Love at first bite: Remembering New Orleans’ first taste of Tabasco
The Civil War was only four years over, and — as legend has it — the people of Reconstruction New Orleans were hungry for food with flavor. They got what they were looking for when, as reported in The Daily Picayune of April 8, 1869, “a fine display of Tabasco peppers and sauce, grown and prepared by E. McIlhenny” went on display on Day 2 of the third Louisiana State Fair, held at the Fair Grounds. The tables of New Orleans would never be the same.
It’s been 150 years since that day at the fair, and Tabasco sauce has since become ubiquitous, not just in the Crescent City but around the world — whether on the table of your neighborhood diner, in the James Bond movie “The Man with the Golden Gun” or in military-issued MRE’s. Sold in 180 countries and territories and labeled in 22 languages and dialects, it is among south Louisiana’s most recognizable cultural exports.
- Edmund McIlhenny’s concoction wasn’t the first sauce made from Tabasco peppers. St. Bernard Parish planter (and early foodie) Maunsel White developed his own “Concentrated Essence of Tabasco Peppers” as early as the 1850s. White’s sauce, though “celebrated,” according to newspaper accounts, was prepared differently from McIlhenney’s.
- The first batches of McIlhenny’s sauce, distributed to family and friends, were bottled in discarded cologne bottles, according to family lore. When he decided in 1868 to sell his sauce publicly, he ordered thousands of new “cologne bottles” from a New Orleans glassmaker.
- Tabasco wasn’t McIlhenny’s first choice of names for his sauce. Originally, he wanted to call it Petit Anse Sauce, named after the family island, Ile Petite Anse, which is now known as Avery Island. The family didn’t like the idea, so he went with Tabasco.
- The Tabasco pepper gets its name from a region of Mexico. A word of Mexican Indian origin, it is believed to mean “place where the soil is humid” or “place of the coral or oyster shell.”
- Tabasco sauce is aged in second-hand white oak bourbon barrels purchased from Kentucky.
- There are 720 drops of sauce in a 2-oz. bottle of Tabasco, by the company’s count.
- A bottle of Tabasco sauce has a shelf life of 5 years.
- The price for a bottle of Tabasco Sauce upon its introduction was $1. Today, it runs about $3.
- The company’s Avery Island facility has the capability to churn out more than 700,000 2-oz. bottles of Tabasco a day.
- Tabasco sauce isn’t the McIlhenny family’s only contribution to Louisiana. E.A. McIlhenny established a nutria farm on Avery Island in 1939 and set a number of the furry rodents loose to bolster the state’s fur trade. They were fruitful and multiplied — and multiplied and multiplied, to the point they are now considered an invasive pest. (The Tabasco company refutes the oft-repeated tale that the nutria were accidentally freed by a hurricane.)
According to at least one newspaper account, Maunsel White’s original “Concentrated Essence of Tabasco” — inspired by the peppery dishes of the slaves on his plantation — was intended at least much for medicinal purposes (namely, to stem the cholera epidemic at the time) as for culinary purposes. The pepper’s potential use as a cholera curative aside, McIlhenny’s Tabasco sauce is a proven cure for bland food. As such, it’s hard to imagine a spice cabinet in a New Orleans kitchen without a bottle of Tabasco or one of the many tongue-scorching competitors it has inspired. In a place where food, and flavor, are about more than filling the belly, that’s no small thing.