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Foodways

Tabasco

Edmund McIlhenney and the birth of a Louisiana pepper sauce

Tabasco
Tabasco. Almost every English language dictionary includes the word as a proprietary term along with other select trademarks, such as Xerox, Kleenex, and Band-Aid. The condiment itself has appeared on dinner tables at the White House, gone to war with U.S. soldiers in their MREs (“Meals Ready to Eat”), and flown into orbit aboard Skylab, the Space Shuttle, and the International Space Station. It has appeared in numerous TV programs and movies, from Charlie Chaplin’s 1917 classic The Immigrant to a 1997 TV episode of The X-Files. When noted “Dixie-ologists” John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed compiled 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About the South, they included Tabasco sauce as one of the region’s major culinary contributions, calling it the “gold standard” of pepper sauces.

None of this would be the case if not for a single Louisiana entrepreneur: Edmund McIlhenny, inventor of Tabasco-brand pepper sauce. Although his story has been told countless times in brief by journalists and advertising agents, much of what has been written about Edmund and the early years of Tabasco sauce derived solely from hearsay and legend. Now, however, an examination of Edmund’s business and personal papers in the McIlhenny Company archives has for the first time yielded a more accurate early history of this global culinary icon from rural Louisiana.

A Self-Made Man

Edmund McIlhenny was born in Hagerstown, Maryland, on October 15, 1815, to a middle-class family. His father John McIlhenny, a local politician, merchant, and tavern keeper who served on the board of the local bank, died from Asiatic cholera on Edmund’s 17th birthday. As Edmund recalled over a half-century later in an autobiographical sketch (written in third person): “Soon after the death, … his second son, Edmund, though only 17, decided to go to work to assist his mother in the care and education of his younger brothers.”

What happened to Edmund over the next nine years is unknown, although a modicum of evidence suggests he may have worked in Baltimore’s financial industry. In 1841, at age 26, however, he surfaced in New Orleans, where, armed with letters from his father’s friends, he secured a job at the Bank of Louisiana. There he worked his way up from the post of bookkeeper to that of general agent, a position of enormous trust whose duties consisted of monitoring the bank’s five branches at Baton Rouge, St. Francisville, Donaldsonville, Opelousas, and Alexandria.

Through his own thrift and industry, Edmund accrued a small fortune by the late 1850s. He purchased these branches and became an independent banker.During the same period, he acquired a reputation as a bon vivant, joining the elite Louisiana and Orleans clubs, racing his boat, The Secret, as a member of the Southern Yacht Club, and riding his prize mare, “Fashion,” through the streets of New Orleans. In confidential documents he recorded his own worth in 1860 at $112,000 (about $2.5 million at present-day value).

New Orleans society regarded Edmund, now in his early 40s, as one of its most eligible bachelors. His name appeared in the locally published booklet Bliss of Marriage, or How to Get a Rich Wife, which despite its title listed both the region’s unmarried ladies and gentlemen with their estimated individual wealth.

Family tradition explains why Edmund christened his yacht The Secret. The “secret” was that by 1853, 38-year-old Edmund had fallen in love with 15-year-old Mary Eliza Avery, daughter of his closest friend, prominent Louisiana attorney and planter Daniel Dudley Avery. Judge Avery, as he was later known, resided in Baton Rouge and through his wife’s family owned a sugar plantation deep in the Teche country at a place called Petite Anse Island, known today as Avery Island.

Edmund’s love for Mary Eliza grew. After she turned 20, in 1858, Edmund wrote to Judge Avery: “My long and intimate intercourse with your family has resulted in an honest and devoted love for your daughter, Mary. Save by inference from my attention, she is unaware of my feelings. I respectfully ask your permission to make them known to her.” Judge Avery refused to answer the entreaty, disapproving of a prospective son-in-law only five years his junior. He finally consented, however, when Mary Eliza — who knew of Edmund’s feelings and his letter to her father — threatened to elope. The couple wed on June 30, 1859, at St. James Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge.

Edmund and Mary Eliza honeymooned at Bay St. Louis for several months and then took up residence on Rampart Street in New Orleans. Around December 1859, Mary Eliza became pregnant, and she and Edmund traveled to Avery Island in May 1860 to await the birth. Sara, nicknamed “Sadie,” arrived in September at Marsh House, the Avery homestead on the Island. She would be the first of eight children, two of whom would die as infants.

