Twenty-seven miles west of New Orleans is Avery Island, the site of one of America’s most unique and successful enterprises. Avery Island is where Tabasco is produced, and the story of its origin and the family that established a dynasty is a thrilling and inspirational narrative.
The inventor of Tabasco sauce was Edmund McIlhenny, a fifth-generation American of Scottish-Irish descent. In the 1850s, he moved from Hagerstown, Md., to New Orleans where he became a banker and a well known bon vivant in the city’s society circles. In 1862, he and his wife moved to Avery Island where Mrs. McIhenny’s parents owned a sugar plantation. Edmund was an enthusiastic gardener and lovingly tended the vast vegetable and flower gardens. To add to the gardens a friend brought him a red capsicum pepper plant from Mexico, which thrived and almost took over the garden.
Avery Island sits atop a mountain of solid salt, once supplying the Confederate states with salt. In 1863, Union soldiers invaded the island and destroyed the salt works.
After the war, it was discovered that the capsicum peppers had survived and in order to add flavor to the monotonous food of the reconstruction period, McIlhenny began experimenting with making a pepper sauce. His formula consisted of crushing the ripest, reddest peppers, mixing the puree with the island’s native salt and aging the mixture in crockery jars for 30 days. To this mixture he added fine French wine vinegar and continued to age the mixture for another month; all the while hand-stirring it at regular intervals to blend the flavors.
In the beginning, the sauce was given to family and friends who encouraged him to market it commercially. In 1868, he sent 350 bottles of his pepper sauce to carefully selected wholesalers throughout the country. Almost immediately, thousands of orders poured in. Back then, the wholesale price of $1 a bottle was an astonishing amount. In 1888, Tabasco, a name indigenous to the Indians native to Mexico’s central highlands, was patented and the trademark protected.
Although numerous pepper sauces are on the market, none has achieved the success of Tabasco. No other sauce contains capsicum peppers and the unique recipe originated by Edmund McIlhenny.
Avery Island has become world famous as the home of Tabasco. Other products have been added including Bloody Mary Mix, Picante Sauce, 7-Spice Chili Mix, condiments and relishes and Crab Boil.
Paul McIlhenny, Edmund’s great-grandson has written “The Tabasco Cookbook,” filled with creative recipes, including recipes from celebrity fans of the sauce. Phyllis Diller put a teaspoon on her Pilli Dilli Chile to heighten the taste, while Henry Winkler adds 12 dashes to his beer marinade for steak. When Paul Newman ordered gumbo he enhanced the flavor with several dashes of Tabasco. Kathy Lee Crosby suggests generous shakes of the sauce will add flavor to curry, and Madonna swears that sushi calls out for an addition of the pepper sauce. And that great and late Craig Claiborne wouldn’t dream of preparing hamburgers without it.
Paul McIlhenny died recently, leaving behind his wife and children to carry on the family business. Their success is an example of achieving the American Dream.
CRAIG CLLAIBORNE’S ULTIMATE HAMBURGER
1-1/2 pounds ground round steak
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
½ teaspoon Tabasco sauce
Juice of ½ lemon
1/3 cup finely chopping fresh parsley
1 Divide the meat into 4 portions and shape each into a round patty.
2 Sprinkle the bottom of a very heavy skillet, preferably black iron, with a light layer of salt and heat the skillet until it is searingly hot.
3 Add the patties and sear on each side. Using a pancake turner, quickly turn the patties and reduce heat.
4 Cook to desired doneness; 3 minutes or longer.
5 When the hamburgers are done, sprinkle them with salt and pepper and top each with a tablespoon of butter. Sprinkle on the Worcestershire, Tabasco sauce and lemon juice.
6 Transfer the patties to the bottom of a hamburger bun or Kaiser roll. Sprinkle with parsley and place top on hamburger. Serves 4.
Doris Reynolds is the author of “When Peacocks Were Roasted and Mullet was Fried” and “Let’s Talk Food.” They are available for sale in the lobby of the Naples Daily News. Also available is a four-part DVD, “A Walk Down Memory Lane with Doris Reynolds.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.