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Mar. 28, 2017 #12-86 a2z
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Tabasco's new museum, factory tour, restaurant.

Jackie Sheckler Finch 
Small Newspaper Group


Back in the 1860s, Edmund McIlhenny was a prosperous Louisiana banker. He also was a food lover and an avid gardener.

When he was given some pepper seeds from Mexico or North America, McIlhenny sowed the gift at his Avery Island property. McIlhenny had no idea what would sprout would change his future — and spice up cuisine for generations to come.

What McIlhenny did with his peppers was invent a popular hot sauce he named Tabasco, a Mexican-Indian word meaning "land where the soil is hot and humid." Today, McIlhenny's descendants still create Tabasco on Avery Island, and visitors now have even more reasons to visit the historic home place. In February, a new Tabasco visitor center, museum, factory tour and restaurant were unveiled to the delight of pepper sauce devotees.

"As soon as I heard about the new things, I knew I had to come," said Melinda Anderson, of Baton Rouge, La. "My family has used Tabasco for years, and I wanted to see how it is made and to eat in the new restaurant."

Plus, Anderson added, "I've got a long list of things I'm supposed to buy from the Tabasco store to take back home."

Standing outside the factory, Anderson and I appreciatively sniffed the spicy aroma filling the air, chatting about the facilities and what an inventive man McIlhenny must have been. Crushing the reddest peppers from his blooming plants, McIlhenny mixed them with Avery Island salt and aged the mixture for 30 days in crocks and barrels. He then blended in some French white wine vinegar and aged another 30 days.

After straining the mixture, he put it in small cast-off cologne bottles with sprinkler tops. McIlhenny didn't want his special sauce poured on food. He wanted it sprinkled for maximum appreciation. Then, he corked the bottles, sealed them with green wax and gave his creation to family and friends. Back then, food was rather bland and folks were quite happy to have McIlhenny's sauce to jazz it up.

After the Civil War, McIlhenny needed a new job in the Reconstruction South. Seeing that his Capsicum peppers were thriving, he decided to sell his sauce. Ordering thousands of new cologne bottles from a New Orleans glassworks, McIlhenny was soon in business. To this day, the company is still a fifth-generation, family-owned company operated on the very same site.

A staple of Southern culinary culture

The new facilities were created to share the Tabasco story and to help visitors have an enjoyable experience, said Angie Schaubert, senior manager of brand sales at McIlhenny Company.

"We wanted to show visitors and Tabasco fans how McIlhenny Company and its surrounding region in Southern Louisiana are intertwined, how Tabasco Sauce has impacted the culinary culture throughout history, and give visitors an up-close look into the production process from seed to bottle in celebration of nearly 150 years on Avery Island," Schaubert said.

The Tabasco home welcomes more than 100,000 visitors a year from around the world, Schaubert said. A good place to start a visit is the new visitors center with its accompanying museum featuring rare McIlhenny family artifacts and videos. What impressed me was how active the McIlhennys were in America's military and how supportive they have always been of those who serve our nation in the armed forces.

"Several McIlhenny family members served in the military, including John A. McIlhenny who joined the Rough Riders in 1898 and Walter S. McIlhenny who served during World War II as a Marine soldier," Schaubert said. "Before the military adopted MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), Walter S. McIlhenny published the Charley Ration Cookbook and sent out thousands of copies, each wrapped around a two-ounce bottle of Tabasco Sauce in a special waterproof canister to help U.S. soldiers in Vietnam improve and liven up their meals. … Tabasco Sauce is still available in MREs today."

After the museum, take a factory tour. Through the use of large windows and printed signs, visitors can watch Tabasco being made and bottled. Walk through the greenhouse to see peppers growing on small plants. Peek in the mixing area and barrel warehouse where pepper mash is aged three years. A favorite photo spot is a row of huge Tabasco bottles where even tall visitors seem dwarfed.

Stop by the Country Store for all things Tabasco, including complimentary taste samples like Tabasco ice cream (which was surprisingly good), as well as Tabasco ties, boxer shorts and branded cookware.

Taste the Tobasco

With all that walking and shopping, a welcome spot is the new restaurant 1868 — so named for Tabasco's founding year. Big wooden trays on each table hold bottles of Tabasco for diners to spice to their hearts' content. With its lengthy menu (each dish contains Tabasco) printed on signs over the serving line, 1868 offers a chance to enjoy the mouth-watering sauce we have been tracing through its history.

"We wanted to provide visitors with the flavor of Cajun cuisine by offering authentic regional Louisiana favorites, including crawfish etouffee, red beans and rice, crawfish corn maque choux, and boudin, and show visitors how to incorporate the different flavors of Tabasco Sauce into various foods," Schaubert said.

As he headed out of the restaurant, I heard one man say he is going to return just to eat in 1868. Sounds like a tasty plan to me. I'd like to return sometime as well.

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