AVERY ISLAND, LA. — My husband cringes when I slosh Tabasco Pepper Sauce on everything from his homemade jambalaya to crawfish etouffee.
Its an insult to the chef, he says, claiming it overpowers the flavor of his handiwork.
But I know a dollop of hot sauce makes food better. Thats why I could hardly wait to see the southern Louisiana factory that turns out 700,000 bottles of the crawfish-red sauce a day.
Avery Island, where Tabasco is brewed, is a mere 45-minute detour off Interstate 10, a major east-west route through the southern part of the state. There, a 15-minute tour and film fill you in on the background of the fiery blend of capsicum peppers and vinegar, first made by Edmund McIlhenny here shortly after the Civil War.
Avery Island isnt the palm-tree studded dab of land you might imagine. Its actually a plant-covered salt dome that rises out of the swamp where conditions are just right to grow hot peppers.
Today, some of the seeds from plants grown on the island are shipped to Central and South America, where theyre grown and harvested. The sauce recipe, however, hasnt changed. It still takes three years and 28 days to make a batch of Tabasco, which was originally sold in cork-topped cologne bottles dipped in green sealing wax.
Seedlings are transplanted to the fields in April. When the peppers are just the right shade of red (pickers compare the color to a stick painted the proper hue), theyre ground with a little salt mined from Avery Island. The mash is poured into white oak barrels, which are then sealed with a layer of salt. The mixture ferments and ages for three years, when its cracked open, mixed with vinegar, stirred for a month, strained and poured into bottles.
Tabasco is sold in 110 countries and territories around the world. People splash it on everything, including pizza, nachos and ribs. It was even included in military rations during the Gulf War. Its name comes from a Native American word that means Land of the hot and humid.
Once youve taken the tour, you can walk over to the Tabasco Country Store, where you can buy Tabasco-flavored soda, chocolate, jelly beans and ice cream, as well as an array of Tabasco sauces, from the original red to the more exotic green, garlic, habanero and chipotle. Real Tabasco devotees can pick up a gallon jar of the stuff for $38.95.
Outside, a food trailer peddles Louisiana favorites such as red beans and rice, etouffee and boudin.
We came for the hot sauce, but stayed for the alligators, snowy egrets and moss-draped oaks.
Once youve toured the 70,000-square-foot factory, head to the Jungle Gardens and Bird City, where you can walk or drive a 3-mile route that weaves through clusters of gnarled old oaks, lush azaleas and fragrant camellias.
E.A. McIlhenny, Edmunds son, created this 200-acre oasis in the late 1800s, collecting plants from around the world and searching the swamps for snowy egrets to establish a colony of the birds. Egrets were hunted nearly to extinction then, when their fluffy plumage was used to decorate womens hats. Today that flock has grown to more than 20,000 birds, and its a boisterous bunch that nests on manmade platforms over the swamp each spring.
The grounds themselves are beautiful, crowded with sway-backed oaks and bursting with azaleas. Take a close look at the ponds as you pass through. We spotted several 4-foot alligators hiding in the green stew. We hear they like Tabasco on their humans.