New Orleans has not just recovered from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. Its tourism is booming. More people are flocking to the city, which has more restaurants, hotels and attractions than before the storm.
Louisiana and city tourism officials note only 3.7 million people visited New Orleans in 2006, a year after the hurricane hit. Last summer, the number had climbed to 9.5 million and it is expected to match or exceed the pre-Katrina figure this year.
In addition to the opening of new attractions, including parks, museums and a trolley line, visitors now are greeted by about 1,400 restaurants that feature the classic Creole and Cajun dishes, as well as a wide range of contemporary and ethnic food.
I confess. I love New Orleans and not for the debauchery of Madri Gras, which I have never attended. Rather, I am attracted to the centuries-old port city by my love of travel and history, and my desire to sample its different cultures and food. (I suspect with enough garlic and butter, New Orleans chefs can make eating an old boot a treat.)
The cost of traveling to New Orleans depends on how and when you want to go. I played around with the United Airlines website and found a round-trip summer airfare for about $480 from Bakersfield and about $230 from Los Angeles (LAX).
But many of my trips to the city have been detours from longer, cross-country road trips. When I am in the “neighborhood,” I’m obliged to stop. And that’s how once again I ended up in New Orleans this spring.
But you can only hang out on Bourbon Street so long. And, really, if you have seen one souvenir shop, you have seen them all. This time, I went in search of the city’s “real flavor” and that required a two-hour drive through some of Louisiana’s most spectacular countryside.
Out of New Orleans, we pointed our car southwest on U.S. 90. (If you fly to New Orleans, you will have to rent a car, which is worth the cost.)
The well-maintained highway and its adjoining routes comprise the Bayou Byways and are listed on many guides as one of the nation’s most scenic drives. The highway snakes (pun intended) through swamps and farmland, with beautiful, but creepy-looking moss-draped forests of oak trees creating a canopy that in places seem to engulf the asphalt. The intermittent expanses of swamps are bordered by farmland, where all sorts of plants are grown, including pepper plants.
The billboards lining the highway leave no doubt that you have entered alligator country. And the folks who live here seem to have both a healthy respect and love for these toothy animals.
Next come the signs about crawfish and just about any other critter that crawls out of the Gulf of Mexico to please a person’s palate or scare them out of their skins.
Highway 90 passes through or near places called Kraemer, a base for alligator processing and swamp tours; Houma, the confluence of several bayous and another base for swamp tours; Franklin, another home of bayous, swamp tours and sugarcane growers; Shadows-on-the-Teche and its collection of antebellum homes; and finally, Avery Island, our destination.
The route continues west for many more miles, with additional classic Louisiana bayou attractions. But we turned off on Louisiana 329, just east of New Iberia, which ends at the gated entrance to Avery Island, the birthplace of one of the region’s most distinct flavors — the peppery red sauce we know as Tabasco.
Visit to historic spot
Tabasco was developed on Avery Island by Edmund McIlhenny, a banker, who began commercial production of the hot sauce after the Civil War. McIlhenny’s descendents continue to grow the peppers, and bottle and distribute Tabasco from their processing plant on Avery Island.
Avery Island is not really an “island.” Instead, it is a 165-foot high dry mound, or salt dome, surrounded by wetlands. The land was recognized as a source of salt by Native Americans, who mined salt and sold it to other Midwestern and Southern tribes.
Originally called Petite Anse Island, the land was purchased in 1818 by John Craig March, who used it to operate a sugar plantation. Through subsequent marriages, its ownership morphed to include many family branches and its name changed to Avery Island.
Before the Civil War, McIlhenny married Mary Eliza Avery, the daughter of the island’s owner. As the Civil War raged, family members fled New Orleans to live first on the island and later in Texas.
The island became the scene of pitched battles between Confederate and Union forces lusting after its rich salt deposits. When the McIlhenny family returned after the war, they found their plantation ruined, their mansion plundered and their business destroyed.
What remained were a few dried peppers and seeds that a soldier returning from the U.S.- Mexican War had given McIlhenny around 1850. McIlhenny had eaten some of the peppers with his food and saved some seeds for planting in the family’s garden on the island. Determined to turn the peppers into income, McIlhenny combined vinegar, Avery Island salt and mashed capsicum peppers to create a spicy sauce that eventually was named Tabasco.
Packaging and aging the sauce in 350 used cologne bottles, he distributed samples to grocery wholesalers, including one in New York. On the strength of these purchases, McIlhenny began the commercial production of Tabasco in 1868.
The spicy sauce adorned all types of tables — from country folks to royalty. It became the critical ingredient in such delicacies as the bloody Mary, a mixed drink invented in New York in the 1920s. A legendary treatment for a hangover, it includes vodka, tomato juice, pepper, Worcestershire sauce, lemon, lime, horseradish and, of course, Tabasco.
People don’t just “use” Tabasco on their food. They are fervently devoted to the sauce. Consider the 1932 isolationist “Buy British” frenzy that threatened to ban the importation of Tabasco into Britain. It caused such a stir that the ban had to be lifted. It is said that to this day, the queen uses Tabasco pepper sauce on her lobster cocktail.
Tabasco Pepper Sauce and other Tabasco-branded products are sold in more than 160 countries.
After running out of land needed for growing peppers on Avery Island in the 1960s, the McIlhenny Co. began shipping special varieties of Avery Island capsicum pepper seeds to countries in South America and Africa. Peppers harvested in these areas are mashed, mixed with salt from Avery Island and fermented for three years in white oak former whiskey barrels, before being blended with vinegar and bottled at the Avery Island processing plant.
Checking things out
A visit to Avery Island includes a walking tour of the production process — including the growing of seeds, aging, blending and bottling. The visitor’s center includes a gift shop that features all things Tabasco, including some items seldom found on store shelves, as well as a restaurant that offers classic Louisiana food.
The island is about 3 miles long and 2 ½ miles wide. It includes a 170-acre drive-through Jungle Gardens that was developed decades ago by a McIlhenny son, who was a naturalist. It features a variety of azaleas, camellias, bamboo, a “Bird City” sanctuary, and even a centuries-old Buddha that was a gift to the family in 1936.