The Spices of Life

Except for their expected pairing on dining room tables and in kitchen spice racks, you
don’t usually see salt and pepper in tandem. But at Avery Island, Louisiana, the two spices
come together in a big way. This little chunk of real estate south of Lafayette is little
more than a gigantic plug of salt that reaches eight miles into the earth – but it’s also
the home of Tabasco Pepper Sauce. “It’s hard to imagine so much salt,” said Linda Clause of
the interpretive center on the island. “Think of it this way: If you were to build a
life-size model of Mount Everest from pure salt and fit it into a hole the size of the
plug, there would still be room for a dozen or so of the major mountain peaks of the
Alleghenies.” The salt dome’s tip, covered with a skin of topsoil, towers over the reedy
tide marshes that surround it near the southwest end of the Intracoastal Waterway. But in
this south Louisiana world of water, the island is firm ground – and on 30 of its 2,200
acres grow the hottest peppers ever to come out of Old Mexico. This is where Tabasco Pepper
Sauce originated and remains the only place in the world where it’s made, said Clause,
adding that Tabasco (and the salt that’s mined through a shaft 1,300 feet deep) also are
the foundation of a fortune that has, for decades, funded a stunning Jungle Gardens that
spans some 250 island acres. We visited recently, as much for the gardens as for the molten
lava that is Tabasco. Even if you don’t visit the Tabasco factory, the gardens – and the
glorious white egrets that were rescued from near-extinction a century ago and now nest
here by the thousands – are worth the trip. But without Tabasco, neither birds nor gardens
would be here. The factory is open for tours daily from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm, but you’ll want
to go Monday through Thursday, when the sauce is being made – the firm manufactures about
700,000 bottles of Tabasco every day. While you wait for your half-hour tour to begin, you
can peruse the Historical Gallery, which includes Tabasco artifacts from the past 125
years, and other displays that explain a little about its production. A 12-minute video
shows you how the fiery little peppers – Capsicum frutescens – are grown on the island.
According to our tour guide, during the Civil War a prominent New Orleans banker, Edmund
McIlhenny, moved his wife, Mary Eliza, and their children to a sugar plantation that his
wife’s family owned on Avery Island. The peppers were a gift to McIlhenny, who gave up
banking to grow them and at one time devoted 700 island acres to their production. As we
learned, seeds gathered the previous season are planted in greenhouses early in the year,
then moved to the 30 acres. As they mature, the peppers go from green to yellow to orange
and finally crimson, before being picked by hand after they’ve turned the shade of le petit
bâton rouge (the little red stick) workers use for comparison. The peppers are processed
the day they’re picked, then are ground, mixed with salt and stashed in barrels – where
they will age for three years, during which time fermentation (no yeast needed) takes
place. Afterwards, the peppers are drained, vinegar is added and the concoction is stirred
constantly for 28 days. The company makes five types of pepper sauce: The original, plus
sauces made with green peppers, garlic, habanero peppers and its newest concoction,
chipotle pepper sauce. Adjacent the factory is the 3,200-square foot Country Store, where
everything you can think of related to Tabasco is for sale in colorful displays: Bloody
Mary mix, barbecue sauce, soy sauce, spicy beans, jalapeno nacho slices, cookbooks, spiced
popcorn, even Red Hots candy (who knew it was made with tabasco peppers?). A photo gallery
in the store details the evolution of the factory, which began producing Tabasco soon after
the Civil War, in 1868, selling it in cork-topped perfume bottles. From the factory it’s
less than a minute’s drive to Jungle Gardens, where for a small fee you can walk or drive
for several miles along a self-guided winding trail. Featured here are a 50-foot-long arch
laced thickly with lavender wisteria, huge cypresses and forests of their knobby knees in a
lagoon, massive oaks draped with beards of Spanish moss, 64 varieties of towering bamboo
and hundreds of camellia bushes lavish with red, pink and white blooms. A large sinkhole
has been made into a lush garden with a stone path and benches, and giant, swaying palms.
Most unexpected, there’s a showy Buddha Temple from near Peking, China, dating back more
than 800 years. A placard explains that the Buddha, built on orders of Emperor Hui-Tsung,
1101-1125, had been looted by a rebel general, who then sent the statue to New York to be
sold. Friends of Edward Avery McIlhenny, son of the Tabasco founder, bought it for his
garden in 1936. The gardens, also a nature preserve, were created by McIlhenny to “show
that nature and industry could coexist in a small confine,” said Linda Clause. But the
younger McIlhenny, an explorer, writer, business executive, naturalist and conservationist,
also had another reason for establishing the preserve: To try and save the snowy egret
which had come nearly to extinction, so prized were its feathers for hat decorations. In
1892, McIlhenny built an aviary on a sapphire lake on the island, then captured and raised
eight wild egrets. When they were ready to migrate he freed them, hoping they would return.
They did – and have every spring since – to lay their eggs at the rookery now called Bird
City. From so few birds a century ago have descended the more than 20,000 startlingly white
egrets that nest here today. A viewing platform overlooks the lake and rookery, consisting
of double-decked structures of bamboo floored with brush, where the birds build their
nests. To get there, you park and walk several hundred feet down a grassy slope. You hear
the birds before you see them, but nothing can prepare you for the sight in early spring of
thousands of these magnificent snowy birds. It’s a bird lover’s dream come true. Avery
Island is 11 miles south of New Iberia, Louisiana. To get there, take Interstate 10 west
from Baton Rouge to Exit 103, then follow U.S. Highway 90 south to New Iberia. Exit at
Louisiana Highway 14 and turn left, then turn right on Louisiana Highway 329 to the island.

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