Spicy Digs at Tabasco Birthplace
March 29, 2000
by Spencer P.M. Harrington
||The laboratory, the first Tabasco Sauce factory, in the late nineteenth century (Courtesy McIlhenny Company Archives) [LARGER IMAGE]
University of Alabama archaeologists in June will excavate the south Louisiana building where Edmund McIlhenny invented Tabasco Sauce in 1868. Razed in the late 1920s, the building, known as the laboratory, is also
reputed to have been a pigeon house and Confederate supply depot and
barracks before its most famous use as the birthplace of the pepper sauce.
"We don't know when it was built or by whom," says McIlhenny Company historian and archivist Shane K. Bernard, who discovered documents in the early 1990s that precisely located the site of the building on Avery Island, where Tabasco is today manufactured. University of Alabama anthropologist Ian Brown will dig the building's foundations hoping to find military artifacts in addition to early Tabasco Sauce bottles and other relics.
Avery Island's huge salt deposits--a precious resource for the Confederates,
who used salt to preserve food and cure leather in making boots, saddles,
and other equipment--were a prime target for Union troops. It is presumed
that the building was converted into a watchtower by Confederates defending
the salt works, but concrete evidence is lacking. Union troops seized the
island in April 1863.
Replica antique Tabasco bottle (Courtesy McIlhenny Company Archives. The TABASCO® marks, bottle and label designs are registered trademarks and service marks exclusively of McIlhenny Co., Avery Island, LA 70513.)
Bernard says the excavation has sentimental associations for the
descendants of the McIlhennys and their neighbors, the Averys. The two
families intermarried and the laboratory is known to have been a gathering
place for dances and a place where books, paintings, and caged songbirds
were kept. The pungent odor of vinegar and pepper mash fermenting in the
basement is said to have brought tears to the eyes of visitors.
The laboratory was used to manufacture Tabasco Sauce between 1868 and 1905,
when a larger factory was built elsewhere on the island. While in New
Orleans following the Civil War, Edmund McIlhenny is said to have met a
traveler, possibly a Confederate veteran, who gave him a few pepper pods
from Mexico or Central America. Abandoning his search for a job in banking,
McIlhenny returned to Avery Island to plant the peppers. Seeing that they
took to the soil and were ripening to a bright red, McIlhenny decided to
make a pepper sauce to spice up the post-war South's bland food. Tabasco
gained renown in archaeological circles when Howard Carter carried along a
bottle while searching for the tomb of King Tutankhamun.
© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America