Miles of sugarcane fields fly by as we drive to Avery Island, a journey punctuated only by glimpses of sagging stilted houses that have seen more than their fair share of hurricane winds and flooding. It is the middle of nowhere, and yet, it just may be the center of the universe for lovers of hot spice. For here, some 30 miles south of Lafayette and 140 west of New Orleans, is where Tabasco sauce is born.
Last August, we traveled to this coastal marshland in south-central Louisiana for the explicit purpose of discovering how peppers, salt, and vinegar are combined to become a favorite accompaniment to eggs, jambalaya, and anything that might benefit from a kick of heat.
On a barometrically oppressive Saturday afternoon, we made our way to the 2,200-acre salt dome (a massive underground salt deposit) to see how that hot sauce is made. On the way, we are thankful for the rental car's air conditioning and mindful that we leave nothing on the dashboard, lest it melt in the Gulf sun.
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Avery Island has been home to the Tabasco factory since 1868, when the McIlhenny family grew their first commercial crop of the fiery red peppers that were, as now, the key ingredient in Tabasco's Original Red Sauce. There's all kinds of lore surrounding the story of how Edmund McIlhenny came upon the Capsicum frutescens chile, including a poetic account about the plants surviving Union occupation during the Civil War. Regardless of how they got there, the peppers helped the McIlhennys build an unrivaled hot sauce empire from a sleepy bayou.
PHOTO: Sara Bonisteel
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