It's a Hot One
~Wednesday, January 25, 2023~
A little overcast this morning and no tell-tale signs of damage from last night’s storm, thank goodness. A little too close to home.
Finally, we were able to get out and do some exploring today. At the top of our list was visiting the famous TABASCO® Factory Tour on Avery Island, about 45 minutes from our campground. We had tried to visit Avery Island in early 2021 but were turned away due to COVID. Disappointed, we vowed to return one day, so here we are again. Google took us on scenic backroads where we enjoyed the bayou scene of heavily wooded marshes, exhausted sugar cane and flooded rice fields. In those rice fields, we could see red tops that appeared to be floating on the surface. We found out that they are plastic caps on the neck of crawfish traps that aquaculture farmers use to harvest their crawfish crop. I knew that crawfish lived in rice fields, but didn’t know how they fish for them.
At the entrance gate, the attendant was waving our entry ticket from an extension pole, directing us to the parking lot. I guess that beats having to wear a mask. Immediately, you notice how immaculate the grounds are. Little did we know we were standing on a salt dome that extends some eight miles beneath the earth’s surface.
The 2,200-acre “island” is part of the formation rising above the surface and obviously a wonderful growing region for chili peppers.
As we approached the museum building, we could immediately smell TABASCO in the air. The docent made my day in 2 ways…..by pronouncing our last name correctly (that’s Cajun country for ‘ya), and when she said their senior discount applies to 55 and over, not the usual 62. Now, wait a minute…maybe that shouldn’t make my day since the inference would be that we look over 55….DANG!! But then she redeemed herself by saying, “you guys are looking great though”. I’ve not for one moment considered myself a senior. It took me years to even sign up for AARP!
The museum is fantastic as it takes you back to the early days (nearly 150 years ago) when Edmund McIlhenny in 1868 mixed his first batch of what was called TABASCO-a word of Mexican-Indian origin, meaning “land where the soil is humid''. During the post-Civil War South, the only bottles McIlhenny found readily available were discarded, long-necked cologne bottles. The iconic TABASCO bottle and diamond label design have changed little since the beginning. Over the years, there have been 5 generations who continue the legacy and run the business to this day, privately. Let’s hope it stays that way. In fact, many of the families that work on Avery Island have lived here for generations and continue to do so. And come to think of it, how many brand names are synonymous with their product like for example “Band-Aid” , “Q-Tips”, or “Tupperware” ?
Behind the doors to the museum, the factory hums.
But our next stop would be the green house. Because the island is not big enough to produce the millions of bottles of sauce made each year, the pepper plants that are on the island are used more for seed that is sent to growing regions around the world, whose climate is also well-suited to growing peppers. The hottest pepper they produce is the Scorpion pepper.
Stop #3 was where they mash the product and prepare the barrels.
It was here that our senses were heightened from the smell of the oak barrels doing their job of fermenting the peppers. They use decommissioned white oak bourbon barrels sourced from different distilleries around the country. The hoops around the barrels are replaced with stainless steel ones to avoid rust and give the barrel greater strength. Barrels that can’t be reused are made into wood chips. On top of the barrels is salt used to keep out impurities and to allow gasses to release during fermentation.They stack the barrels 6 high, where the “mash” is stored for 3 years before the next step.
Stop #4…..the blending area. The minute we walked into this building, we couldn’t help but cough from the vapors in that room. Everyone was coughing, at least initially. This is where the final concoction is made, and it’s really very simple with only 3 ingredients…..peppers, salt and vinegar. The vinegar is added at the very end in the blending process where it is stirred for 2 weeks before bottling. At the top of the stairs we could look over the mixing tanks, all automated and carefully monitored.
Next was the production area where there appeared to be 4 different bottling lines (likely for 4 different flavors). It is shocking that to keep up with demand, they bottle an average of 750,000 per day, sometimes hitting the 1,000,000 mark when they meet special order demands. Lastly was a tour of the salt mine diorama and the funnest part of all, the TABASCO Country Store where we met
the nicest staff and sampled to our hearts content. Now you normally wouldn’t see a bottle of TABASCO in our fridge, but must say the flavored ones were quite good. There must have been about 8 different flavors with my favorites being the sweet and spicy sauce and the Habanero. Jeff’s favorite was the Scorpion sauce. But one thing’s for sure. We now have a greater appreciation for it after seeing how it's produced. Exported to over 185 countries and territories (except the dangerous ones) and with packaging printed in 22 languages and dialects, it’s easy to see why TABASCO sauce is a global culinary icon. Before heading out with our bag of sauces and t-shirts, we were given a special sampling of 2 flavors of TABASCO ice cream. Who knew…..hot sauce in ice cream? It was deeelicious!
Little did we know, we’d be in for a jungle experience while touring a TABASCO plant. The 3-mile route is recommended to be toured by car though in hindsight we should have walked the whole thing. The natural beauty and tranquility of the 170-acre semi-tropical garden that is Jungle Gardens is a haven for groves of Live Oaks with their hanging Spanish moss and ferns, azaleas, camelias, gorgeous ponds and animals such as deer, thousands of snowy egrets and naturally, alligators, though we didn’t see any. At stop #3, we read some interesting facts about these creatures. Once the female alligator lays her 35 to 50 eggs where they are buried for 14 days, the temperatures make all the difference in the gender outcome. If the temperatures reach 93 degrees or higher, the babies will be males. If the temperature is 86 degrees or lower, it will result in females. And if it sits somewhere between those numbers, they will be both males and females. We’d never heard such a thing. The animal kingdom is surely a mysterious one.
But the most impressive part about Jungle Gardens was seeing the preservation efforts that Edward McIllheny set forth, particularly aiding in saving the snowy egret from extinction. In the late 1800’s, the bird was being hunted for its
plumage to adorn women’s hats, so McIlhenny decided to build an aviary on Avery Island, giving the bird a safe haven to raise their hatchlings. The egrets to this day return by the thousands to the rookery, now called “Bird City”. We were a month too early to witness their return, so can only imagine how breathtaking this would be.
As we drove the rough backroads in a westerly direction, we witnessed the perfect southern sunset as the sun’s rays hovered just over the worn out cornfields; certainly a different view than last night’s chaos.