This family is very protective of its peppers.
Photo: Philip Gould/Getty Images
The nation’s oldest hot-sauce maker may soon be headed to drier ground. For 150 years, Louisiana’s McIlhenny family has manufactured its beloved Tabasco sauce on a geological salt dome called Avery Island that’s just a few miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico. Despite its name, it’s not a true “island,” though the area is surrounded by water, in the form of bayous and swampland, and has served the McIlhennys just fine since their hot sauce business began back in 1868.
Problem is, climate change is making the McIlhennys’ home more precarious by the day: The New Orleans Times-Picayune reports it was once “an ideal spot” for manufacturing, with convenient access to the coast, while 163 feet above sea level and on some 2,200 acres, which protected the site from bad Gulf storms. However, thanks to rising water levels, Avery is now “disappearing at a rapid pace.”
As described by the paper, the situation sounds quite dire:
The marsh protecting the island is losing about 30 feet per year. Saltwater is seeping into the marshes, killing freshwater plants and causing soil to loosen and dissolve. Nearby ship canals grow busier and wider, hastening erosion. Storms are more frequent and hit with more force.
The land is sinking as well. Subsidence drops the Louisiana coast by nearly an inch per year.
In other words, Tabasco is bracing for a fast-approaching future in which “Avery is a true island surrounded by an increasingly turbulent sea.” The good news is the family isn’t planning on just rolling over. For one, original Tabasco is famously made using just three ingredients — tabasco peppers, vinegar, and salt from the family’s mines — so no Avery Island would mean no more salt. Also, the McIlhennys have been living on those wetlands for ages, raising egrets there, even running their own nutria farm.
With so much invested, the family has mounted an “expensive and ambitious effort” to hang onto their homeland (and, it goes without saying, pricey production facility and corporate headquarters). This extends to about $1 million they’ve dumped into a big dam, and also to a “multifaceted, almost obsessive” approach to restoring the area’s grasses and re-engineering the natural flow of water. It’s not “gobs of money,” a wetland specialist tells the paper, but what he calls Tabasco’s shoestring “trial-and-error stewardship” has kept the island intact for 150 years.