco Director of Agriculture John Simmons (pictured above) told me, the company uses 4,000-year-old technology — oak barrels — for aging the pepper mash. Most pepper sauce companies don’t go to this kind of trouble. I visited the main warehouse where tens of thousands of whiskey barrels (recycled from whiskey makers) were stacked, each one holding aging pepper mash. The aging process mellows and deepens the pepper flavor, says John.
5. Salt crust
Yep, right on top. A thick layer of salt is placed on top of each barrel to keep impurities out of the barrel as the mash ages and ferments, and gas escapes. Salt and wooden barrels. So biblical!
6. Those spider webs are stayin’
Many of the bazillion barrels of pepper mash stored in the warehouse are layered with spider webs. It’s a harmless, and green, form of pest control. The spiders have no interest in the pepper mash, but they love the bugs that do. Happy spiders equals protected pepper mash.
7. Number of bottles produced daily
8. Bird City
Edward A. McIlhenny, son of Tabasco founder Edmund McIlhenny, was a tremendous conservationist, founding two key sites on the family island dedicated to the appreciation of nature, Jungle Gardens, a series of botanical gardens, and Bird City, a rookery for South Louisiana waterfowl. E.A. McIlhenny was instrumental in saving the snowy egret, a small bird that was near extinction because of the high demand at the time for its plumes, which were used by milliners. These platforms in Bird City kept the fragile birds safe from other predators, namely opossums and raccoons. If the animals were tempted to hunt nesting egrets, the alligators got lucky and gobbled them up.
9. Avery Island is it
The only place in the world where Tabasco sauce is made is Avery Island, Louisiana. Makes it a little vulnerable considering our propensity for hurricanes. During Hurricane Rita, water came within 4 inches of the factory, so the family invested millions in a levee system. May the bulwark always hold, because what would we do without this stuff?
10. Buddha Temple
Avery Island is also famous for a gorgeous Buddha temple. Yep, right here in heavily Catholic south Louisiana Cajun country. The statue was a gift to Edward McIlhenny from friends who spotted it at an auction in New York. Fabricators and craftsmen on the Island fashioned the lotus pedestal and the temple around it. Where else can you appreciate Buddha and Spanish moss in the same place?