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TABASCO – Salt of the Earth

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Back in May, TABASCO released its own version of Sriracha hot sauce. Being a lover of both TABASCO and Huy Fong products, I was curious as to what the public reaction would be. Devout loyalists line either side of the field, and it’s reasonably possible to stack the coverage and reviews into neat piles assigned to one company or the other. You’re either for or against it. What caught my attention — and puzzled me — in one article was the basic rejection of the TABASCO Sriracha-style product as the move of a big corporation muscling in on a small, family-run business — despite the fact that Huy Fong is a $60 million per year business.

Sure, TABASCO’s estimated earnings are approximately $100 million plus, but this was hardly a case of the robber baron taking advantage of the hapless peasant.   “Huy Fong Foods represents the American Dream.” the article stated, only to then posit the question: “Who can resist a rags-to-riches story of a hard-working immigrant who overcame the odds and created a cult condiment?” What troubled me was the author’s bias towards one impressive rags-to-riches story over — let’s not mince words here — another equally if not more impressive rags-to-riches story. Like Huy Fong, TABASCO is the story of a man who, down on his luck, turned to a most improbable savior — a small, inexpensive bottle of hot sauce.   Even more importantly — as I found out this past March, when I was lucky enough to be asked to visit Avery Island, the home of TABASCO — it is the story of family.

There was a special poetry in the fact that I would be touching down in Lafayette and winding my way into New Iberia on the night of the True Detective finale. Due to a bit of Delta-induced delays and rerouting, I found myself piloting a rental car across this foreign land late into the evening, arriving in the heart of Cajun country under the cover of night, long after the others invited to the TABASCO Tastemakers event had gone to bed.   Having missed the opening introductions, I was determined to bound out of bed the next morning and explore this new world before the business of the day began.

With the lyrical philosophizing of Rust Cohle playing in my head — Carcosa lay just across the bayou — I explored the early morning, haze-blanketed environs of Avery Island. Unpaved roads wind off into jungles of live oaks draped in billows of Spanish moss. There’s no mistaking place on the bayou, where ghosts seem to haunt every shadow. Ghosts? Or echoes of history – from a place so solid and secure in its purpose that the passing fashions of humankind leave little trace. Here, it’s not men who define the landscape, it’s the land that defines the men. Even today, much of the McIlhenny-Avery family and approximately half of all TABASCO employees live on the 2,200 acres in modest homes tucked among the trees.

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TABASCO Headquarters, Avery Island

For our purposes, the story of the grand daddy of all pepper sauces begins several decades prior to the arrival on Avery Island — way up in Maryland, in fact, where future TABASCO founder Edmund McIlhenny was born in 1815. Edmund’s father, John, was an entrepreneurial type — politician, businessman, and most important to us, tavern owner. The point may not have significant relevance to the greater tale, but around these parts, we like a story that begins in a bar. A can-do family spirit coupled with the untimely death of his father placed Edmund into the workforce at an early age. By the age of 26, he had secured himself a position with the Bank of Louisiana in New Orleans.   Over the next two decades, McIlhenny amassed a personal estate worth more than $100,000 ($2+ million in today’s money), bought several branches of the bank for which he had once worked, and became enamored with the sporting life — a term inseparable from cocktail culture of the time.

What’s a youngish (mid-40s) rich, high-society bachelor to do next? The only possible thing: fall in love with the daughter of his close friend, Judge Daniel Dudley Avery.   It was in 1858, with Edmund at forty-three and his beloved Mary Eliza a mere twenty, that McIlhenny asked the Judge for permission to openly declare his love (not that it was any surprise to Mary Eliza). The couple was married on June 30, 1859 in Baton Rouge.   Within the next two years, they welcomed their first child, Sara, and the United States plunged into Civil War. Together, the McIlhenny and Avery families sought refuge within the Avery sugar plantation, located on an isolated bayou plain of land called Petite Anse Island — what we know today as Avery Island.

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In fifth grade social studies, we learn that the war between the States was as much about the economic implications as it was about human rights. For the South, the conflict brought embargos on many items it required for day-to-day survival. With battlefields surrounding him, Edmund could no longer keep his banks open, and he turned his attention to rock salt dome newly discovered on Avery Island. The South needed salt, and Avery Island could provide. In “Tabasco: An Illustrated History”, author Shane K. Bernard tells us, “As many as 500 teams of horses from throughout the lower South descended on the Island daily to be loaded with salt. Ironically, this activity transformed the Avery’s obscure plantation retreat into a military target.” It took a few attempts, but in April 1863, Northern troops seized the island and the salt works — just days after the McIlhennys and Averys had fled to Texas. Edmund served in the Confederate army as a civilian employee until war’s end and the family’s return to Avery Island in 1865.

