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Day 145 - Tabasco Sauce, Rice and Cajun

We visited the Tabasco Factory on Avery Island, the oldest operating rice mill in America, Konriko, and had poboy's for lunch at Bon Creole.

storm 42 °F

Heavy rain all night and most of the day, cold also - but we didn't let it slow us down this time!

Avery Island was only short distance from where we camped, so we made it there fairly early. This is the only factory in the world where Tabasco Sauce is made.

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They offer a free factory tour, which includes a couple of small sample bottles of Tabasco Sauce. As tours go, it wasn't all that impressive - but we learned some interesting things about both Avery Island and Tabasco Sauce. The Island is the largest of five salt dome island's along the Louisiana coast. In fact, there is still an active salt mine on the island. The salt is very pure, but is more in the form of a large crystal or rock when first mined.

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Edmund McIlhenny was living on Avery Island with his wife and started growing pepper plants from seeds given to him by a friend, believed to originate from somewhere in Mexaco. At that time, the island was used for a sugar plantation and salt mine. But Mr. McIlhenny loved spicy foods, so grew the peppers in his garden also. He started experimenting with making sauce from the peppers and developed the recipe for what we now call Tabasco Sauce. At first, he gave some to friends, using empty cologne bottles. However, so many people wanted some of "that wonderful sauce Mr. McIlhenny makes" that he started to make the sauce commercially beginning in 1868.

The McIlhenny family continues to make all the Tabasco Sauce sold throughout the world here on Avery Island, although they have moved most of the farms to Central and South America where they have a a better climate for frowing the peppers. The original sauce still uses only the type of peppers Mr. McIlhenny started with (now called Tabasco peppers of course), although they have branched out and make other hot sauces from different peppers also. They also still keep about 30 acres cultivated in pepper plants, since most of the seed plants come from Avery Island.

Once the peppers are harvested, they are sent to the factory on Avery Island to be processed. First, they are mixed with a little salt from the islands salt mine (convenient, isn't it?). Then the are ground into a mash and loaded into white oak barrels to age for three years. The barrels come from Jack Daniels Whiskey. Jack Daniels only uses each oak barrel once, so once they're done with the barrel, Tabasco buys them and uses them for another 21 years. Once Tabasco is done with them, at least some of them get chopped up and sold for use in barbeque grills. Anyway, after the mash has aged for three years, it is mixed with some vinager and eventually turned into the famous hot sauce (it takes another 28 days in total after being removed from the barrels, so I presume there's another aging step involved).

Mr. McIlhenny chose the name Tabasco, which was an Indian word meaning 'Land of the hot and humid'. That certainly seems appropriate to me!

By-products from the process are sold for use in other products such as Bengay, Denteen and Jelly Bellies (from the seeds I think, which are removed during processing).

The tour consisted of some information from the tour guide, watching a video, and a short walk along part of the factory where the bottles are filled, capped and labeled. Samples of the barrels and mash are on display in a 'museum'. This is generally what the bottling part of the tour looked like.

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Once we left the factory, we visited what they called a 'Country Store'. At least it was built to look like one. Avery Island was essentially a 'Company Town' in its earlier years, so the concept of a country store was probably valid in the past.

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Today this is really just the gift shop for the Tabasco brand, including clothing, coffee mugs, and of course lots and lots of Tabasco Sauce. Unfortunately however, the prices were much higher then I was comfortable with so I abandoned my usual practice and didn't buy much. It did have a really nifty light fixture made out of empty Tabasco bottles however.

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We also were planning to visit another part of the island which includes a garden and bird sanctuary. However, I didn't like the price they charged for that either - and there wasn't much to see this time of year (Louisiana actually does have a winter, and we're in it). It was still cold and stormy out so we decided to skip the 'jungle' part of the tour.

The rest of the island looks like an interesting place but isn't open to the public - so that was pretty much the end of our Tabasco journey.

I had hoped to spend a little more time today learning more about what cajun is all about - since this part of Louisiana is called the heart of cajun country - so didn't mind leaving Avery Island with a little more time on our hands. We had learned about an old rice mill from the Visitor's Center yesterday, so decided to give that a try.

This is also a regular tourist destination, but is the real deal. Mom and I both really enjoyed it (and also spent plenty of money in their 'General Store' gift shop.) The Conrad Rice Mill was started in 1912 by Phillip Conrad, one of the local rice growers who was tired of the time and effort it took to ship his rice to New Orleans for processing. Of course, once he'd set the mill up, other growers in the area took their rice to his mill also. By 1975 the mill was getting pretty old when it was purchased by Mike Davis and his wife, who still own and operate the mill. Sometime just before or just after the Davis's bought the the mill, the name was changed to Konriko - from Conrad Rice Company, but changing the "C"s to "K"s.The Davis's added the store (in 1978 I think). They also were able to have the mill placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It's pretty easy to identify the mill in these shots - it's the really old buildings!

