McIlhenny's Gold: How a Louisiana Family Built the Tabasco Empire

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Overview

In this fascinating history, Jeffrey Rothfeder tells how, from a simple idea?the outgrowth of a handful of peppers planted on an isolated island on the Gulf of Mexico?a secretive family business emerged that would produce one of the best-known products in the world.

A delectable and satisfying read for both Tabasco fans and business buffs, McIlhenny's Gold is the untold story of the continuing success of an eccentric, private company; a lively history of one of the most popular ...

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McIlhenny's Gold: How a Louisiana Family Built the Tabasco Empire

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Overview

In this fascinating history, Jeffrey Rothfeder tells how, from a simple idea—the outgrowth of a handful of peppers planted on an isolated island on the Gulf of Mexico—a secretive family business emerged that would produce one of the best-known products in the world.

A delectable and satisfying read for both Tabasco fans and business buffs, McIlhenny's Gold is the untold story of the continuing success of an eccentric, private company; a lively history of one of the most popular consumer products of all times; and an exploration of our desire to test the limits of human tolerance for fiery foods.

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Editorial Reviews

BusinessWeek SmallBiz
[T]he history of Tabasco and its creators, the McIlhenny family, makes for a spicy ... tale, and Jeffrey Rothfeder serves it up nicely in McIlhenny's Gold.
Wall Street Journal
The McIlhenny story itself is pure gold.
Condé Nast Portfolio
As the author puts it, the unembellished saga of the McIlhenny clan is a tale that needs no seasoning.
Publishers Weekly

This portrait of the eccentric family that brought the world Tabasco sauce isn't exactly hot, but it's certainly flavorful. Rothfeder digs deep into "one of the most profitable and oldest family businesses in U.S. history"-McIlhenny Co., founded in 1869 on a salt-mine island off Louisiana-and has fun sorting family legend from fact. The early years-including setting up a plantation with workers' housing that remained in operation until only a few years ago-were the company's most eventful. After winning a dubious legal battle to trademark "Tabasco," McIlhenny Co. settled in as a sluggish one-product manufacturer relying on word of mouth. So it's a good thing for readers that the McIlhennys have left such colorful and controversial legacies as collectors, conservationists, citizens and especially CEOs. Granted, with its unique circumstances and "relatively simple, one-dimensional Tabasco business model," McIlhenny Co. is of little use as a corporate case study, except perhaps as an example of how family ownership can destabilize even a sure thing. Despite the company's "ebbing sales and profits" even in the midst of a hot-sauce craze, Rothfeder's tale is balanced and always entertaining, and may please at least some of those who shake a few drops of Tabasco on whatever they're eating. (Oct.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Former Bloomberg News editor Rothfeder (Every Drop for Sale: Our Desperate Battle Over Water) has previously tackled such subjects as arrhythmia and the unstable future of freshwater resources. Now he turns his research skills to the challenging task of separating fact from fable in the history of the McIlhenny clan, inventors of one of the world's most recognizable condiments, Tabasco. Rothfeder follows the family business from founder, Edmund McIhenny's planting his first peppers on Avery Island, LA, to the current CEO, Paul McIlhenny, who, in 1999, wrested control of the company away from Vince Pierse, the only non-McIlhenny ever to head the company. While Tabasco is renowned worldwide, the family that created it has managed to retain much of its anonymity, further complicating Rothfeder's research. The core group of McIlhennys, who still reside on Avery Island, were opposed to the publication of this history and refused to be interviewed. However, Rothfeder did find several family members willing to speak anonymously and wove their recollections with interviews of former employees, competitors, and numerous primary sources into an engaging tale of a family business that has thrived for 139 years, largely by refusing to adapt itself to changing times. Recommended for academic and public libraries.
—Tessa L.H. Minchew

From the Publisher
"Celebrated narrator Norman Dietz...offers a straightforward, unobtrusive reading that makes the McIlhenny company the star of the story.... His reading is thoroughly intriguing and inspiring." —-AudioFile
Forbes
“These days, Tabasco is nearly as ubiquitous as butter and as quotidian as salt and pepper-and this book chronicles that progression in equal parts business story and Faulknerian family saga.”
BusinessWeek
“[T]he history of Tabasco and its creators, the McIlhenny family, makes for a spicy…tale, and Jeffrey Rothfeder serves it up nicely.”
Portfolio
“[T]he unembellished saga of the McIlhenny clan is a tale that needs no seasoning.”
History
“From its legendary invention in the months after the Civil War, to the carefully guarded recipe and production and the tightly controlled employees’ town in the Louisiana swamps, Rothfeder looks at the extraordinary journey of a family from rags to riches.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781615542666
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/2/2007
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author


Jeffrey Rothfeder is a former editor for BusinessWeek and a national news editor at Bloomberg News.

Norman Dietz, a writer, an actor, and a solo performer, has recorded over 150 audiobooks, many of which have earned him awards from AudioFile magazine, the ALA, and Publishers Weekly. Additionally, AudioFile named Norman one of the Best Voices of the Century.

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Read an Excerpt

McIlhenny's Gold
How a Louisiana Family Built the Tabasco Empire

Chapter One

The Forebears

The celebration of the marriage of Edmund McIlhenny and Mary Eliza Avery in June 1859 on Petit Anse Island was a highlight of the social season that year in southern Louisiana.