Avery Island Mother Lode

Two months later Lincoln became president and the nation quickly plunged into civil war. The now intertwined Avery and McIlhenny families sought refuge from the conflict on their isolated plantation. Around this time an event occurred on the Island that forever altered its history: The discovery of solid rock salt only 16 feet beneath the Island’s surface.

With its salt supply cut off by a Union blockade, the South regarded this find as a “gift from Heaven,” as Ella Lonn wrote in Salt as a Factor in the Confederacy. Unable to operate his banks because of the war, Edmund put his financial skills to work helping his in-laws run the salt works. “My duty is at the mine,” he wrote to Mary Eliza, “and I must necessarily be absent from you.”

As many as 500 teams of horses from throughout the lower South descended on the Island daily to be loaded with salt. Ironically, this activity transformed the Averys’ obscure plantation retreat into a military target. In November 1962, two Union gunboats and a transport ship loaded with foot soldiers moved up Bayou Petite Anse with orders to destroy the Island’s salt works. The attack failed miserably, and the Island remained beyond Union control until April 1863, when General Nathaniel P. Banks invaded south Louisiana. With Confederate troops withdrawing rapidly to the north, the McIlhennys and Averys abandoned the Island and sought self-imposed exile in Texas.They left on April 15, 1863, roughly one day before Union troops captured the salt works.

In Texas, Edmund worked as a civilian employee of the Confederate military. He initially served in the commissary’s office at Galveston, overseeing supplies for the stronghold — an office of consequence given a mutiny over substandard provisions had occured there prior to his arrival. He later transferred to the paymaster’s office, traveling by rail and stagecoach across Texas to distribute funds to Southern troops. Edmund rarely saw his wife and daughter during his wartime service, even though they lodged with his Avery in-laws in Houston, Brenham, Austin, and elsewhere in central Texas.

Recipe for Success

At war’s end Edmund returned with his family to Avery Island. His in-laws emerged from the conflict with their sugarcane fields and salt mines intact, but Edmund’s banks were in financial and physical ruin. Having lost his antebellum wealth, Edmund spent months alone in New Orleans looking for work, but no one wanted to hire a middle-aged former independent banker, especially when young carpetbaggers could be had so inexpensively. Edmund dejectedly returned to the Island, moved into the Avery residence, and occupied his time tending the family’s fruit and vegetable garden.

It was during this period that Edmund first experimented with making a red pepper sauce.

What spurred him to do so remains unclear because he left behind no personal account of the matter. (Edmund’s autobiographical sketch focused entirely on his success as an antebellum banker.) Further-more, his wife and children later could not agree about such basic details of the story as when and from whom he obtained his peppers.

Their accounts, however, exhibit several common elements. For example, they claim that Edmund obtained the peppers in New Orleans from a soldier, possibly named Gleason, who had recently returned to the United States from Mexico. Edmund planted seeds from these peppers on Avery Island and used their fruit to invent a pepper sauce for the family table. He bottled this homemade sauce in used cologne bottles and eventually shared it with friends in New Orleans, who urged him to market it commercially in local groceries.

Whatever the origin, in 1868 Edmund grew his first commercial pepper crop. Although he made no sauce that year, he used the crop of 1868 and that of the next year to produce 658 bottles of pepper sauce in 1869. In 1870 he produced 1,012 bottles; in 1871, 2,896 bottles; and in the banner year of 1872, 15,084 bottles. Production peaked in 1889, when Edmund manufactured 41,472 bottles.

Edmund made his sauce in a factory located on a gentle slope across the lawn from Marsh House. Known as “the Laboratory,” the building consisted of a three-story stucco tower and a rectangular two-story brick and clapboard structure. According to family tradition, the Laboratory originated in the antebellum period as a pigeonniere (pigeon house); during the Civil War, however, Confederate soldiers added the tower’s third-story as an observation deck and built the brick and clapboard section as a barracks or supply depot.

