In 1868, in the remote backwater reaches of south Louisiana’s Avery Island, Edmund Mcllhenny invented Tabasco Sauce. While no one is sure how or why he came up with his proprietary elixir, the iconic company is now in its 6th generation of family ownership. Taking us down dark Louisiana bayous, historian Shane Bernard colorfully describes the Mcllehennys as businessmen, hunters and conservationists, telling amazing stories about the remote region; nutria rats, bears, plume hunting, duck hunting, bird sanctuaries, bird banding and much more. You’d have never thought so much goodness could fit into a tiny condiment bottle!
The Absolute End of the World
Why Avery Island?
Ramsey Russell: And welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere, way down south in Louisiana on Avery Island. Put you on a map it’s near New Iberia. Avery Island is owned by the McIlhenny and Avery and the claim to fame which I find extremely synonymous with Louisiana culture and history is Tabasco Sauce. Joining me today is Mr. Shane Bernard. Shane, how are you?
Shane Bernard: I’m fine. Thanks for having me on.
Ramsey Russell: Well, I’m proud to be here walking around the historical archives building and I mean, we’re here in the library and all these hundreds of books were formerly owned by McIlhenny themselves and all the hunting and fishing and nature and military, it’s very telling already about who they were as people. Shane, who are you and what do you do here?
Shane Bernard: Well, I grew up in Lafayette about a 30 minute drive from Avery Island, never really came here much as a kid, maybe once. But I was in the right place at the right time when McIlhenny Company decided almost 30 years ago to hire a historian and curator to set up an archives here on the island because they didn’t have one and I’ve been here ever since. Actually, at first it was supposed to just be a 3 to 6 month job and next year I will have been here 30 years. And for a historian, it’s a dream job because I’m looking at a lot of documents and artifacts that other people have not looked at in generations. A lot of historians deal with papers that other historians or other scholars have gone through previously, but I deal with pristine documents and artifacts, things that haven’t been handled for generations, maybe over a century and have been forgotten about.
Ramsey Russell: That’s incredible. I start the conversation with this. Why Avery Island? Why here at what historically was the absolute end of the world? Why here? What happened here? What was going on here? Why Avery Island?
Tabasco Across the Globe
And now we’re in 193 countries and territories around the world and we bottle, it’s all bottled here on the island and we label the bottles and the cartons in 35 languages and dialects, I don’t remember if it’s 25 or 35, let’s say 25.
Shane Bernard: Well, this was above all else. A sugar plantation from the early 1800s to around 1925. And in fact, Tabasco, although it had become a household word in the US by around World War I, let’s say, circa 1918, it was not a huge money making business by any means and really did not become such until, after World War II. In fact, it’s a family owned company but there were no dividends being paid during the depression to family members, it just wasn’t making enough money. And suddenly after World War II it became an international product. And that’s not to say you couldn’t find it in some far flung places before World War II, but after World War II, the family really for the first time, made a concerted effort to introduce Tabasco sauce around the world. And now we’re in 193 countries and territories around the world and we bottle, it’s all bottled here on the island and we label the bottles and the cartons in 35 languages and dialects, I don’t remember if it’s 25 or 35, let’s say 25. And I’m blanking right now on how much it is, but it’s somewhere between 25 and 35 languages and dialects and it goes out all over the world.
Ramsey Russell: And still I’ll show up at a camp somewhere, especially in a country that’s known for bland food, not picking on Canada and clients, when they’re unpacking, they go to the room when they come, they’ll walk in towards the kitchen or to the table and they’ll have Tabasco sauce with them, who’s going to eat scrambled eggs without Tabasco sauce? Not down here. But let’s go back before just a little bit before Tabasco sauce. Why Avery Island? Why did the McIlhenny end up in Avery Island, what was it about here and when?
Shane Bernard: I had mentioned that this was a sugar plantation, it was owned by the Avery family into which a banker from New Orleans named Edmund McIlhenny married and when he lost his banking business during or shortly after the Civil War because of all the destruction and the ruin of the South’s economy, he found himself unemployed living on Avery Island under his in-laws roof, he had formerly lived in a house he rented on Rampart Street in New Orleans and he didn’t like the fact that he had to depend on his in-laws. He’s a very proud man, he had come from a middle class background, his father was a tavern keeper in Hagerstown, Maryland, but he had become very wealthy through his own labor and then had lost it all during the war. And it was on the island that he began to tinker with making a pepper sauce for family and friends, eventually, they said to him, look, you don’t have a job, why don’t you make this your job? We love how this tastes, why don’t you try to sell it, you know people in New Orleans and in Galveston and elsewhere along the Gulf coast and maybe you could make a go. Remember, he’s in his 50s and he’s always been in the financial business, he didn’t know anything about planting or food production, manufacturing and we know he was successful, but he didn’t know that he was going to be successful. So he gave it a go and it worked. He was not an overnight success as a pepper sauce manufacturer nor was the brand itself an overnight success, it took a lot of effort on his part over decades. He started making the sauce commercially in 1868 died in 1890, but his children realized he had built something they could expand on –
Ramsey Russell: Firstly, 3 years after the civil war, that’s when he started, he went commercial with this. Does anybody know why or was he just bored? Why he started making a pepper sauce, where he got the peppers?
