The Tabasco Buddha and other wonders on Avery Island

While in south-central Louisiana last week we made a pilgrimage to Avery Island, the home of Tabasco Sauce. The factory tour was very short – a five minute lecture by a tour guide and a 15 minute video – and the factory itself was closed for Mardi Gras, but I suspect all bottling plants look pretty much alike, so I’m not particularly disappointed.

Avery Island, a private island along the Gulf Coast, is owned by the McIlhenny family, the makers of Tabasco Sauce. The island sits atop a large salt dome and the salt mine actually predates the white man’s presence on the island. The Avery family (which Mr. McIlhenny married into) mined salt for a living. Then a Civil War era soldier gave Mr. McIlhenny some pepper seeds he had brought back from Mexico during the Mexican War. McIlhenny grew the peppers, packed them in salt from the local salt mine, and eventually mixed the aged peppers with vinegar to create the mother of all American hot sauces: Tabasco Sauce.

[Note: click on the thumbnails to see larger sized photos.]

Alligator crawling out of swamp

This is not the Tabasco Gator

Edmund (Ned) McIlhenny, son of the founder of the company, aside from being an astute businessman was an avid sportsman and naturalist. In fact, in 1890 he bagged the largest alligator ever killed in Louisiana (19′ 2″) dubbed the Tabasco Gator. During Ned’s lifetime the Great Egret was nearly hunted to extinction and Edmund set aside a nesting sanctuary on Avery Island for the Egrets. It eventually became “Bird City,” part of the Jungle Gardens, a wildlife and plant preserve on the island. The sanctuary is the real reason to visit Avery Island in my opinion.

Egrets Nesting at Bird City, Avery Island, LA

Egrets gathered on the nesting platforms at the lake dubbed "Bird City."

Ned’s naturalist credentials are besmirched by the nutria incident. Along with the bird refuge, McIlhenny imported a South American rodent (which we now call the nutria) to Avery Island for the purpose of fur production. A hurricane allowed the nutria to escape and cross to the mainland where they have multiplied in rodent-like fashion for a century causing havoc for dam and levee builders.

After Katrina there has been an all-out war on the nutria. Ridding New Orleans of nutria has even become a bit of a media event. With people as different as comedian Dave Attell, on his Comedy Central series, Insomniac, and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, on his Travel Channel series, No Reservations, being featured on prime time television shooting the furry creatures with rifles, as they emerge from their dens dug into the levees, exterminating nutria by any means possible is even celebrated by many of the Hollywood left.

So, what to do with the executed rodents? An enterprising businessman in the flagging New York furrier business offered a line of nutria fur coats, hats, etc. with a brilliant “let’s feel sorry for New Orleans residents and help them by wearing exterminated nutria coats” campaign that, whether financially successful or not, has deeply divided the animal rights folks. (Evidently the moral dilemma goes something like this: Ridding south Louisiana of an invasive species is good, but wearing them is, if not bad, still in bad taste.)

How can you not love Tabasco Sauce with these “kill the gator,” “save the egret,” “import a destructive invasive species for financial gain,” “steal the Buddha” (oh, I haven’t told you about the 1,000 year old Buddha yet?) credentials? This little bottle of hot sauce represents that which is as ambivalently American as it is possible to get!

A stand of bamboo

This bamboo is similar to an aspen wood. Notice the egrets nesting at "Bird City" in the background.

As I said above, the real reason to visit Avery Island is the Jungle Gardens. I don’t have many good pictures because our visit was late in the afternoon on a very dark and dreary day. Second to the egrets which nest there, the sanctuary is most famous for its exotic plants which Ned McIlhenny collected, especially the remarkable variety of camellias and azaleas as well as several varieties of bamboo. When we were there the camellias were just finishing their bloom cycle (and the morning’s heavy rain did not improve the blooms in the least bit) while the azaleas were just beginning to bloom. As a result, neither were spectacular, but both were interesting.

Most fascinating to me was the bamboo. Near Bird City the caretakers had thinned out a patch of very large, green trunked bamboo. With the wispy leaves rustling above my head it was very much like walking through an aspen wood in the western mountains.

A "shock" of bamboo

Brenda standing in front of bamboo.

There were also thick stands of smaller bamboo densely packed together but planted in such a way that they were somewhat reminiscent of a shock of wheat, but on a much larger scale.

McIlhenny’s interest in bamboo (so we were told) led to the donation of a 1,000 year old Buddha statue which is now the centerpiece of the sanctuary. The woman who sold us the tickets and gave us an overview of the driving tour leaned over the counter conspiratorially and said, “It’s a stolen Buddha, you know. Ned didn’t steal it himself, but the people that gave it to him did.”

Brenda and I speculate that if it were a museum rather than an island, there would probably be some legal issues involved. There are almost certainly some ethical issues, given the current attitude about protection of artifacts.

The poor Buddha had his right ear cut off by a visitor some years ago. As a result, not only can the Buddha not hear your prayers (at least if you stand on that side of him – maybe he’s still efficacious for left-leaning religious types), but he’s imprisoned in a wood and glass cell in the middle of an alligator-infested swamp. I suppose it’s not quite what Mr. Shakyamuni (who we know better as the Buddha) had in mind when he said he was proceeding to Nirvana after he died. Oh well, that’s one of the risks of being a lesser god.

But Buddha statues are not why I went to Avery Island. The gators, egrets, camellias, azaleas, and bamboo were quite enough to make the $8 cover charge worth it.

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2 thoughts on “The Tabasco Buddha and other wonders on Avery Island

  1. Hello and thanks for a wonderful article. I love this area; it is beautiful and quirky and I love its history. I would like to add that Buddha is not a god. No Budhhist considers him a god, and he never claimed to be one. He is regarded as a wise teacher, a philosopher, that is all.

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