While the Avery family had retained their sugarcane plantation and salt works, the war left Edmund financially ruined. In the age of cheap carpetbaggers, no one wanted to hire a middle-aged independent businessman. Dejected, Edmund consigned himself to his in-laws’ island, tending the garden, which included growing pepper seeds he had obtained in New Orleans from a soldier freshly returned from Mexico. Of course, we can guess where the story goes next: Edmund devised a pepper sauce for the family table.   Using discarded cologne bottles, he began to share the sauce with friends and was soon urged to market it locally. It was in 1868 that Edmund McIlhenny grew his first commercial pepper crop on Avery Island. By 1889, he was producing 41,472 bottles.

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Edmund died in 1890, leaving his widow and children a Tabasco operation worth little more than $14,000 — a far cry from the  vast estate he once boasted. Fortunately — as is too often not the case — the McIlhenny family saw the value in what their patriarch had created. First under the guidance of dashing eldest son, John, who served in Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, then under arctic explorer and second son Edward, the children of Edmund grew their father’s little pepper sauce business into a global phenomenon.   Since its inception nearly 150 years ago, the “One Drop Works Wonders” pepper sauce has seen only seven company presidents — each one of them a member of the McIlhenny-Avery family — and production has grown from 658 bottles in 1869 to over 750,000-per-day today.

While, over the years, TABASCO certainly hasn’t shied away from extending its brand – via direct production, partnership, or licensing – to everything from “spicy” oysters and okra to jelly beans and ice cream – the focus of our visit was the core seven varieties of pepper sauce – Original Red, Green, Chipotle, Buffalo, Habañero, Garlic, and Sweet & Spicy. We sat down with current CEO and Chairman of the Board, Tony K. Simmons for a tasting, which also included the limited Family Reserve, made from select peppers and aged for up to eight years.   Simmons possesses the relaxed air of a man who, were he not part of the McIlhenny-Avery dynasty, might run the athletics department at LSU. A solid, capable constitution seems to be a hallmark of the TABASCO men.

A great-great-grandson of Edmund McIlhenny, Simmons is the seventh member of the family to run the business, having assumed the mantle in 2013 following the death of Paul C.P. McIlhenny.   We’re told that teenage family members have a relatively open door to work for the business, assuming that there are openings and, more importantly, they pull their weight. TABASCO offers opportunity but no free rides. Indeed, Simmons worked his way to the top in other industries prior to returning to the fold. When he steps down, cousin Harold “Took” Osborn has already been tapped to assume leadership. A graduate of University of Louisiana at Lafayette as well as Oxford University, Osborn began his tenure with TABASCO working summers in the salt mine prior to returning in 1999 to oversee agricultural operations, processing, new product development, international sale, and sustainability efforts.

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Lunch with Chairman and CEO Tony K. Simmons (second from right) at the TABASCO Deli, Avery Island

Across the generations, the theme has been the same – family first but not at the expense of the business. TABASCO knows that to survive it must grow and innovate while fiercely maintaining the honesty of the core products. Hence, the introduction of the Sriracha sauce. If a pepper sauce company can’t respond to trends in the marketplace, how can it be expected to survive? TABASCO has done more than survive over the past century-and-a-half; it has defined the market category.   All this from a base of three simple ingredients – red peppers, vinegar, and locally-mined salt.

It’s from the fundamental importance of Avery Island salt that today’s recipe takes its inspiration. (Full disclosure: in exchange for the opportunity to visit TABASCO headquarters, we agreed to produce four recipes and were compensated to do so.) Among the samples the company sent us post-visit was TABASCO Spicy Salt, which combines Avery Island salt with ground dried pepper mash. In a cocktail, as in cooking, salt provides a binder typically delivered by bitters but also a savory note which cannot be achieved through typical mixological ingredients. Here, the salt combines with the port to produce an almost salted caramel effect.   The sirop de citron, if you’re not familiar, is a simple maceration of lemon slices in sugar. It takes a few days to achieve full potency – you want the bitter qualities to extract along with the bright – but the rewards far outweigh the minimal effort. And, of course, there’s a small kick at the end from the TABASCO.

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It’s amazing what a bit of salt can do – in a cocktail or in life. That’s certainly been the case for the McIlhenny-Avery family. The ubiquity of TABASCO products makes it easy for us to overlook the fact that one enterprising family maintains tireless stewardship over such a large global brand – always willing to change and adapt as needed but never taking its eye off the core honestly and values.

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