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3-course: Shane K. Bernard, Tabasco historian

The hot sauce company celebrates its 150th anniversary

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Tabasco is celebrating its 150th birthday this year. The hot pepper sauce invented on Avery Island now is sold in more than 185 countries. Historian Shane Bernard has worked for the company for 25 years and spoke with Gambit about Tabasco.

What was the earliest reference to Tabasco?

Bernard: We use 1868 as the founding date of the company because that's when Edmund McIlhenny incurred his startup costs and also when he grew his first full crop of peppers. Edmund had previously worked as a banker for the Bank of Louisiana in New Orleans. ... He kept meticulous records by nature, and that's how we know what his start-up costs were.

  About three or four years ago, one of the elder members of the McIlhenny family passed away, and his children found a notebook with some handwritten notes. They brought it to me, and I said that's Edmund's McIlhenny's handwriting. It contained the earliest known reference to Tabasco sauce, dated Jan. 18, 1868. That is actually before the commercial product. He was referring to it as something made for the family table.

  They did not have a name (for the pepper used) at the time. (Edmund McIlhenny) called it the Tabasco pepper after the sauce, but there were a lot of things being exported from the central Gulf coast of Mexico that were called Tabasco peppers. ... So it seems to have been a vague term until Edmund said, "My pepper is the Tabasco pepper." It wasn't until the 1950s that it received a formal Latin name, which is Capsicum frutescens.

How did the sauce become popular?

B: Edmund began asking grocers he knew in New Orleans, New Iberia (Louisiana) and Galveston (Texas) to carry the product. He started out very small.

  Oysters were kind of the staple of everyday food back then. There were a lot of places called oyster saloons, and so Edmund got Tabasco in a lot of those saloons because Tabasco naturally complimented the oysters. It seems that by the 1890s, Tabasco had become a household word.

  The earliest exports are from early 1873-1874 to France and England. There are occasional references to it being found in places like Himalayan foothills of India in the 1880s and on the upper Nile in Egypt in the 1890s and also in Shanghai and on the west coast of Africa around 1900. Who knows how the sauce got there, because we weren't exporting directly to those places at that time. It wasn't until after World War II that we really began to make a concerted effort to open up new markets for it overseas and begin advertising in non-English languages.

Will coastal erosion and land loss in Louisiana affect Avery Island and Tabasco production?

B: It's a concern, but it's not an immediate concern. We were hit by (Hurricane) Rita. I think it was an 11-foot storm surge that swept around the island. It flooded the perimeter of the island, which includes the pepper fields. But of all the sauce we make, only about 1 or 2 percent of it comes from the pepper fields on the island. Those fields are used mainly as seed stock that we send to Central and South America and also to Africa, and it's the peppers grown there that are primarily used in making the sauce.

  We built a 17-foot levee around the low side of the factory. Our major concern is that the state highway leading to the island will flood.

  The McIlhennys have been working for decades to do what they can to stop this coastal erosion, with things like planting grass, planting cypress trees and teaming up with groups like the (National) Audubon Society and local landowners to do what they can to minimize the loss of coastal land.

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