Somewhere miles deep underground the dried salt remnant of an ancient sea is being squeezed by the unimaginable weight of the Mississippi delta building up above. All the loose mud from Ohio and Minnesota ends up washed downstream, piles up, and presses down. The salt becomes a sort of geological fluid and globs rise like pale columns in a crystalline subterranean lava lamp – reaching miles up until they almost burst forth under the starry sky.
One of these salt domes sits under Avery Island – pushing the land upwards above the surrounding sea-level flatness. It is truly an island – a disk-shaped protuberance rising above… not the trackless sea but the feckless swamp – a bit of dry, elevated land looking down on the miasma and the bog.
The salt dome rises and bears a number of gifts. There is the salt itself – mined or boiled from springs for centuries with only a short break when the saltwork was captured by Union troops during the Great War Between the States (as it is known in these here parts). There is the gift of petroleum – oil is dragged along and concentrated by the rising column until, like Spindletop to the west, a forest of derricks sprout up sucking at the black gold.
And finally, there is the gift of high, dry farmland – rich and fertile. The Avery Island Plantation could grow pretty much any crop and – luckily for us – they chose a unique crop, grown from seed brought back from Central and South America… Hot Peppers.
For Pepperheads and fans of spicy food Avery Island is capsaicin ground zero and a visit there, at least once during a lifetime, is a necessary pilgrimage – a hot sauce Hajj.
Avery Island is the home and only manufacturing facility of the McIlhenny Company – the maker of Tabasco Pepper Sauce. Every little red bottle – somewhere around 750,000 bottles a day – are made on Avery Island.
We were going to drive back to Dallas from Lafayette, about a seven hour drive, but I wanted to go see the McIlhenny Tabasco factory on Avery Island first so we drove south instead and, after a couple of wrong turns, crossed the little wooden toll bridge (one dollar per car) onto the complex of green hills atop the salt dome.
The first thing you notice when driving up to the factory is the smell. It is wonderful. It’s not a hot, painful tear-gas like capsaicin reaction like you might expect, but a mellow, complex warm feeling that envelops the whole complex. First, we took a tour of the factory. You get a lecture; watch a film, then walk past the filling lines behind a glass wall. It was a Sunday, so the filling lines weren’t running, which was fine with me – I’ve seen plenty of food filling equipment filling food in my day. It was good enough to be standing behind the glass looking at the place where all the goodness happens.
At the end of the tour was a little museum with facts about Tabasco Pepper Sauce. I already knew most of it, having seen it on the How It’s Made television show. The most amazing thing about Tabasco is that the ground up peppers are aged in second-hand whisky barrels and allowed to ferment for three years before being mixed with vinegar, blended, and bottled. The barrels are covered with a layer of Avery Island salt while they age. Ground peppers (the seeds are developed on Avery Island, though the peppers are grown in Latin America), water, salt, and vinegar… that’s it.
To help the pepper pickers pick the perfect peppers they are given le petit baton rouge – a little red stick. This is painted the color of a perfectly ripe Tabasco pepper.
Then we walked across to the Tabasco Country store and bought our share of touristy knick-knacks and hot sauce products. I looked long and hard at the gallon jugs of hot sauce with the plastic pumps – and was able to resist the siren song. They had a sampling table with all the different flavors, including one I have never seen before – a chipotle raspberry sauce (I bought a bottle). There is no reference to this chipotle raspberry Tabasco anywhere – it’s a bit gimmicky, but it tastes good.
They also had spicy cola, two flavors of ice cream, and anything else you can imagine – plus a few you can’t. Candy bought some stuff for Nick (he loves Tabasco) and a bag of cooking wood made from their broken fermenting barrels.
One odd thing I did buy was a big ziplock plastic bag of pure pepper mash. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it, but it makes every room smell wonderful.
I took a walk around and snapped a few pictures, like a good tourist. Down at the end of the factory were some long brick buildings – these must be some of the fermenting warehouses where the sauce ages for three years in those oak barrels because the odor wafting out of the vents was unbelievably wonderful. One must have been the Chipotle warehouse because I could detect a smoky note in the air.
We had planned on stopping by a tony Cajun restaurant north of Lafayette on the way home, but there was a little trailer set up next to the country store selling red beans, rice, and sausage from crock pots. Of course, there was a large selection of spicy condiments available for testing.
I doubt the expensive restaurant had anything on the five dollar foam cup of red beans that I gobbled down with dabs of at least seven different Tabasco sauces on different nibbles.
There is a lot more to Avery Island – the Jungle Gardens and the Bird City went unvisited by us. We had a long drive ahead and couldn’t tarry. I’ll be back though, to smell that smell and explore some more. Once is not enough.