October 13th, 2007


Hot Stuff ...

I was very excited to get this book, as it is the first I've received from any of the "review programs" out there, this coming from HarperCollins' "First Look". After putting up a hundred and sixty or so book reviews on my blog, I figured I should see what opportunities are out there, and I was happy to find Jeffrey Rothfeder's McIlhenny's Gold: How a Louisiana Family Built the Tabasco Empire on their list of fall releases. As I have mentioned previously, I grew up in the P.R. end of the "consumer packaged food product" industry, and was very familiar with the hot sauce niche via our work with Pace Foods and others, so this should have been another of those food books which hit "close to home".

However, unless one hails from New Iberia, I'm guessing that the story spun out in McIlhenny's Gold is not something which hits "close to home" for most people, because the family which brought the world Tabasco Sauce (of which I have been a great fan for a long time), is unique, insular, and extremely tied in with its very specific geographic roots. Frankly, I had expected this book to have been a "triumphant story" of an enterprising family arising from the ashes of the Civil War to create one of the great brand names in the world, yet (while that is the general story line) it's not so much a paean as an investigative report, a reality that I'm guessing arose through the McIlhenny family declining to cooperate with the author, who was then left with "official" and secondary sources, most of which are, of course, free of the "spin" the family leadership would have liked to preserve.

And, "spin" (or at least "embellished tales"), is a recurring theme here. Indeed, in my mind, the ghost of Justin Wilson (a Cajun "raconteur" and TV Chef best remembered for deep-frying a Thanksgiving turkey) hovered as a recognizable figure of the sort of person that most of the McIlhenny's appeared to be ... which helped, as the book is bereft of pictures, leading to having to imagine much of the people and places (I'd recommend a visit to the Tabasco web site to fill in a few of the blanks!) ... with instance after instance of the "family line" not exactly being what an outsider (be they at the patent office or a competitor's boardroom) would consider "the truth".

The story opens in the antebellum south, with D.D. Avery marrying into the Marsh family, and eventually taking over ownership of Isle Petit Anse, the bayou island that would subsequently bear his name, and the sugar plantations run on it. The pivotal player in the family myth, Edmund McIlhenny (son of a Scottish tavern-owner in Maryland) had made a fortune in the evolving banking industry, and (after years of business relations with the family) ended up marrying one of Avery's daughters. The families fled the area during the Civil War, only to return to devastation, with the New Orleans banking industry wiped out, and Avery Island ravaged (the Union had captured the island for its extensive salt deposits). The "official story" was that Edmund had gotten some "exotic" Mexican pepper seeds and sowed them in a garden plot, resulting in the initial peppers used for Tabasco sauce, however, another Louisiana businessman (with connections to both McIlhenny and the Averys) had been producing a Tabasco pepper-based sauce well before the war, and it appears that the "official story" is a myth to cover up the likelihood that producing a pepper sauce was "plan C" for a family trying to get back on its feet.

Of course, the pepper sauce that Edmund McIlhenny began producing on Avery Island was quite a success and the "iffy" truth of its origins should not diminish the fact that taking this route made the McIlhenny family one of the great names of Louisiana, and a world-wide recognizable brand! Over time, McIlhenny, as Avery had before him, consolidated his ownership of the island, creating a business that was solidly linked to his family line ... a reality which would "flavor" the business for most of its history, and perhaps doom it in the end. In many ways, McIlhenny's Gold is a "serial biography", as it moves down the generations, from Edmund to John Avery McIlhenny (a Rough-Rider and long-time associate of Teddy Roosevelt), to Edward Avery McIlhenny (a noted naturalist and traveler, who ended giving Avery island some of its most unique features), to Walter Stauffer McIlhenny (a renowned WW2 hero known as "Tabasco Mac") who died in 1985. Each of these men had a particular style, and related to the family, company, and island in different ways, but each having a devotion to the product.

Unfortunately, the story becomes muddled with Walter's death. While there never had been a clear "line of succession" for the top job at the company, somebody was always there to step up and make his mark. Somehow, at the 5th generation, there was no clear choice. Also, due to the stipulation that all company stock must stay within the family (and there being between one and two hundred descendants making some sort of a living off of the company's profits), there were serious "boardroom battles" between factions. Eventually, Edward Simmons (grandson of Edward McIlhenny) was pushed into the big chair. The following years were tumultuous, and Simmon's tenure was ended when Paul McIlhenny managed to obtain enough stock to force a change to his (current) leadership.

As noted, I have been a great fan of Tabasco Sauce, and I would have hoped that McIlhenny's Gold was a "happier" story. While fascinating reading, one feels worry for the continuation of the product, at least as the iconic presence that it has been all my life. Certainly anybody with an interest in food in general, and in hot sauces in particular, should read this book, as should those wishing to peer through a window into the very strange world of the deepest south, and how the Civil War changed the lives of the leaders of that society. I see from both Amazon and B&N that this book is already available (at 34% and 20% discounts respectively), so I assume you can likewise find it at your local brick-and-mortar book vendor (or from any of the two dozen vendors listed on the HarperCollins site).

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