The History of Tabasco
Shane Bernard: We’re not exactly sure. If I could go back in time and interview him that would be one of the maybe top three questions I would ask him. Those questions would be, where did you get the pepper? Where did you get the recipe? And why pepper sauce at all? How did you even come up with this idea of doing that? And there is a family tradition that may or may not be true that Edmund during that time when he was virtually bankrupt and depending on his in-laws for the welfare, not only of himself but of his wife and their newborn daughter, this is around 1865, 1866 that he tended the family garden because he had a green thumb, that’s how he earned his keep was to tend the family garden. We have his garden record keeping books, showing how much cauliflower he was growing and cabbage and that sort of thing. Well, supposedly, red peppers were among those vegetables and he used them to make a pepper sauce because peppers spoil pretty quickly after you pick them. But if you put them in vinegar and a little bit of salt, they preserve, he did put some up whole but he also mashed them and it’s the method of mashing the peppers and mixing it with salt and vinegar that is involved in making the Tabasco sauce that we all know. So at the very beginning, he sold the sauce and he sold whole pickled peppers too, but it’s the sauce that really caught on. And if there had been no civil war, I’m convinced there would have been no Tabasco sauce because he would have no reason to experiment with making a pepper sauce for family and friends, which then he began to sell commercially after a couple of years, he would have just presumably continued in the banking business. We know he went to New Orleans right after the Civil War to find work in someone else’s financial business and no one wanted to hire him probably because they could hire someone much younger, willing to work for a lot less, all these northern carpet baggers coming into New Orleans, after the war rather than a 50 something year old, former independent banker and it was out of desperation that he came up with Tabasco sauce.
Ramsey Russell: Describe what Avery Island might have been like when he came over here? And maybe even what it was like when the Avery showed up preceding. Were the Avery is the first people to set up shop over here and they were growing sugar cane? Is that how humanity ended up here?
The Avery Island Salt Draw
That’s why humanity came here because of salt?
Shane Bernard: Well, I often like to say when I give tours, if you can imagine – well, if you think we’re out in the middle of nowhere now, you can imagine how isolated this place must have seemed in the 19th century because up until the 1880s, the only way to get to this region from New Orleans, there was no railroad even yet, you had to take a steamboat. You would get on a steamboat at New Orleans, go up the Mississippi, either divert west into Bayou Plaquemines and through the Atchafalaya Basin that way or you can go up and over the Atchafalaya and down, well, either way you end up in the Atchafalaya River, one of the most turbulent rivers in the US that takes you to a different river called the lower Atchafalaya River that takes you to the mouth of Bayou Teche, you go up the Teche 75 miles to New Iberia, last 10 miles would be by horse and wagon. But conversely, that’s how Tabasco sauce was getting the market in the opposite direction. And it was being shipped by steamboat from New Iberia to New Orleans and that trip, whether you’re going from New Orleans to the island or the other way around by steamboat was a 5 day journey roughly and eventually in the 1880s, the railroad came through this area early 1900 highways. Yeah. So this was, as I mentioned, a sugar plantation, there were enslaved people here up until the end of the Civil War. There were two plantations here on the island at the end of the Civil War, there was the Avery plantation on the south side and the Hayes plantation on the north side, the Hayes are an unrelated family. Eventually, the Avery bought the Hayes property in 1869. But according to the census, almost exactly 175 enslaved people here on the island and we know an awful lot about them, we may not know their names necessarily and for some of them we do. But this is part of what I study here on the island, just anybody and everybody connected with the island and it’s history. So you were asking, when did the first people come here? We know that there were humans here 4500 years ago because there’s an Indian mound on the island that’s been radiocarbon data. There are 52 state registered archaeological sites on the island, most of them prehistoric and they’re recognized because they have an extremely rich concentration of, say, Native American pottery or Native American projectile points, which is just a fancy way of saying arrowheads and spear tips. So we have a collection of about 250 arrowheads and spear tips that have been found here on the island over the years and from the styles from the way they’re made, we can tell it was different native American cultures that were here just like the pottery, different Native American cultures make different styles of pottery. So it wasn’t just one tribe or anything like that.
Ramsey Russell: Talk about that pottery. Did I hear that a lot of that pottery they were finding was how Native America stored salt because there’s salt mines here. And that’s what got me thinking about Avery Island is the fact that I think somebody was telling me that this is a kind of a strategic point out here in the middle of nowhere as you describe getting here just for somebody to get here was a big deal in the Civil War because of the salt reserves.
Shane Bernard: That’s right. Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: That’s why humanity came here because of salt?
Shane Bernard: Yeah. We think that and I’ve heard in archaeologists discussed this that he said, he wouldn’t have wanted to be here during the last ice age because there was apparently a large concentration of giant extinct animals here, not dinosaurs, but bison, giant ground sloth, mastodon, mammoth, maybe saber tooth tigers, I’ve heard dire wolves and dire bears. And we think that this and we know this because of the fossils found on the island, we think that these large animals were drawn to the island because of the salt licks here on the island, the salt springs that in turn attracted Native Americans who came to hunt the animals and who like the animals discovered the solid rock, sorry, not the solid rock salt yet, but the briny spring water coming out of the ground and began to make pottery on site, boil it to extract the salt, when they break a pot, they just throw aside and make a new one. So, what we have here on the island is lots and lots of their litter, but it’s archaeologically invaluable, it’s extremely informative about what was going on 500 to 1500 years ago. So I mentioned there were Native Americans here 4500 years ago, that’s pre pottery. We only know they were here because they built that mound and there are remnants of fires that and wood charcoal in there that can be radiocarbon date, the pottery shows up about 1000 years ago and continues up until about 500 years ago. We think that these Native Americans were coming here seasonally, we don’t think that they lived here, but they came here seasonally to extract the salt and take it back to wherever they came from and to trade it up the Mississippi Valley for things they didn’t have here like rocks to make arrowheads and spear tips because you actually do find a fair amount of rocks here on the island, I don’t know if they’re the right kind for making spear tips and things like that. But otherwise in South Louisiana you don’t find a whole lot of rocks, it’s just dirt. And really archaeologists have just barely scratched the surface doing studies here on the island. I know since I’ve been here in the past 30 years we’ve done maybe 6 archaeological digs on the island, some historic – well, actually, they’ve all been historic. But before I came here, Harvard excavated here doing a prehistoric dig, University of Alabama excavated here, Louisiana State University, University of Louisiana Lafayette, they’ve all excavated here.
