One of the world’s top travelers is not a person at all but a globetrotting condiment.
Tabasco, the hot pepper sauce made for 150 years on Louisiana’s Avery Island, is a familiar sight on tables and shelves in 187 countries and territories, from sushi bars in Tokyo to tapas bars in Brazil and Barcelona.
Bottled in 22 languages and dialects, it has flown into orbit with astronauts on space shuttles, gone to war in the ration-packs of soldiers from the United States, Britain and Canada and is an official supplier to the British royal household.
Over the past eight decades, the iconic condiment has appeared in TV shows and movies including “Dragnet” and the James Bond thriller, “The Man With the Golden Gun”; cartoons such as “Blondie” and even in a famous 1998 Super Bowl commercial about an exploding mosquito that graphically drilled home the point that Tabasco sauce is truly hot stuff.
I learned all of this — and tasted Tabasco-tinged ice cream and soda pop — on a visit this month to Avery Island, 23 miles south of Lafayette, the heart of Louisiana’s Cajun Country. The island, reached via toll bridge, is actually a salt dome topped with soil perfect for growing the pepper plants used in the fiery hot sauce produced by six generations of the same family. Inventor Edmund McIlhenny, a onetime New Orleans banker, packaged it in recycled cologne bottles and began commercial sales in 1868.
On the eve of Tabasco’s 150th anniversary in 2018, visitors to Avery Island may, as I did, tour the McIlhenny Company factory, dine on spicy Cajun fare at 1868 Restaurant, shop in the Tabasco Country Store and learn about the history of the pungent sauce in the Tabasco Museum.
Still produced using McIlhenny’s basic recipe, Tabasco Original Red Pepper Sauce is made of tabasco peppers that are ground into a mash and mixed with Avery Island’s natural rock salt, and, later, vinegar. The sauce is aged in white oak barrels for up to three years. And workers still use a red stick — “le petit baton rouge” — to determine when the peppers are ripe for picking.
Also on the island, travelers may visit Jungle Gardens, a 170-acre semi-tropical garden founded in 1895 by McIlhenny’s son, Ned, to help save endangered snowy egrets. In addition to “Bird City,” it’s home to live oaks draped with Spanish moss, large collections of camellias and azaleas and wildlife, including alligators, armadillos and turtles.
Events in conjunction with Tabasco’s 150th birthday celebration include a re-staging in New Orleans of “Tabasco: A Burlesque Opera,” a lighthearted production that toured for a time in the 1890s. It will be performed by the New Orleans Opera Association with guest conductor Paul Mauffray, who has doggedly resurrected the once-lost work. Performances are scheduled Jan. 25-28 at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre in the French Quarter, coinciding with New Orleans’ own year-long Tricentennial celebration in 2018. Opera tickets are available at neworleansopera.org/tabasco . For details on other New Orleans’ Tricentennial events, check http://2018nola.com/.
Find Avery Island travel information at www.tabasco.com.
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