In southern Louisiana we are never sure if we are on solid ground. Vegetation grows thickly on the bayous and gives the impression that is safe to walk on. Today we drove to an island that is located twenty miles inland from the coast and the Gulf of Mexico. This island is called a salt dome and is a plug made of salt six miles in circumference and eight miles deep covered with a thin layer of soil. The McIlhenny family has been making a good living from the salt mined here for generations and it is said that this was the first salt mined in the New World. The salt you see sprinkled on the highway next winter could have come from here.
Part of the property has been turned into a public garden, which we drove through. The grounds were full of huge trees draped with Spanish moss. A Buddha statue built in 1125 in China is housed in a pagoda overlooking a lake; a peaceful, meditative spot. The azaleas and camellias had just finished blooming, so the area we enjoyed the most was the snowy egret rookery. These birds were almost extinct here, because their plumes were used to decorate women's hats. In 1892 Mr. McIlhenny captured seven egrets and caged them at his lake. During the next migratory season he set them free and rejoiced when they returned to him to build nests and raise their young here. Today 20,000 herons nest on platforms built over the water safe from alligators and other predators. The adult birds fly to the Gulf of Mexico to fish, leaving the local fish to their youngsters when they are skilled enough to fly from the rookery platforms. It was fun to watch the adult birds flit around and enjoy each other's company while the babies chirped incessantly.
Shortly after the Civil War the McIlhenny family received a gift of pepper plants from South America which they planted here. They used the peppers to create a spicy red sauce that we know today as Tabasco, a favorite on every Louisiana table. While the plants themselves do better in South American, the peppers are brought back here to make the sauce. We toured the factory and the sauce making process reminded us a bit of wine making as the sauce is aged in old whisky barrels for three years before it is bottled. All Tabasco sauce is bottled on Avery Island and it is shipped to over one hundred countries around the world. It is even the official red pepper sauce for the queen of England. The store next to the factory sold many versions of the sauce as well as clothing and toys with the famous logo. They even sold Tabasco ice cream.
For lunch we headed to a local eatery called the Bon Creole that we had heard about from fellow campers. Even though we had seen photos of the place and our GPS took us right there, it took us a while to spot it. Many of the favorite local eateries are so small and dingy and unassuming. They are the kind of places we would never go to without some knowledge beforehand. Often these "restaurants" have no windows, plastic silverware, and beat up furniture. You order at a window and pick up the food when your number is called. As we ate our crawfish po'boys, a steady stream of locals came in and we knew we were in the right spot.