Ramsey Russell: I’m circling back around about those hot peppers, where those peppers come from. And I learned just recently in another conversation about Louisiana culture that, coastal Louisiana has a rich pirate history. And those pirates were trading out there to the Dominicans and likely bouncing down South American coast, they dealt in enslaved folks, I’m just trying to make a connection somehow or another, I’m just going to throw a dart in the dark and say hot peppers ended up down here had something to do with Jean Lafitte type.
Shane Bernard: Well, there are a lot of Jean Lafitte stories in this area, including those associated with Avery Island and also with New Iberia right up the road and Jefferson Island where they did find some coins and I always take Jean Lafitte’s stories with a grain of salt. I mean, there’s some who claim we don’t even really know who he was, that wasn’t his real name or could be –
Ramsey Russell: Could’ve been 10-15 pirate claiming to be John Lafitte.
Shane Bernard: There’s a new book out, I haven’t read it yet but it’s a fairly academic look at his life. But yeah, there are pirate stories about this area and stories about privateers, but Louisiana was French, then it was Spanish for a few decades, French again for 3 years and then Napoleon sold it to the US. During that Spanish period, we were part of the Spanish Empire and in fact, on Spanish maps, you can see Louisiana listed as being part of the province of Texas, which in turn was part of Mexico. So from the Spanish perspective, Mexico ran all the way to the West Bank of the Mississippi.
Ramsey Russell: So the Spanish culture could have brought it up from South America through Mexico, through Central.
Shane Bernard: I know you’ve been in the Jennings area, the Mermentau River over there on Spanish maps shows up as the Rio Mexicano, the Mexican river because again, they thought this was part of Mexico and part of Texas. And in fact, the capital of Texas until 1776 if I remember correctly was what is now present day Natchitoches, Louisiana.
Ramsey Russell: Well, that makes a lot more sense than me thinking pirates may have traded in Tabasco.
Shane Bernard: The point I was getting to is that there was a lot of trade between Louisiana and other parts of the Spanish Empire because at that time, it was the age of what they call mercantilism. So if you were in the Spanish Empire, you could only trade with other Spanish ports, it was considered smuggling to trade with England unless you had special permission. So there was a lot of trade between Louisiana and other Spanish colonies in the Spanish mainland. And I think the reason, I don’t know this for a fact, but I think the reason Edmund McIlhenny picked the name Tabasco for his product in 1868 is because he knew both during the colonial period and in the American period, there was a lot of oceangoing trade between the port of New Orleans, which at that time was the second largest port in the US after New York City. And the Tabasco region of Mexico, which is a Mexican state, it’s called Tabasco. There was also a town called Tabasco in the state of Tabasco, it’s got a different name now and there’s a Tabasco River that’s still there today. So I think he thought, well, people in New Orleans, they already know the name Tabasco, they associate it with the export of spices because not only red peppers but other types of spices especially allspice, which is a berry from the myrtle tree were exported in large quantities from the Tabasco region of Mexico to New Orleans and elsewhere. And so he said, well, that’s a name people here in New Orleans and along the Gulf coast already associate with spice because that’s where it comes from, I’m going to call my sauce that. The fact of the matter is though, we don’t know where his Tabasco peppers came from when I came to work here and our promotional pamphlets, this is 1993 would say, Edmund knew this guy named Gleason, he bumped into him in the street in New Orleans after the Mexican-American war around 1848 or 1850 and he said to Edmund, here’s some peppers from Mexico, try them in your soup or whatever you’ll like them. And from that, he ended up growing all his Tabasco peppers on the island and making the sauce. The problem with that is we don’t know if that’s true or not because some of Edmund’s Children promulgated that story, but others said, no, that’s not where Papa got the peppers at all, it was from a confederate soldier who had fled to Mexico rather than surrender, not a Mexican American War veteran. And then some said, well, actually he was growing the peppers on the island as early as 1861 the same year the war broke out. So you’ve kind of got an antebellum version, a post-bellum version and a wartime version of where the peppers came from and we don’t know if any of them are true. Maybe one of them is true, maybe none of them are true, maybe it’s a combination of all three. But until I see a smoking gun document, I’ve convinced the company to say that our official line is, we don’t know where they came from.
Ramsey Russell: There’s a lot of lore and legend surrounding the McIlhenny like that. For example, until you and I talked recently, I was under the assumption and I heard this since forever that one of the McIlhenny who brought the nutria rats, they brought the nutria rats for the fur trade. Is there any truth to that? Because they also came from South America. Who is that? What’s the relational on nutria rats and McIlhenny?
