Well, I was looking for something to download for my new Kindle, and a bottle of Tabasco sauce in the kitchen prompted me to see if there was a book about its history. There was; even better, it was on sale for 99 cents, and since I had a credit on my account I didn’t have to pay a thing.
McIlhenny’s Gold by Jeffrey Rothfeder is not an unduly long book, and I finished it quickly. But it was definitely a good purchase – an illuminating (and unauthorized) look at the McIlhenny family and how it built a hot sauce empire. The book is fair, but it’s a warts-and-all picture of the company’s history. Rothfeder does seem to have strong negative opinions about Paul McIlhenny, who was running the company — badly, Rothfeder believed — at the time of the book’s release in 2007. (McIlhenny died in 2013.) Paul McIlhenny got the post by ousting the only person from outside the McIlhenny family to hold it, an Australian named Vince Pierse. Rothfeder makes no secret of believing Pierse should have been given more time to pursue his aggressive marketing ideas, which might have increased sales without compromising the product itself. By contrast, the options Paul McIlhenny pursued for expanding sales were to introduce other flavors of Tabasco sauce – flavors without the flagship brand’s reputation for long aging and high quality.
The McIlhennys still on Avery Island running the company did not talk to him, although he talked to other members of the extended family, who for the most part did not want to be specifically identified.
The story is a fascinating one – Edmund McIlhenny, a former banker, found himself unable to resume his former success after the Civil War, and so he started a hot sauce business. There was a well-told tale about how he came up with the idea after a Civil War veteran gave him some seeds, but that story appears to have been baloney – another, apparently similar, hot sauce made with peppers from Tabasco, Mexico, was sold prior to the war, and seems to have been McIlhenny’s true inspiration.
Still, McIlhenny came up with a near-perfect three-ingredient recipe of peppers, vinegar and salt. The peppers are aged three years and then combined with vinegar. Since the late 1800s, the pepper mash has been aged in barrels provided to it by the Jack Daniel Distillery a few minutes’ drive south of me. The barrels are used to age whiskey, then sent to Louisiana and used to age the pepper mash.
Edmund McIlhenny’s immediate successor, his son John, was less successful. When John left to join Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, his brother Edward “E.A.” McIlhenny took over, and it’s his story that is really the heart of the book. Edward McIlhenny was a fascinating character and a study in contradictions. He naturalist who nevertheless imagined some dubious ways of cashing in on nature. He was in some ways a product of southern attitudes about race, and there was a definite caste system within the company, and yet on Avery Island he forbade segregated restrooms or other facilities. He created a “company town” on Avery Island which was a mix of good and bad ideas. He was a man of power and influence whose last years were marred by a corruption scandal.
A group from my church goes each year to the United Methodist Committee On Relief (UMCOR) facility in Sager Brown, Louisiana, to do volunteer work, and their schedule usually gives them the chance to go and tour the Tabasco facility on Avery Island, a half hour’s drive away. I would love to do both those things, and will one of these years.
Anyway, this was a fascinating book. It’s a good parallel to another book about the history of a family-owned company, The Search for God and Guinness: A Biography of the Beer that Changed the World, in that it shows the difficulty of maintaining a family-owned business and its core principles as the generations pass, the world changes, and the ever-expanding circle of heirs demands profits from a company it has no working involvement with.
Highly recommended if, like me, you’re a Tabasco fan, and worth reading even if you’re not.