Hell hath no fury like a bunch of Louisianans debating hot sauce. Some believe Crystal—with its New Orleans roots and tangy aftertaste—to be the end all and be all, while others are quick to dump Louisiana Hot Sauce Original onto everything from their cereal to the post that flies through their letterbox in the morning. No one can deny the grandaddy of all Louisiana hot sauces, though: the mighty Tabasco.
For much of the world, Tabasco is the first thing that springs to mind upon hearing the words "hot sauce." Sold in over 165 countries and labeled in 22 languages, the potent red stuff is a staple on dinner tables everywhere. Cool dads in the Midwest even wear Tabasco-printed shirts when they're feeling lively in the summer—its ubiquity knows no bounds.
I'd always wanted to visit the Tabasco's headquarters—if only to find out if Tabasco mayonnaise is as delicious as it sounds—so I made the two hour drive outside the New Orleans city limits to Avery Island, which sits in the middle of the Louisiana swamp. How many other factories in the world do you know that occupy the same space as a rare bird sanctuary and Buddhist temple? What other hot sauce companies have Neutral Milk Hotel name an album after their island home? Exactly. So, with On Avery Island blasting through my car speakers, I drove to the temple of hot sauce.
Once you enter the island, past the meat shops turning out cracklings and boudin, reality melts away with the exotic flora and fauna enveloping the production center of the world's favorite hot sauce comes into view. After paying the dollar toll, I took a swig of the homemade hot-sauce-and-bourbon concoction (it seemed rude not to, OK?) I'd tucked neatly into my purse and joined the free factory tour. Apart from being the home of Tabasco—you can smell it as soon as you approach the perimeter—Avery Island is a geographic curiosity: It's home to a salt mine. I asked some of the factory workers if I could go down it and they laughed nervously in my face, saying it had been closed to visitors due to an accident a few years back. Shit.
The island was reborn as a hot sauce empire after being ravaged during the Civil War. The Mcllhenny family were responsible, using the salt resources to help cure the barrels of the pepper-rich condiment grown on the property. Since then, the myriad of ways that Tabasco has percolated into global food production is mind-boggling. The barrels used to cure the sauce, for example, are from Jack Daniels' whiskey production department in Tennessee. Post-sauce refining, the seeds from the peppers are sent to Kalamazoo, Michigan, to assist in the production of Big Red gum, red hot candies, and pepper spray. Just like the spray, that capsaicin gets everywhere.
Tabasco's overwhelming longevity and success is due in large part to its ability to shift with the changing times. Since Sriracha is today's hot item, Tabasco collaborated to release their own brand of Sriracha just three weeks ago. It has Sriracha's thick, sweet heat and Thai chili taste but with the sharp, familiar vinegar-y kick of Tabasco. They don't just stop at sauces, though. Oh no. Want Tabasco cola? They got it. Jalapeño ice cream? Yep. Green pepper jelly? Sure! Some varieties of the sauce itself—here's looking at you, raspberry chipotle—are revolting, but all are curiously popular with all the international tourists who scuttle backwards and forwards from the sample stands with demonic grins on their faces. People take Tabasco really seriously.
Most factories I've ever known have been situated in bleak, just-out-of-city industrial parks. The Tabasco plant is quite the opposite. After touring the factory, visitors are encouraged to waft around Avery Island's botanical gardens—including one of the largest camellia fields in the country—and peer into the Buddhist temple set over a bamboo-filled zen garden. Find me another factory in the world that offers such natural delights and I'll wear Tabasco contact lenses for a week.
The surrounding beauty was the most startling thing about visiting the Tabasco factory, aside from the hysterical emotional displays of my fellow visitors. The juxtaposition of the cartoonishness of the place—there was sheet music from a Tabasco opera on display—and the beauty of the island, with its visitors smiling like extras in The Truman Show while carrying bags full of Tabasco boxers and dog sweaters was, at risk of sounding lofty, the most Technicolor display of commercialism and nature colliding that I've ever seen. It was a trip.
Oh, and the mayonnaise is totally delicious.