Shane Bernard: Nutria come from South America, they’re indigenous to Argentina. At one time in the US, maybe a century ago, there were arguably zero nutria and now there are millions of them. What happened is that in the 1930s in 1938 E.A McIlhenny bought 21 nutrias, but he didn’t bring them from Argentina or elsewhere in South America, he bought them from one of two pre-existing nutria farms in Louisiana, there was one in Saint Tammany Parish and one in Saint Bernard Parish. And he bought those 21 nutrias from the one in Saint Bernard Parish and we know this because we have his files which he or his secretary kept meticulously. And so if folder number 38 is for nutria papers in 1938, then in 1945 all you have to do is look up folder 38 and there it’s mark nutria again. So I just went out, this was 15 years ago or something, I pulled out all his nutria folders from his files and you had in chronological order, the actual story of what happened. And no, he didn’t import them from outside the country, he bought them from that farm in Saint Bernard Parish, brought them here to the island, put them in a pin, they had increased purely by natural increase by breeding within two or three years to about 500 because nutria breed prolifically, I mean, even more than rabbits. They can have several babies at once, they can have another set of babies within a very short amount of time, those babies can start having babies very soon. And so what he decided to do – now the myth which have seen repeated in many local and national media outlets major magazines, newspapers, the myth was that not only did he bring them from Argentina, which we know is not true now but that they got loose accidentally during a hurricane. But what I found in that most rarest of documents that historians look for, a smoking gun document, he actually E.A McIlhenny wrote a note to himself saying, today I set loose 21 nutria off the island, 7 males and 14 females in order to help the coastal fur trade. Because fur trapping was a very big industry in this region up until the 70s or 80s when people quit buying for ethical reasons and then the population of nutria really exploded. And now the state of Louisiana, will give you $5 or $6 per tail just as proof that you killed one, they don’t even want the fur and the meat. Back in the 90s, I know there was a big push by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries to get people to eat nutria because it’s really healthy food.
Ramsey Russell: Have you ever eaten one?
Shane Bernard: I haven’t, I would.
Ramsey Russell: I’ve eaten them down in Argentina, it’s like rabbit shockingly, this is good.
Shane Bernard: There is the occasional restaurant in South Louisiana that will include it on their wild game menu, the problem it did not go over well, the problem is that it’s a member of the rodent family and no one wants to eat a rodent, lots of people eat squirrels up around, they have their annual squirrel hunting season and they put it in gumbo and all. But yeah, a lot of people don’t want to eat nutria. In France they call them ragondin which sounds a little more enticing, I think.
Ramsey Russell: So, they eat them in France?
Shane Bernard: I don’t know, I wouldn’t be surprised. Yeah, they’ll give you $5 or $6 per tail now because you’re actually helping the environment by killing these things because what they do is, they eat the root system in the coastal marsh, then the plants die without their roots and then the marsh subsides and you have saltwater intrusion and plus storm surges which has become more and more stronger, they’ve become stronger over the years from hurricanes, they can penetrate farther inland without the marshland to absorb them. And certainly we’ve had 2 or 3 storm surges just right here around Avery Island that sweep around the island, which is elevated and go a couple of miles north, you may have noticed on the way here that a lot of the houses near the island are up on piers where they weren’t in 2005. There had not been a big flood in that populated area just north of the island since the 1950s when it was mainly farmland. Now, you’ve got a lot of suburban looking homes along the highway and they flooded after not Katrina, Katrina didn’t hit here, but Rita did a month later and then 3 years later, we had another 50 year flood 3 years later, so that’s why all those houses are up on piers. So McIlhenny is not to get off on another topic, but they’re actually heavily involved in coastal restoration, they do a lot of planting of cord grass bull rush, that sort of thing, both on their own and in conjunction with Louisiana State University, there’s something called Marsh Maneuvers in which every year LSU comes out with college students or high school students, they plant cord grass and bull rush in the marsh.
Ramsey Russell: I want to just loop back one more time and talk about because I saw something interesting over here, it was a post of how Tabasco sauce is made, it’s so simple, it’s not like he just sat in his kitchen and put some peppers in a whiskey bottle and poured hot vinegar like pepper sauce, but it’s interesting. I mean, can you just talk about the general process of how Tabasco sauce is made with the peppers and the salt and the agent and the barrels.
Shane Bernard: The general process has not changed since 1868 and nor have the ingredients, it’s just three ingredients, salt, pepper and vinegar.
Ramsey Russell: Salt is plentiful here on the Avery Island.
Shane Bernard: Yeah, that’s right, I mean, until now. This year we quit mining on the island, the salt mine closed, but that’s pretty much the first time it’s closed. It’s the first time it’s permanently closed since it opened during the Civil War, but we still get salt from elsewhere in South Louisiana. The way Edmund made Tabasco and the way it’s still made today in principle is that you grow the peppers, you pick them, you have to mash them the same day they’re picked because as I said earlier, they spoil easily, you mash them up, you throw in a little bit of salt, very little salt, in fact, the finished product is like 1% of your daily allotment of salt because it’s considered a low sodium if you’re on a low sodium diet and zero carbs, zero sugar. So, you let it age for a while now, Edmund at first, back in the 1860s, he was only aging it for two months at that time, we do it for up to 3 years now. And I think someone, his descendants realized by around 1900 that probably by trial and error or just by accident, hey, this match that we aged for 3 years and let’s sit here by chance because we’d forgotten about this barrel or we had a lot more sauce than we needed, so it just a lot more mash rather than we needed, so we just let it sit here, it tastes better and then we started doing it formally in that way. But yeah, you will age the mash and the salt and then at the end of the process, you add the vinegar and then you strain it and sell it as finished sauce. Now, today we will add the vinegar toward the end of the process and stir it intermittently for about 3 weeks in big 1800 gallon vats and then we strain out the skins and seeds and send it straight to the bottling line, the finished sauce, I mean, for bottling.
