How many pecks of peppers could an automatic pepper picker pick? This was the question the McIlhenny Company was asking a while back. The firm was having trouble finding human pickers to pick the countless pecks of peppers used to make McIlhenny's world-famous Tabasco pepper sauce. As in the strawberry fields, so in the pepper patch - stoop labor is getting hard to come by in this country. Picking peppers is particularly grilling work, not only because of the summer sun, but because the peppers are so spicy hot to the touch. Even an ''old hand,'' so to speak, needs a few days to adjust at the beginning of the season. Gloves would help, but they slow down the pickers, who are paid on a piecework basis.
All this inspired McIlhenny's to pursue development of an automatic pepper picker. The machine worked all right - in fact, the company still has a couple of prototypes around and figures it could use them in the event of a real labor crunch. But the machines couldn't compete with human pepper pickers for speed.
And so McIlhenny's decided to go abroad for its peppers - to Mexico, Honduras , and Colombia. The peppers used in Tabasco sauce, Capsicum frutescensm, are grown under the supervision of McIlhenny employees in Latin America. Only bright-red peppers are picked, since no coloring is added to the sauce. They are imported as ''mash'' into Louisiana.
Some 50 acres on Avery Island here in the lush bayou country are still under cultivation, partly to control the genetic strains. Last year the thin ranks of the ramasseursm, or pickers, were swollen somewhat by some Laotian workers. ''They worked out very well,'' comments Paul C. P. McIlhenny, company treasurer and one of four members of the McIlhenny family active in the firm.
General economic conditions have brought some newcomers to the pepper patch. ''We call them 'les ramasseurs de Reagan,'m '' Mr. McIhenny says.
The venture with the picking machine might be seen as typical of a company steeped in tradition but always on the lookout for new markets and methods.
It all began after the Civil War with Edmund McIlhenny, treasurer Paul's great-grandfather, son of a Scotch-Irish family that originally settled in Hagerstown, Md. ''Grand-pere,'' as he is known, ''was a gourmet and a gourmand, in the good sense of the word,'' his descendant says. Friends encouraged him to bottle the pepper sauce he had developed.
Early on, a case of the concoction made its way to a grocery in New York, where it was a hit; and since so many grocers in those days doubled as importer-exporters, Grand-pere'sm sauce began to work its way overseas as well.
Now Tabasco sauce is distributed through a family of brokers in nearly 100 countries around the world, some 50 million bottles a year. Foreign sales are about 40 percent of the total, and the sauce even makes it into Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and China.
In the warehouse adjacent to the smallish but efficient-looking bottling operation sit palletized cases of sauce labeled in Arabic, Finnish, Japanese. ''The Japanese are one of our best markets,'' the Cajun-accented tour guide says.
Early markets were port cities where seafood was important - New York; San Francisco; Boston; and, of course, New Orleans. Clams and raw oysters were the first comestibles to be anointed with Tabasco, but over the years people have found new applications. ''I mix it in the butter I put on steak, in salad dressing, in tunafish salad,'' says Paul McIlhenny. ''In fact, I use it in just about anything that's not a confection - something sweet.'' He is understandably pleased at the new interest in Mexican food providing America with new variations on the ground-beef theme.
It's with one eye on this development that McIlhenny's, after 114 years as a one-sauce company, has developed its new picantem sauce, a milder tomato-based sauce fired up with jalapeno peppers and Tabasco red-pepper sauce. The new product is being test marketed in southern Louisiana, Denver, and Phoenix, Ariz. Mr. McIlhenny is optimistic that it will go national next year.
But mere trends aren't the McIlhenny way. One gets the impression that nothing of substance has changed about the operation since 1868. The ancient-looking brick factory, with a distinctive peppery tang in the air, is actually just three years old, but was modeled after the plant it replaced, just a short distance up the road. ''Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose,'' Mr. McIlhenny observes - the more it changes, the more it is the same.
The red-pepper mash, with salt added, is aged for three summers in white-oak barrels - stacked three high and stored in a Quonset-hut-type shelter. Each barrel is checked for quality by company president Walter S. McIlhenny, a cousin of Paul's.
For the next stage, white distilled vinegar is added to the mash, which then soaks for four weeks in 2,000-gallon white-oak casks that look like giant versions of the smaller barrels.
After four weeks the seeds and skins are strained out. The sauce is ready for bottling, either right here at the Avery Island plant, with a capacity of some 180,000 bottles daily, or at McIlhenny plants in Canada and England, whither the sauce travels in rather prosaic-looking 55-gallon drums.
The bottle is a story in itself. Grand-perem registered not only the Tabasco name, an Indian name he just chose because he liked it, but the ''dress of goods'' - the bottle itself, the diamond-shaped label, the green neckband, the octagonal bottle cap. This image, virtually unchanged since 1868, is as much a part of McIlhenny's assets as the distinctive green bottle is of the Coca-Cola Company's. McIlhenny's retains two legal firms to police its trademark, at home and abroad. (One addition to the Tabasco-sauce packaging has been the letter ''K'' for kosher some 25 years ago, which helped boost sales in New York and Chicago.)
The diamond-shaped label identifies the company as based in New Iberia, but don't be misled: McIlhenny's is on Avery Island, and always has been. It's just that when Grand-perem wrote away to the US Patent Office and Trademark Office to register his sauce, New Iberia was the closest post office. But nowadays so many people write to McIlhenny's for recipe booklets that Avery Island, with only 400 inhabitants, has its own neat little vine-covered brick post office.