The groom, forty-four at the time, was one of New Orleans's wealthiest bachelors, a banker whose earnings were at the top rung of his profession. His young bride, more than twenty years his junior, had even more money than McIlhenny. The vast Avery fortune engineered by her father, Judge Daniel Dudley Avery, and the family's influence in Iberia Parish—tied to landholdings, the South's most cherished commodity—placed her in economic strata that McIlhenny couldn't hope to equal alone. Mary Eliza was a glowing bride; coquettish, if plump and a bit severe looking. As was the case with all of the weddings of the wealthy in the area when a man married up, these nuptials were well covered in the book How to Get a Rich Wife, a gossipy tome issued periodically, eagerly devoured by the hoi polloi of the day.

Judge Avery's servants and slaves prepared the wedding feast, set the tables and trimmed the lush gardens skirting the main house. Horses and carriages were draped in family colors. Just a half century before, Petit Anse Island had been virtually untouched, a primitive wilderness. But in that short time, the island, mostly during Avery's control, had been tamed and transformed into a model farming community with roads, mansions and huts—and customers in all parts of the world. With that type of metamorphosis possible, the prospects in southern Louisiana forfamilies like the Averys, even with war on the horizon, seemed boundless.

On his wedding day, Edmund McIlhenny felt like an intruder on Petit Anse. He had never farmed in his life; urban areas were more to his liking. And while in time he came to appreciate the value of the plantation, when he first met Mary Eliza he hadn't yet given this much thought. McIlhenny could not have imagined that in a few decades the island would be his, and he would be amassing a treasure from a product whose primary ingredient grew out of its soil. Equally unlikely was the course that brought McIlhenny to Petit Anse.

Born in 1815 in Hagerstown, Maryland, Edmund was the second oldest of nine sons raised by John and Ann McIlhenny. His birthplace was a tiny apartment in the town square above what is now the Square Cup Cafe, but which then housed McIlhenny's Tavern, owned by his father.

Edmund's father was a swaggering Scottish immigrant with a rebellious streak. He had abducted his wife-to-be Ann Newcomer from a female seminary, where she had been sent to keep away from men like him. They married hours later, and for the next decade had children, one after another. Though John had been a woodsman, a bartender and a carpenter, among other things, to support his instantly large family, he became a doctor. He died suddenly in 1832 after contracting a fatal disease from a patient.

With his family short a breadwinner and facing financial ruin, Edmund discontinued his schooling at seventeen and went to work to help his mother care for and educate his seven younger brothers. He took a position as a messenger in one of the dozens of banks in Baltimore.

By mid-1837, the twenty-two-year-old McIlhenny had lost his job after the nation's economic panic that year decimated Baltimore's banks. Desperate for money, McIlhenny begged his bank contacts to help him find work anywhere. Obviously, Baltimore wasn't an option anymore. But an associate who had powerful friends in New Orleans offered McIlhenny a letter of introduction to a manager of the Bank of Louisiana, the state's third-largest bank with $4 million in capital at the time. McIlhenny's youthful willingness to dive into the most difficult or menial tasks and his sober, scholarly face—intensified by his thick, dark beard, itself made even more prominent by the absence of a mustache—particularly impressed the bank executives in Louisiana. McIlhenny was hired on the spot.

The crash of 1837 hadn't spared the South. The region was dependent on agriculture, especially cotton and sugar, and the rising number of unemployed around the country led to a sharp downturn in clothing and fabric sales, sending the price of cotton tumbling. Moreover, a succession of weak British grain harvests had induced a growing foreign-exchange deficit with the United States. To repair this imbalance, the United Kingdom restricted American imports, primarily textiles and other cotton goods. This, of course, only made cotton prices drop even further.

And the South's slave economy, a bounty of cheap labor in good times, was a liability in bad times. As the economic historian George Green described it in Finance and Economic Development in the Old South, a survey of Louisiana banking in the early 1800s, "In the South, labor was a fixed expense and excess field hands could not be laid off" to reduce output. The planter would only "shut down his plant when market prices for cotton fell so far that he could not even cover the relatively small variable costs of harvesting his crop."

But New Orleans wasn't like the rest of the South. Nestled on the mouth of the Mississippi River, it was, at least to a degree, immunized from the worst of the fiscal crisis and, in some important ways, able to take advantage of it. The city Edmund McIlhenny found when he arrived there in the late 1830s didn't resemble in any fashion the depressing, semilifeless, homogeneous streets of abandoned shops, beggars and petty gangsters that he had left behind in Baltimore. Instead, New Orleans was a revelation to him.

The nation's fifth-largest urban area and second-leading port, nearly 30 percent of Louisiana's population lived there. Unlike any other city in the United States, New Orleans was a cosmopolitan blend of all of the ethnic and cultural groups that had put down roots in the New World: Spanish, French, Anglos, Indians, free blacks . . .

McIlhenny's Gold
How a Louisiana Family Built the Tabasco Empire
. Copyright (c) by Jeffrey Rothfeder . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 19, 2009

    Fascinating

    This easily readable book tells the saga of several generations of the McIlhenny family, their Lousiana island and the pepper sauce that made them famous. The anecdotes are wonderful--especially the formal ball held in the family's salt mine--as is the social history. It's a fun little book even for those who prefer tamer sauces.

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    Posted January 24, 2009

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    Posted January 6, 2009

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    Posted January 26, 2009

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