Avery Island, at a mere 152-foot elevation, towers over the surrounding landscape of flat marshland in the heart of Louisiana’s Cajun country—an anomaly of nature that has attracted humans for centuries, largely because of the secret hidden beneath its Spanish moss-draped oak trees and tangled thickets.
Long before its namesake Avery family settled there in the 1830s, American Indians discovered that Avery Island’s verdant flora covered a precious natural resource—a massive salt dome. It’s one of five along the Louisiana Gulf Coast, formed when an ancient sea bed evaporated, depositing pure salt which rose up in large chunks and pushed the ground into a hill.
The island’s greatest claim to fame, however, lies in the pepper seeds planted by Edmund McIlhenny in the late 1860s. McIlhenny, a New Orleans banker, came to the island in 1860 when he and his wife, Mary Eliza Avery, retreated here to have their first child. During the Civil War, however, Avery Island became a no man’s land—its salt the subject of a tug of war between North and South.
McIlhenny and family moved to Texas to avoid the battles. When the war ended, he tried to resume his banking career in New Orleans. That failed, but during the trip an unknown man gave him some pepper seeds. He returned to Avery Island, planted the seeds, and began experimenting with a pepper sauce out of career desperation and a dislike of bland food. He sold his first bottle in 1869. He called it Tabasco sauce.
McIlhenny’s one-man show, started in 1868, has since grown into a 200-employee sauce-making plant on the island, complete with Avery and McIlhenny descendants, known as the McIlhenny Co.—which still makes the pungent red sauce along with scores of other products. Most of the 200 or so island residents are connected in some way with the family business.
Since 1993 Shane Bernard, the company’s historian and curator, has cataloged the island and company’s vast collection of documents and artifacts. His duties include separating fact from legend—and how Edmund McIlhenny acquired those first pepper seeds has always been part of the Tabasco legend.
Bernard had narrowed the possibilities down to the Jack-and-the-Beanstalk kind of tale. “It was purely accidental,” he says.
The pride of the McIlhenny family is the original handwritten recipe for the sauce. With white cotton gloves, Bernard handles the ledger book where it’s inscribed—and doesn’t let non-family members close enough to read the text.
Bernard says today’s Tabasco sauce varies from the original recipe and is considered an improvement. And it’s still secret, as is the origin of the sauce’s name.
But the family does divulge a bit of its magic: Peppers are picked, mashed, and mixed with salt—from the island’s own dome—on the same day. The mash is poured into oak barrels, where it ferments for up to three years. Once a McIlhenny approves the batch, vinegar is added and the concoction is stirred frequently for about four weeks until the fiery liquid is poured into the familiar bottles.
Bernard has uncovered thousands of artifacts since a McIlhenny-sponsored excavation of the island’s original Tabasco factory. “We found only one intact Tabasco corktop bottle,” Bernard says. Tradition holds that Edmund McIlhenny first sold his sauce in old cologne bottles which he washed thoroughly and adorned with handmade labels.
The McIlhenny family’s respect for its own heritage extends beyond Tabasco to the 2,500-acre island itself. The Jungle Gardens, comprising much of the western side of the island, is a popular preserve complete with alligators and a variety of native and exotic plants. Thousands of snowy egrets nest on pier-like structures in a special pond called Bird City.
The family began developing the gardens in 1892. Like the operating Tabasco plant, it is open to the public.
Paul McIlhenny, president and chief operating officer of McIlhenny Co., figures the investment in preserving the island is just as important as recording the business’ history. But the archives certainly have proven their value.
“I think (the documentation) will clear up some of the embellishment,” says McIlhenny. Laughing, he adds, “Of course, maybe we should keep some of the stories hidden.”
“It’s very much a mythic place. We still gather there,” says Gray Osborn, one of Edmund McIlhenny’s great-grandsons, who now lives in Connecticut.
“It’s of great importance to hold that island together. It’s home.”