Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Hot Stuff

I drove down to Avery Island, Louisiana to tour the Tabasco plant. Technically, I suppose it is an island, because it’s surrounded on all sides by water. But it’s just slow-moving black-water bayous surrounding a large natural dome-shaped salt deposit.

pep 021

Avery Island started as a salt mine, which was destroyed by Union forces during the Civil War. The owners returned after the war and restored production, which they now lease to a salt mining company.

After the Civil War, oil was discovered; it’s often found near natural salt deposits. The oil is still being pumped from the island. But the salt and oil operations are concealed from public view. Everything is carefully managed to preserve its natural beauty, and the island functions as a wildlife sanctuary for thousands of migratory birds.

The island and its production facilities are owned by the McIlhenny family. In 1868, one of the family members invented Tabasco sauce and sold about 600 bottles. Today they produce over 700,000 bottles every day and ship them all over the world.

To enter the island, tourists cross the bayou over this small bridge to the gatehouse.

pep 022

Because the gatehouse is on the right side, the attendant extends a broom handle through the passenger window. On the end of the broom handle is a spring-loaded clothespin holding a parking permit. You take the permit and clip a dollar onto the clothespin, then drive up to the main factory building.

pep 001

I took a tour of the factory, which was a little disappointing because production was shut down on Sunday. There are a few dusty exhibits, then a brief film. Afterwards, we walked past a long window looking out onto the factory floor, ending in another dusty exhibit room. But I learned a lot.

Only two percent of the peppers used to make Tabasco sauce are grown on Avery Island. The rest are grown in Central and South America. They’re shipped to Avery Island, where all of the production takes place.

The peppers are crushed into a pulp and then poured into oak barrels. A hole is drilled in the lid, which is then covered with coarse salt mined on the island. The salt enables fermentation gases to escape, but prevents intrusion of bacteria. Fermentation takes three years, then the resulting glop is mixed with vinegar and other ingredients, stirred for about a month, and bottled. They re-use the barrels over and over. Some are a hundred years old.

pep 017

There’s a gift shop nearby, where you can buy t-shirts, key rings, china, Christmas ornaments and jewelry emblazoned with the Tabasco logo. You can also buy a wide variety of Tabasco sauce products, sold in all sizes from an eighth of an ounce to full gallon bottles. A freezer holds these massive bags of dried pepper pulp, which are used when boiling crawfish Cajun style.

pep 003

With the salt mine, the oil wells and the Tabasco factory, I think it’s safe to say that the McIlhenney family has money. I’m sure their kids have no trouble finding a date for the prom. I wonder if they carry pepper spray.

No comments: