THE narrow-necked bottles with green-foil bands and red octagonal caps sit in nearly every American kitchen cupboard. But few people know the story behind the ubiquitous condiment.
Created here in southern Louisiana more than 125 years ago, Tabasco pepper sauce is still produced by the same family in much the same way.
``We really haven't tampered with the formula for making Tabasco sauce,'' says Paul McIlhenny, great-grandson of Tabasco's creator and vice-president of McIlhenny Co. ``When you find a winner, you don't want to crowd it.''
Edmund McIlhenny, a Louisiana banker and gardening enthusiast, created this fiery concoction through patient experimentation. In 1848, an American returning from the Mexican-American War gave Mr. McIlhenny some pepper seeds. He planted them on Avery Island, 2,300 acres of high ground sitting on a salt dome above the swampland and bayous of southern Louisiana.
The pepper plants, later identified as Capsicum frutescnes, survived the devastation of the Civil War. So McIlhenny began using the peppers to spice up the routine food of the Reconstruction South. He mashed the ripe, bright red peppers with salt mined on Avery Island, aged the mixture in wooden barrels, and added vinegar before straining. The sauce was poured into his wife's slim-necked French cologne bottles and sealed with green wax.
Before long, everybody was talking about ``the wonderful sauce Mr. McIlhenny makes.'' In 1868, he sent 350 bottles to ``selected wholesalers'' across the country and received orders for thousands of bottles the next year.
McIlhenny chose the trademark name Tabasco because he liked the sound of it, says his great-grandson. ``It's a Central American Highlands term describing the land,'' he adds.
Today, Tabasco is sold in more than 100 countries and labels are printed in 19 languages. More than 100 million bottles were sold last year. But the product is still produced on Avery Island and contains nothing other than peppers, salt, and distilled vinegar.
The privately held company has 10 family members on the board of directors and nearly 100 shareholders. Three McIlhenny descendants are involved in day-to-day operations.
``It's a hands-on thing for this family,'' says salesman Mike Morris. ``They run their own operation.''
Few concessions have been made to the modern era. Peppers are still picked by hand and processed the same day. But less than 10 percent of the pepper crop can be grown on Avery Island today. ``This is really just our seed crop now,'' Mr. McIlhenny says. Seeds are sent to several Central and South American countries to be grown by local farmers and shipped back to Avery Island as pepper mash. The mash is aged for three years in white oak barrels with a layer of Avery Island salt on top to provide a protective crust.
Inside the factory, workers roll out a group of 400-pound barrels filled with three-year-old mash ready for final processing. The pungent smell of vinegar and peppers permeates the air, causing visitors to cough and sputter. ``Some days it's stronger than ever,'' Mr. Morris says.
Before each batch of mash is mixed with premium-grade vinegar, McIlhenny personally inspects it. ``It is very rare that I reject a barrel these days,'' he says. But ``we'll discard the whole batch if it doesn't meet his standards,'' Morris adds.
McIlhenny uses an incandescent light to examine the color of the aged mash. ``I think I could do it blindfolded,'' he says. ``The aroma is key. But we're looking for color and moisture too.''
Once the mash is blended with distilled white vinegar (the company uses 5,000 to 10,000 gallons of vinegar every day), it is pumped into huge wooden vats and stirred frequently for nearly a month. It wasn't until the 1970s that the McIlhennys mechanized this process. Before that, employees moved from vat to vat with huge stirring spoons.
After it is thoroughly blended, the sauce is strained to remove the seeds and skins and then piped to the bottling lines where it is packed for distribution worldwide.
On the other side of the factory, boxes of Tabasco are stacked high, marked with such diverse destinations as Hong Kong, Puerto Rico, and Austria. ``Japan has been our No. 1 export market for at least 20 years,'' McIlhenny says. ``It leads the pack dramatically.
Very little goes to waste here on Avery Island. The pepper pulp and seeds are used in crab boil, a blend of spices put into water before boiling crab and other seafood. Pharmaceutical houses also buy the pepper seeds and extract the oil for use in drugs and red-hot candies. The United States Navy paints pepper oil on the bottom of its ships to keep the barnacles off, Morris says.
In fact, Tabasco sauce itself has a long tradition of military service. ``I think my great-uncle John took it to the Spanish-American War where he fought with Teddy Roosevelt,'' McIlhenny says. Tabasco was sent out to the soldiers during World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. ``The troops would ask us to send some to spice up their field rations, and we always did,'' McIlhenny says.
In the late 1980s, the military began including miniature bottles of Tabasco sauce in the MRE (meals-ready-to-eat) packets used in the field. ``We produced 10 million to 50 million bottles a year [for the military] at the peak,'' McIlhenny says. ``During Desert Storm, soldiers would send back bottles with sand and say, `Thank you for saving my meals.' ''
After many years of operating as a single-product company, McIlhenny Co. began slowly extending its line two decades ago. The expansion has grown more intense in the past few years. ``It looks like it's been an explosion of things, but it's really been a little more gradual than that,'' says McIlhenny over lunch. ``We have about 50 different food items now. That's still not a lot of products by the standards of some companies.''
But there's enough diversity to keep McIlhenny busy mixing sauces together throughout lunch. He concocts one sauce for the fried crawfish appetizer - ``the mudbug of Louisiana,'' as he calls it. Another mixture works well for the catfish.
Several new marinades and a habaneros sauce are planned for the near future. And a new jalapeno sauce is already in the roll-out phase. ``There are still a lot of people who are afraid of heat and spices,'' McIlhenny says. ``The jalapeno sauce is a milder sauce to try to bring more people into the fold.''
Of course, in the McIlhenny family the original Tabasco sauce is good enough for just about anything. ``My grandfather even put Tabasco in his Coca-Cola,'' McIlhenny confesses.
But what happens to family members who can't take the heat? ``We keep 'em chained to an oak tree,'' McIlhenny replies.