Claiming the Laboratory as his workplace, Edmund used the tower’s base as his business office and its adjoining rooms for concocting Tabasco sauce. The manufacturing process was complicated and time-consuming. Edmund crushed ripe red peppers with an ordinary potato masher and blended the resulting “mash” with granulated salt from the Island’s mining operations. He packed this mixture into jars or “tight molasses barrels” and aged it for at least 30 days. Edmund then removed a crusty layer of mold, transferred the mash into larger jars, and added French white wine vinegar. He aged this mixture for at least another 30 days, removed a new layer of mold, and forcibly worked the red pulp through a series of increasingly finer sieves in order to extract a liquid free of skins or seeds. The outcome was a refined red-pepper sauce ready for bottling and consumption. (The product’s renowned three-year aging process in white oak barrels would develop only after Edmund’s lifetime.)

Condiment Extraordinaire

Edmund originally called his condiment “Petite Anse Sauce,” but he changed the trademark after Judge Avery objected to this use of his plantation’s name. As a result, Edmund rechristened his product “Tabasco” — a word of Mexican-Indian origin supposedly meaning “land where the soil is humid” or “place of coral or oyster shell.” According to one of his children, Edmund chose this name because he found it “euphonious,” but the choice may have been influenced by historically strong commercial ties between the port of New Orleans and the Tabasco region of Mexico.

Prior to the coming of the railroad in the 1880s, Edmund shipped his finished sauce by horse and wagon to nearby New Iberia. From there steamboats carried it down Bayou Teche, across several coastal bays, against the current up Bayou Plaquemines, and down the Mississippi to New Orleans. In the city, grocers introduced his sauce to local Reconstruction-era consumers.

The meandering trip to New Orleans resulted in many broken bottles and much spoiled sauce. Edmund solved these problems by using sturdier bottles, sanitizing corks in alcohol, and sealing bottle tops in green wax. (Modern screw-top Tabasco bottles sport a green neckband in homage to the days when Edmund topped off his bottles with green wax.)

In 1870 Edmund entered into a business relationship with an unsung hero of early Tabasco history: John C. Henshaw, a former Union officer and distant Avery relative who resided in New York City. Edmund wanted to sell Tabasco sauce outside South Louisiana and, noting Henshaw’s splendid reputation among the Averys as an entrepreneur, he asked Henshaw to serve as his first Tabasco salesman. Edmund chose wisely, because Henshaw, in modern parlance, was “a real go-getter” who energetically set about introducing Tabasco sauce in the major cities of the Northeast. Edmund so admired Henshaw’s dynamism that he shortly appointed him the sole Tabasco agent for Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia.

Marketed Nationwide

Henshaw soon negotiated an amazingly successful agreement with E.C. Hazard and Company of New York City, one of the largest food manufacturers and distributors in 19th-century America. Hazard quickly became Edmund’s largest customer, ordering in 1872, for example, more than 10,500 bottles of Tabasco sauce, which it supplied at wholesale to grocers in the Northeast and beyond. As a result, Tabasco sauce advanced dramatically toward becoming a nationally recognized product.

In addition, Henshaw proposed that Edmund obtain his bottles, stoppers, labels, crates, and other supplies from highly competitive manufacturers in the industrial Northeast. He correctly asserted that these manufacturers could provide such items more cheaply than less efficient firms in New Orleans, even when factoring in shipping costs. Furthermore, it was Henshaw who suggested that Tabasco bottles carry a warning label for the uninitiated. A rectangular label on the back of each bottle read: “Caution — This sauce should always be mixed with your gravy, vinegar, or other condiment, before using. One or two drops are enough for a plate of soup, meat, oysters, &c., &c.”

In 1876 Edmund and Henshaw abruptly ended their association following a business dispute, and Henshaw died shortly thereafter. Edmund never appointed another regional salesman. Instead, he went it alone, processing orders from grocers, restaurateurs, and individual consumers nationwide while continuing to rely on E.C. Hazard and Company as a wholesale distributor.

Although Edmund first exported a small quantity of Tabasco sauce in late 1873 and early 1874 (namely, to England and France), he did not export the product in notable quantities until later that decade. Overseas grocers initially gave the sauce a mixed reception. The renowned London firm of Crosse and Blackwell declined to carry the product, advising Edmund that a glut of sauces on the British market would render Tabasco sauce “unprofitable”; meanwhile, Henry L. Sherlock & Sons of Liverpool eagerly advised Edmund of its wish “to be appointed sole agent in the United Kingdom … and for the Continent.”