Ramsey Russell: Do you all still use your own seeds for making some sauce and stuff?
Shane Bernard: Yeah, we don’t buy the peppers on the open market, we contract with growers in Central and South America and in Africa to grow them forth. Now, up until the 1960s, we grew our own peppers here on the island, but it was around that time, that demand began to outstrip supply. So at first we grew it in Mexico, I mean, we still grow some peppers in Mexico but not the peppers used in making the red Tabasco sauce we grow it. We have a jalapeno sauce, we have Habanera, we have scorpion and we get those different kinds of peppers in different places and sometimes it changes from year to year. But the red peppers that we use in making the red sauce again come from those 3 regions, Central and South America and Africa and we contract with these growers ahead of time, some of them are big corporate growers, some of them are just families that own a few acres and that way they know in advance how much we’re going to pay them per bushel or gallon or how it’s measured and we help them get loans to expand or modernize production and that sort of thing. And the benefit for us is that we don’t rely on the fluctuations of the open market nor do we have to compete with other pepper sauce manufacturers.
It’s Pepper Season Somewhere
How many acres approximately, how many acres of Tabasco peppers were grown on Avery Island then versus now?
Ramsey Russell: I like the idea that it’s kind of all in house like that.
Shane Bernard: Another benefit is that, we grow here on the island still, most of that is used for seed stock. So we know that the seeds that we are sending to those growers in Central and South America are very high quality seeds, they don’t have some sort of plant bacteria or virus or that sort of thing, they’re healthy and that’s a benefit to us also, but once the peppers are picked and ground up the same day that they’re picked, it’s all shipped back here to the island and so everything else will happen here. The aging will happen here, the mixing with the vinegar, the bottling, the placing of the bottle in the carton, the labeling. So say, if like if you’re 1000 miles inland in China and you see a bottle of Tabasco labeled in Chinese, it will have come from here on Avery Island.
Ramsey Russell: How many acres approximately, how many acres of Tabasco peppers were grown on Avery Island then versus now?
Shane Bernard: Surprisingly little. There is some courtroom testimony which thankfully for me, the lawyers questioned two of the on all sorts of subjects that seemed to have nothing to do with the lawsuit and for me, it’s a gold mine. As I recall, John Avery McIlhenny or his brother E.A McIlhenny said that there were, at the time of their father’s death in 1890 he was only growing 4 acres of peppers per year, but they instantly increased it to 40 to maybe it was 48, I think it was 48. Because I seem to remember it was 12 times more than what they had been doing before. And when Edmund was making the sauce his Children were all off at school, they weren’t really able to help him, he would make as much as he could but because he was elderly and often feeling under the weather, he did not expand production to meet demand, he would just make as much as he could and when it was gone it was gone, he didn’t even really advertise. But his children, in particular his eldest son, John Avery McIlhenny had gone to business school in Poughkeepsie, New York. So when he took over on his father’s death, he implemented all these new modern ideas about running business and even scientific ideas about how to better grow the peppers, instead of putting them straight out in the field in February or April, put them first in what he called a cold frame, which is basically just a knee high greenhouse and that way you didn’t have to worry about a late frost showing up and wiping out all your plants, they’d be safe. And then in April you take them out of that miniature greenhouse and put them in the field, we still do that today, not with a cold frame, but with a greenhouse, full fledged greenhouse. And so, yeah, I mean, we very quickly began to expand production in the 1890s, until it got so big that by the 1960s, we just didn’t have enough land here on the island to grow the peppers. And what we do now is we stagger the crops around the world so that a crop of Tabasco peppers is always coming into maturity so that we have shipments of ripe pepper mash coming in year round because up until maybe the 1960s or so making Tabasco sauce was only done seasonally, a lot of people don’t know that. But for a good part of the year, the Tabasco operations were shut down because we grew one crop a year here on the island, they were picked from August to October and when all the sauce had been made from that crop, we would just shut down and we would try to find things for the factory workers here on the island to do, like let them go work in jungle gardens or let them do something else here on the island. And finally, when we began to grow in Mexico and elsewhere, we could run this operation year round as we do today.
Ramsey Russell: It’s Pepper Season Somewhere.
Shane Bernard: Yeah, not only year round but around the clock too because we have night shifts now, so that we’re making Tabasco during the day and at night.
Ramsey Russell: It speaks a lot to me, who the McIlhenny were and are that they’re now in their 6th generation of manufacturing Tabasco sauce. They haven’t sold out to a Chinese corporation, it’s still becoming a generational enterprise for their family. And that speaks a lot to who they are just as people and business people, I think.
