Published on 07/02/02

The perfect vacation for a 'chilihead'

Pepper paradise

Well, this year my wife, mother-in-law and I headed to southwest Louisiana and Avery Island, the center of the hot pepper world. For 138 years, on this little island among the bayous, the McIlhenny family has used a secret recipe to make Tabasco pepper sauce.

Yes, the peppers are here, along with the factory and a funky Tabasco-themed gift shop complete with a variety of pepper products and rollicking Cajun music.

Besides being the home of Tabasco Sauce, Avery Island has a fascinating natural history. The "island" is really a little hill created by the upwelling of ancient salt deposits beneath the Mississippi delta. At its highest point, it's only 152 feet above sea level.

Civil War survivor

When Edmund McIlhenny returned to his Avery Island plantation after the Civil War, he was delighted to find that the special red peppers he had planted in his garden before the war had survived.

He began to experiment with making pepper sauce for Christmas presents and hit on a formula that worked. He crushed the ripest, reddest peppers, mixed a half-cup of local salt with each gallon and aged the mixture in crockery jars for 30 days.

Then he added fine, French wine vinegar and aged the sauce another 30 days before straining and bottling it in surplus perfume bottles (hence the classic shape).

Sold like hot, uh, sauce

McIlhenny chose a Central American Indian name for the product, "Tabasco," and shipped the first batch of 350 bottles in 1868. The hot sauce took off like wildfire, and orders came in faster than they could be filled.

Tabasco has since become the definitive seasoning sauce, offering people around the world a taste of south Louisiana.

While Tabasco Sauce production involves salting and fermenting the chili mash, gardeners can enjoy growing these fiery, tasty chilies at home for their own fresh sauces and spicy dishes.

Many garden centers have tabasco plants. These small, pointed chilies grow on branching plants 2 to 3 feet tall. They do best where summers are long and hot.

Hot little pods

Each plant can bear 100 erect little chili pods that color up from yellow to orange to red. Tabasco chilies have a unique, dry-hot, smoky taste combined with fiery pungency for unbeatable flavor.

On Avery Island, the 250-acre McIlhenny estate is also home to 20,000 snowy egrets. Along with the bird sanctuary are the Jungle Gardens: vast expanses of gigantic live oaks draped with Spanish moss, huge hollies that form a canopy road, quiet meditation gardens and a sunken garden with rare, exotic palms. The photographic paradise contains other animals, including the ever-present alligator.

This garden-loving chilihead found at Avery Island a perfect blend of beauty and taste. Now, let's see, the little hotel next to the Evangeline Oak in St. Martinville that serves that great crab bisque....

Wayne McLaurin is a professor emeritus of horticulture with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.