Tabasco Town: An American Snapshot

You know the old joke -- someone slips Tabasco sauce into a food item someone else is about to sip or sample. It could be Jackie Gleason with a sandwich he will soon bite into by mistake, or any number of cartoon animals using the hot sauce in their pranks, such as Bugs Bunny in the cartoon "French Rarebit" 57 years ago or a mouse in "Bye Bye Bluebeard," dating back 59 years. The red face, the throbbing tongue -- you always know what the reaction will be.

Long ago, a jingle described Tabasco as "special seasoning." Place emphasis on "long ago," since it seems the sauce, brand and bottle have been around forever and everywhere.

But it does comes from somewhere, which is a story in itself.

American Snap Shot
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It all started 140 years ago on a hot, humid farm field on Avery Island, in a remote part of Louisiana, where a businessman planted some pepper seeds. The McIhennys, the family that has owned the farm for five generations, are still making Tabasco right there in old wooden barrels -- and the island has hardly changed since then, too.

"This is where the whole Tabasco process starts," said Harold "Took" Osborn, a great-great grandson of the first Tabasco maker, from the family-owned company. "The more we do it the old-fashioned way, the better the sauce is. We receive the mash, it's ground up, mixed with salt and it's put into these bourbon barrels."

This is not a museum demonstration, it's the real thing.

"This is how you taste mash," Took said. "You can take your finger; you get about this and you put it in your mouth. And you have to spit it out [or not], but I would recommend you spit it out."

Took's advice should not be taken lightly. This mash can be hot.

The air is full of the fragrance of 100 grain vinegar, and it's very hard to breathe without coughing.

"This is the actual finished sauce over here. It's ready to go," said Took, as he pointed to large vats of the spicy concoction. "This is about 1,700 gallons of Tabasco sauce ready to be bottled."

These 700,000 bottles a day travel all over the world. The language on the label is adjusted for the destination, and every now and then, a bottle comes back, such as a perfectly intact 19th-century vintage Tabasco bottle found in an attic in rural New York.

"You'd think there's got to be a finite amount of Tabasco artifacts to collect, but it never stops," said Tabasco's official historian, Shane Bernard, showing off a variety of bottles from different places and times.

"This is sheet music from the burlesque opera of Tabasco," said Bernard, brandishing another piece of Tabasco history, music from a traveling, Broadway show-type musical that sang the praises of Tabasco sauce.

But the most delicate of all these "artifacts" is Edmond McIlhenny's original recipe from 1868.

"Here's his original right here," said Bernard as he held up the broken-in recipe. "It actually tells us an awful lot about how Tabasco was made back then. But it wasn't very scientific."

It did, however, work. And for Paul McIlhenny, the current CEO, the job is to make sure it keeps working.

When asked if he thought that in 140 years from now, in 2150 or so, that there would be a McIlhenny standing where he stood, talking about Tabasco, Paul McIlhenny said, "There will be someone. They'll have that blood coursing through their veins and want that hot and spicy food ... and wanting to share it with the world."

We told him that we tasted the mash.

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