Shane Bernard: Yeah, we’ve actually had other family businesses come to us for advice or simply to observe our operations because there’s some law in the business world that says, by the 3rd generation of a family business, 9 times out of 10, it either goes defunct or it gets sold and that didn’t happen here. So, even in business textbooks, they like to use us as a sort of case study, what did these people do right. And one thing that helps and it’s part of my job, the one thing that the family has in common and the one thing that we have that our competitors can’t buy is this really intriguing history that’s sometimes stranger than fiction. The fact that Edmund McIlhenny, the man who invented Tabasco was supposedly in 3 duels in New Orleans by the antebellum period that his son John Avery McIlhenny and this is a fact quit the company and joined Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders Cavalry regiment to go fight the Spanish in Cuba became very good friends with Roosevelt who invited him to come work for him in Washington and so J.A McIlhenny left the island and ended up working in the Federal government for Roosevelt Taft and Wilson before retiring from the US State Department in 1922. His son, Walter S. McIlhenny ran the company from 1949 to 1985 but was also a brigadier general in the Marine Corps, left his estate to the Marine Military Academy in Harlingen, Texas of which he was a co-founder and a big game hunter in Africa and India from the 1950s through the rest of his life. Had been in three major campaigns in World War II, had been in combat continuously for 31 months, the Guadalcanal, New Britain, Peleliu, 2 purple hearts, silver star for Gallantry in action in the Navy Cross, which is right below the congressional medal of honor for a sailor or a Marine, fascinating guy. And on the Avery side of the family, I should say all McIlhenny are Averies but not all Averies are McIlhenny. The McIlhenny who make Tabasco are one branch of the larger Avery family and it’s the Avery family that owns the island, not the McIlhenny themselves or McIlhenny company. And two of the averies were admirals and were very active in World War II and new people like Admiral Arley Burke and Omar Bradley and people like that, they’re fascinating in their own right. So E.A McIlhenny, the rough rider’s brother was an Arctic explorer, went on two Arctic expeditions and we have all this Arctic stuff in the archives here in Semitropical South Louisiana where it never even snows. So, that for me as a historian makes this job a dream job because there’s just so much history and yeah, a lot of it has to do with Tabasco sauce, but a lot of it is about really the sweep of American history and sometimes world history.
Ramsey Russell: What blows my mind, you’re a historian for a family, 6 generation business and that there’s 30 years worth of research to even do it. And I’m just thinking you were talking about nutria and you can go back to files. I mean, but we don’t know where the peppers came from, but we can go back, they documented so much of this that it’s so fascinating. Like I said, it does sweep the entire country now who they were as people, I want to get to this because there’s so much, interesting history around their hunting and I had forgotten until I was walking in this exhibit room over here and seeing a picture of one of the McIlhenny down here in South Louisiana with a pet bear, had him in his lap like a big old puppy dog, it’s a big bear folks 200lbs, I’m going to guess, 250lbs bear.
Shane Bernard: That’s E.A McIlhenny with Tubby the bear.
Ramsey Russell: Tubby the Bear. But we did a podcast a few years ago on a former slave named Holt Collier, that ended up guiding Teddy Roosevelt who did not shoot a bear and because of that, the Teddy bear lore.
Shane Bernard: And J.A McIlhenny was there. In fact, I have a picture of Roosevelt on one horse, John Avery McIlhenny on the other and Holt Collier on the third one. I mean, there were a lot of other hunters there, but I just have that one great photo.
Ramsey Russell: And when he came back down here to orchestrate another Louisiana bear hunt, the president I mean, he went to Louisiana and McIlhenny was involved helped set that up. So, they were friends and associates and co-hunters.
Shane Bernard: I know you’re from Mississippi, when you go to Vicksburg, they’ve got that mural on the wall along the levee along, what was the Mississippi River, one of the panels is of that bear hunt and you can see John Avery McIlhenny, Teddy Roosevelt, Holt Collier, I think John Parker, the future governor of Louisiana is in there somewhere and a lot of other politicians and things of that sort.
Ramsey Russell: That’s right. I mean, the McIlhenny were everywhere, as people, as hunters reminded me of another story and I don’t know which McIlhenny it was but apparently we modern duck hunters are doing it wrong. We go out, we hunt duck, we pluck them, put them in the refrigerator to go and eat them, back in the old days they aged them and there was a – I don’t remember where I read this or when, but there was an ongoing I say the word argument, but there’s ongoing dialogue between a McIlhenny and somebody over in England about how to properly age a duck. And McIlhenny insisted that you hang the ducks by their tail feathers and when properly aged, they fall off the tail feathers on the floor, ready to pluck and eat, the guys in England, hung them by the head and when the head fell off, it was time to eat them. Now, I’m going to tell you right now, I’m out on that deal. McIlhenny sounds maybe reasonable, they’re growing them in a cellar, growing them in a basement which surprise me you all have got basements this far south, but who would that have been and where would that tradition have originated?
Shane Bernard: You can’t have basements in South Louisiana, but because every island is a salt dome, we’re sort of the exception, you can have basements on this little 2200 acre prominence. Yeah, so, there may have been more than one McIlhenny family member/hunter who liked his ducks to rip in that way. But I know for a fact that Walter McIlhenny, the brigadier general was very big into letting his ducks – I use the word rip and I don’t know what the right term is but pardon my French literally, I’m not sure I’m saying the accents correctly, but it’s faconde is what I’ve heard. And you can use that even, I’ve heard as an insult, if someone smells like they need to take a shower, you can say they’re faconde. But yeah, it sounds like it has the word pheasant in it, but I don’t think that’s what that means, I think it means to hang, a wild fowl or maybe it could be other animals too, on a hook and let it begin to spoil. But at some point it’s the perfect point to take it and then cook it. And a McIlhenny who is alive and well today, but whose name I won’t mention told me that he could not stand having faconde but because Walter McIlhenny, his older, very military strict cousin was insistent that when he cooks a meal, you have to come eat it whether you like it or not. So, he would sort of, this family member would sort of hold his nose and eat the duck or whatever it was that Walter was preparing because they do a lot of duck hunting around here, but they also did a lot of snipe hunting and I always thought snipe was like a make believe animal or something like that, but it was really is a –
Ramsey Russell: It was a practical joke. But no, they are real.
