It may not be the hottest place on Earth, but it’s probably one of the spiciest. Avery Island, Louisiana, is in many ways caught between epochs of history. In one instance, the presence of antebellum structures and a dwindling air of faded Southern aristocracy hangs heavily in the mind of all who visit. In another, it is the seat of a growing and thoroughly modern industrial concern with customers in more than 165 countries.
If you know Avery Island, your knowledge likely stems from its signature export: McIlhenny’s Tabasco Sauce. Still sold in diminutive glass containers whose shape is a nod to the perfume bottles Edmund McIlhenny first used to sell his fiery elixir, the packaging is itself a metaphor for the duality of the place. In this innovation, McIlhenny took a condiment popular among peasants and elevated it to a gourmet comestible.
As the story goes, McIlhenny was given some peppers by a Confederate soldier who’d been in the Tabasco region of Mexico. Shortly thereafter, McIlhenny and his family were forced to flee New Orleans after its capture by Union forces in 1862. They landed on Avery Island, where McIlhenny planted the seeds, but again the encroaching Union Army
necessitated the family’s flight.
When McIlhenny returned in 1865, the plantation was in ruins. The pepper plants left to their own devices had all succumbed —- save for one lone plant.
In a story with the supernatural tenor of the Hanukkah oil, the McIlhenny pepper plantation was a phoenix, its fire rising form the ashes of what had been left behind. McIlhenny took the peppers, brewed his first batch and three years later (after aging in oak casks) bottled it in 350 used perfume bottles.
By 1870, McIlhenny opened an office in London. According to a family story, in 1898 the matriarch of the McIlhenny clan, Mary Eliza, received a letter from each of their three sons all on the same day: one from Moscow; one from Pretoria; and one from Beijing. The enterprise has only spread over time.
Successive generations of the McIlhenny family have run the business since its 19th century founding. The latest family member to hold the reigns is Paul McIlhenny. He has served as the chairman and chief executive of the company since the mid-1960s. He was responsible for pushing Tabasco out of its comfortable center by adding several new products and expanding their marketing efforts. McIlhenny died last week. He was 68.
Paul McIlhenny was part of the fourth generation to head the company and the sixth to live on Avery Island. According to a CNN.com report on his passing, back in 2006, he was Rex, the first King of Carnival after Hurricane Katrina. Not long after, McIlhenny reportedly joked that if the subject of hot sauce came up, he’d say: “That’s one form of global warming I’m totally in favor of.”
“We’re defending the world against bland food,” he said, according to The Times-Picayune newspaper.
The McIlhenny family’s commitment to the spice of life is something that extends back across the history of humanity. In 16th century Japan, the haiku master Basho helped a student with a pepper-themed poem. The result is this:
Add a pair of wings
To a pepper pod, you would
Make a dragonfly.
As the McIlhenny family navigates their loss, we hope they remember that their product has given wings to many an otherwise bland meal; and as such, elevated our palettes to places we had never before dared go.