Avery Island Louisiana gets people guessing from the start.
First, it’s not an island, at least not in the conventional sense.
It’s a 2.5 mile wide peak of salt that rises, island-like, from the surrounding swamps and bayous of the Deep American South, awash with marshmallow plants, alligators and azaleas.
Second, the mash of the chilli plants grown here are famous the world over.
For Avery Island Louisiana is the home of the Tabasco factory: responsible for the most famous hot pepper sauce in the world.
Recommended reading: 27 Ways Food and Travel Go Together (Not just for “Foodies”)
Today, the Tabasco Factory runs a slick operation beneath the green-fringed Louisiana sun. Tabasco bottles line up for photo ops while glassy miniatures wait in the gift shop. Avery Island gumbo comes with a punnet of six spiced Tabasco versions.
And if hot sauce golf bags, key rings and clothes are all that’s been missing in your life then you’ll find it all here, beneath a giant Stars and Stripes.
But the story of Tabasco itself, found through sultry greenhouses, barrel stores and whirring production lines, tells a more universal – and intriguing – one.
It talks about the mystery that is the secret to success.
Today, Tabasco retails in over 185 countries, in over 20 languages and dialects and has even appeared in the world of James Bond. The business generates over $100 million dollars each year – and every single bottle is filled in the Tabasco Factory here on Avery Island Louisiana.
Yet, the story began back in 1868 with a young man who had lost everything in America’s Civil War.
Edmund McIlhenny dreamed of putting “a bottle of Tabasco on every table” and he and his heirs have arguably achieved just that.
The recipe is largely unchanged (a mash of capsicum frutescens pepper aged, strained and mixed with vinegar and local rock salt) and the bottle reads like a history book.
But how did McIlhenny do it?
Why this hot sauce, why here?
Was it his business partner, the less well known John. C. Henshaw, who opened up sales to the prosperous north east?
Was it the company’s devotion to family, with a 5th generation CEO today?
Or was it the company’s approach to marketing and embracing new technology while keeping the basics of the product the same?
The first ever newspaper advertisement in New Orleans in 1869 was for Tabasco.
They made an early move to radio. And were one of the first food companies to get online.
And then there was that pioneering product placement involving The Man with the Golden Gun.
Yet the shape of the bottle, forged from recycled cologne in the post-war years, and its design have barely changed at all. A green top replaces the wax seal but the key details on the name stamp remain the same: Tabasco, Avery Island, McIlhenny.
Is the secret to success simply committing to one thing and then trying any and everything to make that thing work?
And when it comes to earning a living through our own creativity, does it pay to create different works or to focus on one thing and one thing only and market the hell out of that?
That’s a lot of introspection to wrangle out of a Louisiana hot sauce tour.
But the Tabasco Factory seems to invite thought, time, reflection.
And if you didn’t get that side of things during the bright blaze of the factory, the neighbouring Jungle Gardens provide a soothing journey through Avery Island Louisiana.
Along the self-drive safari, the water ripples, the sun slides by.
Even the alligators seem languid, lovely even, as the wheels roll over tarmac in this semi-tropical garden. One hundred and seventy acres of the Louisiana state: wild and free yet also dotted with McIlhenny’s ancestors eco-passion projects.
Buddhist statues, wild deer, bamboo and live oaks stretch along the Bayou Petite Anse, home to the world’s largest collection of camellias.
Birdwatchers can look out for roseate spoonbills, white ibises and the occasional great blue heron in this sanctuary that attracts terns and blue-winged teals.
But it’s the snowy egrets that dominate this part of Avery Island Louisiana: the result of a McIlhenny bid to save the birds from extinction when fashion found their feathers fruitful for female hats.
And for all the reflection on what underpins the secret of success, perhaps the better point lives among the egrets.
It’s not so much the reach of success; it’s what you do with it that counts.
Disclosure – I travelled through Louisiana with assistance from Flight Centre, Hertz UK, Louisiana Travel and TTM World. As ever as always, I kept the right to write what I like. Otherwise, what is the point?!
Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more. Find out more.
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