We planned to leave Lafayette, La., early enough in the morning to tour the TABASCO factory, make a stop at the Country Store and settle in for lunch to talk about all we had seen. It isn’t often best-laid plans actually happen, but such was the case one wonderful October morning in coastal Louisiana.
Lafayette is far from a sleepy town. Located 135 miles west of New Orleans, it bustles in this French-speaking section of the state. Many of the popular destination lists include it as one of the “Happiest Places in America.” After two days in town, we agreed. There were plenty of toe-tapped Cajun and Zydeco music, live music and locals who offer advice about where to dine, what to see and where to go dancing. It has been a long time since anyone has asked me if I wanted to know where to go dancing so I was impressed.
But we weren’t dancing that day; we were headed to Avery island, which has been in the McIlhenny family for more than 150 years. The island itself is a giant salt mine — which historians say is part of the reason it was populated so early by Native peoples and then settlers, all wanting access to salt. The McIlhennys created a sauce using locally grown pepper plants and just a wee bit of the miles of salt that lay beneath the surface.
Parking the car, we joined a VIP Tour and were mesmerized by the knowledge of local Avery Island historian Shane K. Bernard, Ph.D.
Bernard addressed the group and walked us to the production area where we saw display pots of pepper plants and aisles of salt-topped oak barrels, where the famous TABASCO sauce was fermenting. Inside the factory, the aroma from the stirring vats catches both your eyes and your nose.
In the Country Store, we were able to taste favorites and new flavors, not just on crackers or pretzels. The clerks encourage guests to try a flavor on ice cream as well.
A traditionalist, I prefer my Tabasco sauce in a dip or barbecue sauce, which is how we found it at 1868.
Named after the year the farm and production began, 1868 is a brightly lit cafeteria with a helpful staff and a menu as long as my arm. Even those with shellfish allergies found more than enough selection to choose from. When I created my own Cajun Pirogue Sampler, I said no to Crawfish Etoufee but yes to Avery Island red beans and rice; ditto for jambalaya that might or might not include shrimp and decided on pepper jelly boudin and rounded out the trio with chicken and sausage gumbo.
Settling in at a long community table and recapping our morning on the island only got better when we sliced into dessert — a slice of warm pecan pie.
The TABASCO Factory Tour and Country Store lived up to all we expected; the dining even more so. I noticed a flier to sign up for a cooking class. Hospitality Chef Lionel Robin leads a class of TABASCO-inspired dishes that includes a four-course meal. Another reason to return to Lafayette, La.