Promoting Watefowl Conservation
Shane Bernard: And there was also a bécassine I’m not sure if I’m saying that right, probably in French it would be a bécassine or something like that. It was a bird that they hunted a lot down here and I don’t know off the top of my head if that’s the same as snipe and that’s just the Louisiana French way to say it. I mean, it literally, it looks like bécassine, but it’s probably snipe or something like that. They did a lot of hunting of that too and consuming of it.
Ramsey Russell: They were big duck hunters, you were showing us a pirogue and some old decoys, I got an old video from you, about a big duck hunt, I mean, they had to have been duck hunters in this part of the world.
Shane Bernard: Oh, yeah. So, yeah, Field and Stream magazine came here in 1939 and shot a newsreel type film for a series called Sports Cope. The film was called Sky Game and E.A McIlhenny basically took Field and Stream duck hunting, maybe a mile off the island if even that much because the family actually owns more land off the island than on the island proper, so there is something called the upper and lower shooting ponds, they’re still there today, that’s where E.A took this film crew hunting and they documented it. And I’ll tell you how I found that, I saw newspaper references in our scrapbooks from the 30s that mentioned this movie being showed in movie theaters and that sort of thing and I had recently transferred all of our old film to digital, so I knew we didn’t have it, because it didn’t turn up in that collection. So I started checking university libraries and archives all around the country, no one had it. So I started looking on EBay and I programmed EBay to tell me any time the word Sky Game came up or any time the word ducks, dogs and decoys came up because that was an alternate title for the film. Well, lo and behold at someone’s estate sale, a copy of this film came up, they had borrowed it from Field and Stream and never returned it because you could borrow these films like library books at one time. So I transferred it to digital and there’s E.A shooting – now, the first part of the film, he’s banding ducks because he was fascinated where do birds go when they migrate? And at that time, nobody knew, he was one of the guys who helped to come up with the Mississippi Flyway concept and banded over 200,000 birds during his lifetime. But then, like the Theodore Roosevelt type conservationist that he was on the one hand, he would work to say preserve species, but he was also a very big hunter. He would never hunt any species that was endangered, but a plentiful species he would hunt and the whole family’s like that really, Walter was like that too. So, Walter in the 50s, he would go hunt tigers, but they weren’t endangered yet. But he would hunt, I don’t know if it’s water buffalo or something akin to that, that he would go hunt and even elephant in India or Africa. But at the same time, he was a member of the World Wildlife Federation, he and his brother Jack donated a lot of money toward the study of whales, whale communication. Walter’s brother Jack and I suspect Walter too, I don’t remember offhand funded expeditions to the rainforest of South America to look for new animal species, one of which a bird was named something in Latin McIlhenny Eye after the McIlhenny. I think, as I recall, there are 5 animal species named after the McIlhenny, a subspecies of white tailed deer, a flea, a shrimp, a bird and a type of possum, the possum and the bird being from South America. So those are the 5 that I know about and they’re all called McIlhenny Eye in Latin at the end of it. But yeah, so on the one hand, very big into conservation, on the other hand, very big hunters also.
Ramsey Russell: Because hunters are conservationist, that makes perfect sense to me and everybody listening.
Shane Bernard: Well, and I think your readers will find this of interest. E.A McIlhenny in a way was ahead of his time. Now, he was a member of, what was the name of the group? More Game Birds in America, which became Ducks Unlimited. So he was a member of Ducks Unlimited before it was Ducks Unlimited. And in fact, he even put up some prize money very early on, not prize money, the prize was and I forget what you had to do to win this prize. But he sent people plants from Avery Island that game birds ate so that you could plant it wherever you lived in the country and make your own little wildfowl way station in a way. So, he also captured wildfowl the same wildfowl year after year, just going by their tags and their plumage and he would tape them down to a board and photograph them, let it go and the next year catch the same bird, photograph it, let it go and he was doing plumage studies. How does the plumage change from year to year? So we have these great black and white photos that they almost look like x-rays in a way, but they’re not, they might be negatives but that show the same poor bird taped down to this board with like a scale beside it, so you can see how long the bird is so that he can track the plumage and then he wrote an academic article about this at some point, he wrote a lot of academic articles about birds and studied their habits and their plumage and their migration patterns and that sort of thing.
Ramsey Russell: And followed up to what you said previously, they are to this day extremely active in coastal conservation.
Shane Bernard: Oh, what I wanted to mention was, so at some point E.A McIlhenny and a guy named Charles Willis Ward, who was also a conservationist, bought several 1000 acres of land along the Louisiana Coast and eventually deeded, I think it was 13,000 acres of it to the State of Louisiana as a wildlife protection area. It’s still there today. Well, it was called Ward McIlhenny and then it was just changed to the rather generic sounding state wildlife refuge, which is confusing because every state wildlife refuge ends with that phrase, but this was just called “state wildfowl refuge”. And so it’s still there in Vermillion Parish. And then E.A bought options on, I forget how much but it was like 100,000 acres in, Vermillion Cameron Parish and he convinced the Rockefeller Foundation to just outright buy all that and deed it to the Louisiana government as another wildfowl protection area. So that’s where the Rockefeller Preserve comes from, that’s there today.
Ramsey Russell: Rockefeller National Wildlife Refuge.