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This tour also started with a presentation, but about "Cajun" culture. Our guide for the presentation and tour ws Dynell LaBiche, who can trace her roots back to Nova Scotia. We learned that the "Cajun" people, or Acadian's, were living in Nova Scotia when the British decided they didn't want the French Catholic's in their Colony, so deported them in 1755. They confiscated their homes, land and possessions to pay for the cost of deporting them against their will. The boats they used were too small and did not have adequate provisions, which caused extream hardships and health problems for the deportee's. Some Acadians were shipped to the British colonies in America, but the American's weren't too happy about taking in sick, French Catholics either. Finally, many found welcome in French Louisiana, where they were given land and able to start rebuilding their lives again.

Longfellow's poem "Evangeline" is roughly based on a true story of a couple who were separated during this dispersal, however it doesn't capture the magnitude and extent of the hardships these people endured. Partly because of the rural and isolated geography of this area and partly due to the nature of cajun society, the languages and customs have survived and evolved to a larger extent then some other ethnic groups in the American melting pot.

Hm, a whole new chapter on American history I'd never heard about. Was I really asleep in all those classes?

Anyway, Dynell also showed us how rice growing got started in the area. Louisiana and Texas share the honor of being the third and fourth largest rice growing states - behind Arkansas and California. Seeding is done by aircraft. Rice tolerates flooding, but doesn't require it except for germination. But the fields are flooded three times during the growing season here. The first time is to help the rice sprout. The other floodings are to control weeds and pests which aren't able to tolerate flooding. The fields are then dried out in late August or early September for harvesting.

It takes 162 pounds of rice to fill a barrel. Most fields yeild about 36 barrels per acre. Once harvested, rice is stored in silo's with special equipment to dry the rice until it has about 11% moisture. Then it can be shipped to the mill. When a truck brings a load of rice to the mill, it is weighed on a scale (in the upper left part of the photo below). Then it drives over a hopper and dumps the load of rice into the hopper (in the lower right part of the photo below).

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There are several steps to get the rice ready for market. Since I've got a video where Dynell describes all of these, I'll hold off until I can upload the video. In the meantime, here are some of the machines still in use at Konriko.

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The finished products can be ordered online or bought directly in the store. The primary products are brown rice (with brown lettering on the bag), Long grain rice (with red lettering), and medium grain rice (with blue lettering).

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We also sampled some of their specialty products. Today they had cooked up some Rice with Garlic and Herbs, which was quite good.

By this time it was early afternoon and we were quite hungry. I had asked around a bit about where we could get some good cajun food and was told to try the Bon Creole Lunch Counter. Mom helped navigate from the tourist guide map and we found it without a hitch. We both ordered roast beef poboy's (I wimped out on the crawfish, sorry). They were pretty good, but the 1/2 size poboy's we got were about twice as big as either of us needed. Maybe we should have gotten one 1/2 size and split it? Nice little lunch counter however.

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We have both decided to skip supper tonight, maybe a few carrots but we're too full for anything else.

A few final observations on our little foray into cajun country. This is a far cry from the glitzy tourist attractions - it couldn't be more different than the Fort Lauderdale type sections of Florida then if they were both in different countries. Louisiana is promoting tourism in this area, but it doesn't appear to have changed it much. This is pretty typical of the types of buildings we saw in both Lafayette and New Iberia. Of course, we just scratched the surface, so other parts of these towns may look completely different - but what we did see looked like there's not that much money down here.

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Another big issue down here is oil. It is such a mixed issue - it brings in jobs and money, but also causes serious environmental issues (depending on who you talk to). As we were driving back to I-10, we passed many businesses that support the oil industry. This one was catching - it's an office building, but if you look close - it is built to resemble an offshore oil rig!

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As usual, there are more things to learn about and enjoy down here then we have time for. We need to move on to Texas next and leave these nice folks behind. Given that we didn't have much time to spend in Louisiana, I'm glad we skipped New Orleans and made time to learn about the cajun history, rice and Tabasco.

Logistics:

Miles Driven - 135, cumulative 14,029
Camped at Sam Houston Jones State Park in Lake Charles, Louisiana (about 32 miles from Texas border)

Provisions Procured:
- Gas ($38.06 for 12.69 g at 123887)
- Lunch at Bon Creole Lunch Counter in New Iberia, LA

Animals Sighted:

(a) Domestic - Lots of cattle, some sheep, horses, and a cat
(b) Wild - Crows, Killdeer, Osprey

Posted by jl98584 19:27 Archived in USA Tagged family_travel

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Comments

Wow, I can't believe you are here..in Texas.
That is a cool thing, the Avery Island and tabasco. There is alot of Cajun culture in San Antonio. I guess we are close enough. The Fiesta in April has a night parade that is much like Mardi Graw. It is cool this week, but the weather reports are saying it should warm a little next weekend.

by rllomas

How come I Learned about Cajun history in school and you didn't? I guess you are right, you must have been asleep in class. I did not learn about the history of Tabasco sauce in school however, so even though the tour may not have been really exiting, the info on the blog was interesting. I also didn't know about the salt domes in LA, so more stuff I didn't know. I'm in Portland (OR) for a seminar where I am learning masses of information. I think I've thunk enuf for one day.

by drque

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