The Tabasco sauce factory and Jungle Gardens (alligator pictures!)

I’ve gotten behind in blogging about my trip to Louisiana to visit Donald’s parents, back in early September. But I do keep promising to write about our visit to the Tabasco sauce factory.

Apparently, the entire world’s supply of Tabasco sauce is made in Avery Island, Louisiana (although most of the peppers are now grown in Latin America, since the climate is more stable down there). Avery Island is south of Lafayette, in the heart of Cajun country, a couple hours west of New Orleans.

Here are a few fun facts about Tabasco sauce:

1) The queen of England likes it. Or, at least someone in the royal family does. See, here’s proof:

God save the queen!

2) Tabasco sauce is made from one particular kind of pepper that seemed to be some sort of obscure Mexican heirloom variety before the founder of the company was given some plants, and started to make a seasoning sauce out of them, in the 19th century. I always thought it was made from habanero peppers. But it’s not.

Carefully guarded from wandering, pepper-snatching fingers!

3) The Tabasco company (actually, I should say the McIlhenny company) used to make a wide assortment of products, including many canned and pickled vegetables. Although you can still get a few, such as pickled okra, in the company store, most of these products are no longer made. They do, however, make a spicy Tabasco dark chocolate–not as good as some of the gourmet chili-flavored chocolate bars you can get, to be honest, but the tin is really pretty.

4) Tabasco makes 6 sauces: Original, Green (from jalapenos), chipotle, habanero, garlic pepper, and sweet & spicy. Green is a bit milder than original. Garlic pepper is even milder than that. Habanero is much hotter! Chipotle and sweet & spicy are actually less intense, and can be used directly as a steak sauce or dipping sauce. (I bought samples of all of them in the company store, except for original, because I already have some at home, and green, because I see it everywhere in the grocery store.)

5) Habanero Tabasco contains banana! I didn’t realize this before I tasted it, so I like habanero Tabasco. I don’t think you can taste the banana.

I guess there are all sorts of facts about how Tabasco sauce is made and bottled, but honestly, I didn’t find them as interesting as shopping in the company store, and these random factoids I’ve assembled. This is why I’m a blogger instead of a real journalist. Anyway, in case you’re curious, they take the peppers and mash them up with salt, and let the mash age in old whiskey barrels until it’s ready to be strained and mixed with vinegar. The salt they use comes from the Avery Island salt mine, also owned by the McIlhenny family (Tabasco is still a family-run company); Avery Island is the peak of an enormous underground mountain of rock salt that would dwarf Mt Everest if the two were lined up.

Oh, and the peppers are all hand-picked, because they haven’t been able to invent a machine that can tell when they’re properly ripe. The field workers are given a red stick, and they’re supposed to hold that next to the peppers to make sure the colors match before they pick them.

If you go on the tour, they give you a couple of very cute 1/4 oz bottles of Tabasco, one of original and one of green (you can also buy these in the company store; also the tiny bottles of the other flavors). You also get to watch a rather hagiographic 10-minute movie about the McIlhenny family and the founding of the company, but the hairstyles and clothes looked like they were from back in the 90s. Then you walk past a long window through which you can see the bottling plant.

I think my favorite part of the tour was the self-guided visit to the company store, as I’ve already hinted. In addition to the products I’ve already mentioned, I bought a Tabasco apron, because I’m always spilling food on my clothes when I cook. They have free samples of all the sauces, plus Tabasco ice cream!

If you don’t think a visit to the Tabasco company store is worth such a long drive, never fear, there’s also the Jungle Gardens! These are just down the road from the factory. I think they’re also owned by the McIlhenny Company, but I’m not 100% sure (and too lazy to Google it and find out). The Jungle Gardens are sort of an arboretum built up around a migratory bird sanctuary (lots of herons and egrets). And they have alligators!

Do you think they like to be petted?

There were initially only one or two alligators, but as we stood there taking pictures, more kept swimming over

This is the biggest alligator we saw

Donald thought that perhaps his mother and I weren’t taking the alligator threat seriously enough, but really, we were being quite careful, and keeping our distance. And we didn’t poke at them or anything.

For tourists who don't have Donald to remind them

Between Avery Island and Lafayette, they grow a lot of sugarcane. It looks like this:

Sugarcane fields on the way back from Avery Island

Hard to believe that refined white sugar comes out of these plants, isn’t it!

On the drive back, I was playing around with my camera settings a bit, and kept getting Donald to pose for pictures.

Old-fashioned Donald!

Since we were driving right through the heart of Louisiana’s Cajun country, we couldn’t leave without sampling some Cajun specialties. All along the highway, you’ll see signs advertising boudin and cracklins. Boudin is a spicy sausage made of ground pork, rice, and a bit of green pepper. Cracklins are basically fresh pork rinds, without all the preservatives that you’ll find in the ones at the convenience store.

It tastes better than it looks

Yummo, as Rachael Ray would say. Yes, those are indeed deep-fried hunks of lard.

It was a long day, but a very enjoyable trip!

On September 8th, Donald and I went to Natchez, Mississippi for the day. It was nice, but maybe not exciting enough for its own blog post. One of my main reasons for wanting to go was so I could check another state off on my “visited” list. Then on the 9th, Donald and his mother and I went to Baton Rouge, the state capital, where we saw some cool museums. On the 10th, we drove back to Houston, and stayed overnight with a friend of Donald’s from college, and her family (thanks again to Joya for hosting us!). And then on the 11th we flew back to Boston.

Okay, that was a very anti-climactic penultimate paragraph. But this has been a very long post.

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