Saturday, February 03, 2018

Hot Island Hotspot

Avery Island, Louisiana is very high on the list of places I have never been but to which I feel a strong connection. Since I started getting serious about chili in middle school, I have never been far from a bottle of Tabasco. One of the nice things about my three-year stint in the specialty food industry is that our packaging plant always had hundreds of thousands of tiny (1/8-ounce) bottles of the pepper-mash sauce, because we put one in every Meal, Ready-to-Eat that we packaged. When we had meetings in the office, it was often the case that every man in the room was wearing a Tabasco necktie, as we each had a small collection. I remember my boss there admonishing me when I returned from a meeting in New England and complained about the bland food. "What were you doing traveling up there without Tabasco in your pocket?" she scolded.

Its Louisiana home has loomed large in my imagination for years. Even though my parents have visited -- and they did bring me some nice gifts -- I have not yet been closer than a quick zip along Interstate 10 during our 1997 move from Texas to Massachusetts.

I recently learned a lot about the environmental geography of the island from a beautifully illustrated essay by Times-PIcayune journalist Tristan Baurick. As the title implies, his article Tabasco's homeland fights for survival in Louisiana against storms and rising seas is in part the all-too common story of a coastal community defending against the effects of climate change. It is also, however, a richer story of a family that has developed a complex relationship with its land for a century and a half.

The island is more of a hill, a salt dome that is one of the highest points along the Gulf coast, and that continues to provide not only a home for the production of Tabasco Sauce but also one of its three ingredients: salt. Its status as an island is as vague as the land-sea boundary of Louisiana itself, about which I wrote in Tough Shape a couple of years ago.

Image: Justin Secrist USDA
Baurick's profile of the island includes a biographical history of the family business and several stories about the good and bad results of its efforts in the area of wildlife management. It is one of several places where the South American nutria (a varmint similar to a groundhog) was raised for its fur. At a particular point in the 20th century, the economics of the fur industry and the mathematics of nutria reproduction made this a very tempting business prospect. Nutria are apparently adept at escaping confinement, however, and their rapid reproduction makes them quite an aggressive invasive species. The damage done to coastal wetlands -- including those the McIlhenny family have long tried to protect -- is incalculable. I first learned of nutria farming far from Louisiana, when I visited the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge on the edge of the Chesapeake Bay. It gives the McIlhenny family a small bit of comfort to know that they were not the only culprits in the century-long nutria fiasco.

The family may have redeemed itself in the wildlife area with its efforts on behalf of the snowy egret, whose feathers were once in such demand that it was hunted nearly to extinction. It would not have been the first abundant bird to have been extirpated by overuse, as was the fate of Martha and the passenger pigeons. The family's introduction of egrets and its ban on hunting them in just its small Louisiana property is credited with the eventual restoration of the species.

At the time of this writing, an even more important "ark" for birds is under threat elsewhere on the Gulf Coast. The Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge -- near my former home on the Rio Grande -- is currently threatened by hostility toward wild lands in general and a foolhardy plan to build a border wall in particular.

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