Avery Island is best known to me as the title of a Neutral Milk Hotel album, but for most people it’s probably better known as the home of Tabasco.
I love hot sauce, all kinds of hot sauce. A quick inventory of the pantry just now produced seven different bottle of hot sauce, including one home made ghost pepper sauce. Despite that I’ve never really like Tabasco, it’s too vinegary to me. Still, people love it and it’s been made more or less the same way, by the same family, since shortly after the Civil War. That’s a longer, more storied history than any of the bottles in my pantry.
My father-in-law grew up on this area and toured Avery Island in grade school, we put the kids in his footsteps. Or sort of. Back in the fifties they let you actually go in the salt mines, today you get to walk through a Disneylandesque replica. Otherwise though I doubt much as changed. For as widely distributed, and seemingly huge as the Tabasco company seems, production is decidedly down home.
Part of the reason Tabasco is on Avery Island is that the island — which is just barely deserving of the name island — is made mostly of salt. When Tabasco was founded everything was right there, plant peppers, mine salt and you’re away.
Avery Island also happens to be one of the tallest points in southern Louisiana, sitting at 163 feet above sea level. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s allowed the structures on the island to survive over a hundred years of hurricanes. Apparently that’s changing though. Rita, which hit this area hard in 2005, flooded the marshes and much of the island, and things are getting worse every year.
The marsh that protects the island loses about 30 feet per year as saltwater from rising seas seeps in and kills off the fresh water plants. As those plants die the soil loosens and dissolves, washing out the sea. Dredging for shipping canals and oil exploration canals abandoned by the oil companies also hasten erosion of the marshes. Without the buffer of the marsh the storm surge of the more frequent and stronger storms reaches further inland, up onto the island.
The McIlhenny family has been working hard to combat the soil loss, planting cordgrass and building its own levee and pumps system, which is not uncommon down here. There’s simply too much coastline and it’s disappearing too fast for the government of Louisiana to deal with, towns and companies in the area are building their own systems. In the end nothing is going to stop the sea, some places will survive just fine, and Avery Island may well be one of them, but even the current heads of the McIlhenny family admit they might have to move someday.
In the mean time, the hot sauce is still too vinegary in my opinion, but the factory tour is well worth it, even the finished product isn’t your thing.