Although Crosse and Blackwell grossly miscalculated Tabasco sauce’s potential, the British firm correctly observed that the product faced vigorous competition. Its chief early rival, Maunsel White’s Concentrated Essence of Tobasco Pepper, hailed from New Orleans and appeared on the market as early as 1864.

Rumor has maintained that Edmund obtained both his peppers and his sauce recipe from White, a prominent New Orleans businessman who owned nearby Deer Range plantation. Yet no contemporary evidence points to White as the source of Edmund’s peppers, and White’s and Edmund’s recipes are known to be different. The New Orleans Daily True Delta newspaper and the planter’s journal De Bow’s Review noted that White’s recipe (of which White made no secret) called for his concoction to be boiled. Edmund, on the other hand, boiled none of his ingredients, but allowed them to ferment naturally.

The dissimilar appearance of the two rival sauces underscored their different methods of preparation. As Edmund wrote to his wife from New Orleans in 1870 after visiting a grocery, “Mr. Henning has the M.W. [Maunsel White’s] for sale. … [It is] indifferently put up, and I was surprised to find that the colored pulp settles down more than half, leaving a muddy looking fluid above. There is a row of it on Henning’s shelves just beneath mine, and the contrast in style and appearance is decidedly in my favor, and Henning says he sells 25 of mine where he sells one of the M.W.”

A Louisiana Icon

Edmund’s pepper sauce business grew steadily during the two decades after its inception, yet it remained a largely one-man operation. Edmund occasionally received help from one or two Avery Island freedmen, however, or from his wife and children. As Edmund’s youngest daughter Marigold recalled in 1952, “My father would take me out of school when he would have a good order so I could help, and I would label the bottles. … The labels came in big sheets … and my father put the mucilage, gum arabic, on the back of it, and then I would cut them, cut them in sections and make the diamond, the Tabasco label, and then the caution label for the other side. … [My cousin] said, ‘I can label just as good as Marigold. I don’t see why you don’t take me out of school.’ But she wasn’t a little pepper sauce girl.”

Suffering from gout and other ailments, Edmund McIlhenny died at Avery Island on November 25, 1890, at age 75. In the autobiographical sketch that he dictated late in life to his daughter, Sadie, Edmund made no reference to Tabasco sauce, but reminisced instead only about his heyday as a banker. His widow and children valued the entire Tabasco operation, including its factory and trademark, at a mere $14,250, only a fraction of Edmund’s antebellum worth.

Edmund’s heirs recognized the potential of the business, however, and soon expanded the Island’s pepper fields from about five to 65 acres; by 1911 pepper fields covered about 450 acres. Edmund’s eldest sons, John Avery McIlhenny and Edward Avery McIlhenny, successively presided over the operation and adopted modern business methods, such as legally incorporating the company, issuing shares of stock to family members, building a larger factory, increasing worldwide exports, and creating brand awareness through advertising. In 1894, for example, John McIlhenny commissioned a Vaudeville-type musical called The Burlesque Opera of Tabasco that toured the country to promote the condiment. By the turn of the 20th century, consumers both in America and abroad widely regarded Tabasco sauce as the pre-eminent red-pepper seasoning.

McIlhenny Company remains a private corporation owned solely by Edmund’s descendants, and it continues to manufacture Tabasco sauce exclusively on Avery Island. The company employs hundreds of workers, markets Tabasco sauce in 21 languages and dialects, and exports the product to over 160 countries and territories. It can produce over 700,000 bottles of sauce daily — twice the number Edmund made during his entire 22-year career as a pepper sauce manufacturer. This global culinary icon began over 135 tears ago with one Louisianian, Edmund McIlhenny, and his homespun recipe for a fiery condiment called “Tabasco.”

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Shane K. Bernard, Ph.D., holds degrees in history from Texas A&M University and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He serves as historian and curator to the McIlhenny Company Archives, Avery Island, Louisiana, and is author of The Cajuns: Americanization of a People and Swamp Pop: Cajun and Creole Rhythm and Blues.