Photo by Philip Gould via Getty Images

The famous hot sauce company is fighting to preserve its home for the past 150 years

Tim Nelson
January 31, 2018

In just the past few months, the vagaries of climate change have affected everything from the California avocado crop to South African wine production. Now, sad news from the Louisiana bayou suggests that not even hot sauce is immune from the consequences of extreme weather and rising sea levels. 

Since 1868, Edmund McIlhenny and his descendants have used Avery Island as the home base for production of Tabasco, perhaps the world’s most ubiquitous brand of hot sauce. Though not technically an island, the 2,200 acres of land in the Iberia Parish (what Louisiana calls its counties) sits 163 feet above sea level, making it one of the driest and most elevated points along the notoriously swampy gulf coast. 

Avery Island’s other natural qualities have proven indispensable to the development of Tabasco as well. As one of five “salt island”s along Louisiana’s gulf coast, its underground deposits help supply the family’s salt, and its nutrient-rich soil cultivated some of Edmund McIlhenny’s first peppers. Simply put, without Avery Island, the bottle of hot sauce you can find on restaurant tables around the world wouldn’t exist. 

Though the McIlheny family’s barrels of peppers and brine have safely aged on Avery Island for 150 years, there are worrying signs that the times are changing for the worse. Avery Island is losing roughly 30 feet of marsh along its coastline each year, as saltwater kills freshwater plants and dissolves soil, making the very ground more unstable. It doesn’t help that subsidence is causing Louisiana’s coastline to sink about an inch each year. Add in rising sea levels and more intense storms, and you’re left with a recipe for disaster. 

As for McIlhenny Co., they’re not about to give up Tabasco’s home on Avery Island without a fight. They’ve invested millions of dollars into a levee and pump system to prevent damaging floods like the one that washed some of their supply away and shut down production for a week after Hurricane Rita in 2005. Company leaders like Executive Vice President Harold “Took” Osborn have also taken a hands-on approach to preserving the island. Through his own efforts and projects developed in partnership with local conservation groups, they’ve already been able to reclaim about 200 acres of lost marsh, which act as a natural buffer against storms. They’ve also taken to plugging up old oil canals that erode the land.

“We’re an island, and that’s given us a natural conservation bent,” Osborn told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “[It] just takes a little patience. But when you’ve been here for 150 years, you think in large chunks of time. You look for the long-term gain.

 It’s certainly going to be an uphill battle to preserve Avery Island. But with the continued production of Tabasco on the line, anyone who’s ever had a bloody mary or needed to spice up their food would say it’s worth it. Here’s to hoping that wherever Sriracha does its production is located on higher ground. 

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