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TABASCO's Hot History

TABASCO historian Shane Bernard displays a 1940s era TABASCO bottle.
Melissa Gray, NPR News /
TABASCO historian Shane Bernard displays a 1940s era TABASCO bottle.
TABASCO sauce is mixed in large vats at the factory.
Melissa Gray, NPR News /
TABASCO sauce is mixed in large vats at the factory.
TABASCO bottles on the assembly line.
Melissa Gray, NPR News /
TABASCO bottles on the assembly line.

Leftovers are a special part of Thanksgiving, but sometimes, they're in need of a little help. A little heat, perhaps, from a product that has become as quintessentially American as turkey: TABASCO. For Morning Edition, NPR's Renee Montagne reports on the epic history of TABASCO, Louisiana's premier hot sauce.

Avery Island -- along the Gulf Coast, about 140 miles west of New Orleans -- is the home of TABASCO, in every sense. The peppers are grown here. The salt used in the sauce is mined here. Many of the factory and field workers dwell in cottages here. And the McIlhenny family -- creators of the hot sauce -- still lives here.

For historian Shane Bernard, one of the most beautiful sights on the island is a very old dump. The old McIlhenny Plantation trash heap is a treasure trove of old TABASCO bottles. And it is a genuine archeological site -- run by the University of Alabama. Bernard comes here often, in his capacity as the historian and curator of all things TABASCO and McIlhenny. Here, bottles of the 135-year-old hot sauce are the equivalent of ancient coins.

Edmund McIlhenny started his business in the late 1800s, says Paul McIlhenny, the sixth in an unbroken line of McIlhenny men to run the company.

"I think he found cologne bottles that had stoppers with sprinkler fitments in them," Paul McIlhenny says. "The sprinkler would allow something to be dispensed by the drop or the dash rather than poured on and his sauce was so concentrated that it was practical, so the legend is that he found old cologne bottles and filled them with TABASCO sauce."

Today, the factory where the hot sauce is bottled -- after aging for three years in white oak barrels -- is a thoroughly modern operation.

Elias Landrey, like many workers here, grew up on Avery Island. His father worked in the fields, his mother in the factory and now his son is working here too.

Perched on a platform alongside a vat, looking straight down into a swirling and painfully red liquid, Landrey explains to Montagne the process of creating TABASCO.

"This is a mixing vat that contains about 3,000 pounds of mash and 1,400 gallons of vinegar," he says. "What's happening now is that it's stirring it up and you can see the seeds and skins all inside of it. This vat can produce about 1,600 gallons of finished sauce."

Three of the giant vats at the factory hold more hot sauce than Edmund McIlhenny brewed in his entire lifetime.

These days, TABASCO hardly needs to advertise. It is to hot sauce what Kleenex is to tissue and Xerox is to copying. The hot sauce is shipped to 110 countries, it is on the official menu of the space shuttle and it's included in MREs -- "meals ready to eat" -- issued to soldiers overseas.

To many, it tastes like home.

But TABASCO's founder never realized the legacy he had left for his own family.

Historian Shane Bernard says that at the end of his long life, Edmund McIlhenny wrote out a sketch of what he would be remembered for -- his many accomplishments.

He devoted not a single word to TABASCO.

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