Mark­ing Tabasco’s 150th birth­day with a tour of Avery Is­land

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - LIFE - By Beth J. Harpaz

AVERY IS­LAND, La.: One of the world’s most fa­mous condi­ments, Tabasco, cel­e­brates its 150th birth­day this year.

Ed­mund McIl­henny cre­ated the fa­mous pep­per sauce in 1868 on Avery Is­land, Louisiana.

The com­pany is still head­quar­tered there, and it is still run by McIl­henny’s de­scen­dants.

But whether or not you’re one of those pep­per fiends who shakes Tabasco on ev­ery­thing from eggs to burg­ers, Avery Is­land is a fun des­ti­na­tion with a neat his­tory. Tour the Tabasco mu­seum and fac­tory, try free sam­ples of Tabasco-in­fused good­ies, dine on Ca­jun food and con­sider try­ing a bloody mary (spiked with Tabasco, of course).

There’s also a unique na­ture pre­serve called Jun­gle Gar­dens where you’ll learn the story of how Avery Is­land helped save an en­tire species of bird from dis­ap­pear­ing in the U.S.

De­spite its name, though, Avery Is­land is not an is­land. It’s a salt dome, a ge­o­log­i­cal phe­nom­e­non in which an un­der­ground bed of salt pushes up the ter­rain. That salt is used to fla­vor Tabasco.

TABASCO HIS­TORY

As the story goes, McIl­henny planted some pep­per seeds he’d been given and liked the pep­pers they grew. He mashed them up with Avery Is­land salt, let the mix­ture age, then added vine­gar and pack­aged the re­sult in bot­tles de­signed for cologne. The spicy sauce was a hit.

Mu­seum ex­hibits in­clude vin­tage bot­tles along with the wooden bar­rels still used to age the sauce. A green­house dis­plays some pep­per plants, though the pep­pers are now mostly grown out­side the U.S. The sauce is bot­tled here, though, and you’ll get a good look at the fac­tory where a stream of bright red bot­tles flies past. The fac­tory can pro­duce up to 700,000 bot­tles a day, and you’ll see the day’s tally on a dig­i­tal ticker.

By the way, the seeds have no con­nec­tion to the state of Tabasco in Mex­ico, but the word tabasco is de­rived from an Aztec term that means “hu­mid land” and the seeds McIl­henny planted are said to have orig­i­nated in Latin Amer­ica.

Across the decades Tabasco has be­come a cul­tural phe­nom­e­non as well as a culi­nary sta­ple. One video in the mu­seum shows Tabasco turn­ing up in ev­ery­thing from Bugs Bunny car­toons to James Bond movies.

Tabasco was used as a wartime code word and was in­cluded as a condi­ment in prepack­aged meals for U.S. soldiers. And it’s sold in 195 coun­tries and ter­ri­to­ries world­wide.

Tabasco’s cur­rent CEO Tony Sim­mons is McIl­henny’s great-great­grand­son. He says only 2-4 per­cent of fam­ily busi­nesses make it to the fourth gen­er­a­tion, but Tabasco is al­ready in the hands of the fifth gen­er­a­tion. “My fam­ily is very tied to Avery Is­land,” Sim­mons told the AP Travel pod­cast “Get Outta Here!” in an in­ter­view. “Avery Is­land is part of the rea­son we’ve been able to hold onto our busi­ness for 150 years.”

FOOD AND DRINK

At the on-site coun­try store, you can try free sam­ples of Tabas­coin­fused ed­i­bles rang­ing from soft ice cream to soda to pick­les. Sou­venirs for sale in­clude men’s underwear dec­o­rated with lit­tle red pep­pers.

Next door at the 1868 Restau­rant, yummy Ca­jun food like gumbo, craw­fish etouf­fee and boudin sausage is dished out cafe­te­ria-style.

And as long as some­one else is do­ing the driv­ing, go ahead and treat your­self to a bloody mary.

JUN­GLE GAR­DENS

A short drive from the Tabasco com­plex, you’ll find Jun­gle Gar­dens. A driv­ing route of­fers a dozen num­bered stops for attractions in­clud­ing a palm gar­den, live oaks and a 900-year-old Buddha statue.

Watch where you step: Al­li­ga­tors abound. But the high­light of Jun­gle Gar­dens is Bird City, where on a June day about 1,000 egrets could be seen chat­ter­ing and calling to one another from raised plat­forms around a la­goon. Some swooped over­head as an al­li­ga­tor floated by.

The story of how the colony was es­tab­lished is re­mark­able. In the 1890s, snowy egrets had “al­most been wiped out to ex­tinc­tion in the U.S.,” ac­cord­ing to Erik John­son, di­rec­tor of bird con­ser­va­tion for Audubon Louisiana. The birds were hunted for their feathers, which were used in ladies’ hats.

E.A. McIl­henny, son of Tabasco’s founder, man­aged to ac­quire eight snowy egrets, built an aviary and hand-raised them. Then he set them free. When they re­turned on their sea­sonal mi­gra­tion, they brought more birds with them and the num­bers grew. By the time for­mer U.S. Pres­i­dent Teddy Roo­sevelt, a cham­pion of en­vi­ron­men­tal con­ser­va­tion, vis­ited Avery Is­land in 1915, he said 40,000 birds were nest­ing there.

Snowy egrets have re­bounded na­tion­wide since then, and these days sev­eral thou­sand nest­ing pairs of snowy and great egrets typ­i­cally ar­rive on Avery Is­land in late win­ter and stay through sum­mer. But McIl­henny’s “le­gacy goes well be­yond egrets,” John­son said. McIl­henny also helped se­cure pas­sage of the Mi­gra­tory Bird Treaty Act, which was signed into law in 1918.

That means Tabasco’s 150th birth­day isn’t the only mile­stone be­ing marked this year. The Mi­gra­tory Bird Act, cred­ited with sav­ing many bird species from ex­tinc­tion, marks its cen­ten­nial this year, too.

IF YOU GO …

https://www.tabasco.com/vis­i­tav­ery-is­land/. Lo­cated about 225 kilo­me­ters west of New Or­leans. Tabasco self-guided tour, $5.50. Jun­gle Gar­dens, $8. Com­bined ticket, $12.50. Open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.

Sou­venirs for sale in­clude men’s underwear dec­o­rated with lit­tle red pep­pers.

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