Shane Bernard: So in between, it was another patch of land that came up for sale, E.A could not get anyone to buy it, so what he said was, this is what I’ll do, I will sell subscriptions to hunters including hunters up north and wherever for 3 months out of the year, we will allow hunting on that property, the other 9 months of the year, there will be no hunting on that property and we will use the money generated from the 3 months of hunting from the subscriptions to hire game wardens to keep out poachers. And in a way, it was Ducks Unlimited before Ducks Unlimited existed and he caught a lot of flack from conservationist purist, many of whom vilified him in particular, a guy named William Hornaday who worked at the Bronx Zoo and or the New York Zoological Society or something like that. But I think he was affiliated with the Bronx Zoo. E.A had really looked up to this man for decades and all of a sudden to be excoriated by this man that you admire, because you disagree and Hornaday didn’t think you should ever hunt a bird and E.A again, very much a Roosevelt sort of hunter conservationist. And they dragged him through the mud for that and the national media just wrote these horrible letters to the editors of major newspapers and just made him sound like the only reason he had bought and deeded that land on either side of the hunting club was so that there would be this very narrow alley between the two as if he knew the birds would fly from one wildfowl preserve to the other and then he could just shoot them. And he tried to defend himself, but the media seemed to be having a field day with that and really, it was just a very clever idea, here’s a way we can promote conservation and fund it.
Ramsey Russell: Absolutely.
Shane Bernard: So the funny thing is, he had been on a pedestal before that among conservationists and a lot of the purists really knocked him off his pedestal, but he recovered and eventually he was regarded again as one of the foremost conservationist in the United States up there with Roosevelt and others.
South Louisiana in a Bottle
Well, it’s an apt metaphor because if you look at the ingredients used in gumbo, it comes from all of these different cultures coming together in South Louisiana to make something new and positive.
Ramsey Russell: How do you think, because I think it does, but how do you think how does Tabasco sauce reflect Louisiana culture?
Shane Bernard: Well, I had mentioned earlier that Louisiana had been part of the Spanish empire and Barry, who’s one of my former professors often describes Louisiana as being really the northern tip of the Afro Caribbean world. So that there was a lot of influence on Louisiana culture, including food culture, coming in from all over the Caribbean and the northernmost parts of South America and Mexico and we were geographically in a very interesting locale. And so our food, unlike the food in Canada, for example, became very spicy. We learned a lot of our food traditions from the Native Americans, they were the ones who discovered and first started consuming peppers. I mean, the Aztecs and the Incas were consuming that and we know that because there are people called Paleo botanist who can scrape the inside of an Aztec vessel that’s a couple 1000 years old or so get tiny bits of pollen and other molecules in there and analyze it and say, oh look that comes from the cocoa plant, they were making chocolate and mixing it with red pepper. And nowadays you can buy chocolate bars with red pepper in it, in fact, we sell it in the Tabasco country store, Tabasco brand chocolate. But the Aztecs were doing that centuries and centuries ago. And so, the Louisiana settlers were taking the pepper grown by Native Americans and conveyed to Louisiana by the Spanish. They were also taking powdered sassafras leaves, which the Native Americans here had made the Choctaw, for example, that’s what filé is. It’s just the ingredient that we put in gumbo is powdered or pulverized sassafras leaves, so we learned that from the Native Americans. Then you had all of these enslaved Africans coming into Louisiana, passing through the Caribbean on the way here, they may come directly to Louisiana from the west coast of Africa, it may have taken them many generations to get here through the Caribbean and of course, not by choice, they were brought to Louisiana enslaved, bring their culinary skills with them also. So well, actually it is a surprise, it’s not a surprise after you get used to it, but the word gumbo, which so many people associate with South Louisiana is like the premier South Louisiana dish, the word gumbo comes from the west coast of Africa from the Senegambia area, meaning okra. And these days you can find gumbo with okra, but a lot of times it doesn’t have okra in it. So it’s like the ingredient that was considered essential during the colonial period is not considered essential today, but the name stuck. And we know of gumbo, it first appears in Louisiana historical record in 1764 when an enslaved person is being interrogated for stealing several ingredients that they were going to make into a gumbo, this is in the Spanish colonial records in New Orleans, actually at the time Louisiana was like in the process of switching from the French to the Spanish. And so the interrogation is in French colonial French. But who knows what that gumbo looked like back then? Did they have that yet? Did it occur to them yet? What kind of meat did they use? We don’t know what it was like compared to today’s gumbo. But yeah, so it’s been here almost as long as Louisiana’s been here and the ingredients in it, the roux comes from continental France, the red pepper comes from the Spanish, originally from Native Americans in Mexico and Central America, the filé, which is the powder sassafras that comes from Native Americans here in North America and so it’s really –
Ramsey Russell: And the Tabasco sauce on top that comes right here from Avery Island.
Shane Bernard: Tabasco sauce. And so wherever it comes from, it’s a new world vegetable or I’m sure some people say, well, technically it’s a fruit but I don’t know, it comes from North America. And so, a lot of times the word gumbo is used synonymously with something that has a lot of different sources. Well, it’s an apt metaphor because if you look at the ingredients used in gumbo, it comes from all of these different cultures coming together in South Louisiana to make something new and positive. And so, it’s literally a good example of this sort of cross cultural borrowing as well as a metaphor for it.
Ramsey Russell: Shane, thank you very much. I have enjoyed this so much. This was a fascinating, thank you very much for your time.
Shane Bernard: Any time, happy to help.
Ramsey Russell: I love this part of Louisiana and I love the story and I love how a part of the world will affect the people and effect to make something for reasons we don’t know yet why that affects the world. And that’s what I love about what I do is learning these stories. Well, thank you very much. Folks, I mean, the embodiment of Louisiana culture in a bottle, now you know why? And now you know who? Thank you all for listening to this episode of Duck Season Somewhere, we’ll see you next time.