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Paul McIlhenny: The king of Tabasco

Back when I covered Oaklawn Park on a regular basis three decades ago, sports columnist Randy Galloway (then with The Dallas Morning News) would come to Hot Springs for the final week of the race meet.

In his briefcase, Galloway carried a large bottle of Tabasco sauce.

“You can make anything taste good with Tabasco,” he would say.

At Dallas Cowboys home games, I would again notice him pulling that big Tabasco bottle out of his briefcase.

On Saturday, Tabasco lost its leader when Paul McIlhenny died from a heart attack at his home in New Orleans. He was 68.

McIlhenny, who had headed the family company since 1998, once was dubbed by The New York Times as “the scion of spice.”

He was the sixth member of the McIlhenny family to be the company’s president. He gave up the presidency to cousin Tony Simmons last year but still held the titles of chairman and chief executive officer.

Here’s how the Times began its story on McIlhenny’s death: “Paul C.P. McIlhenny took joy in escorting visitors to his company’s warehouse, where wooden whiskey barrels filled with the aging pepper mash that is the main ingredient in Tabasco sauce were stacked six-high to the ceiling.

“With a flourish, he would ask an employee to crack open a couple of barrels. After the stinging smell of the peppers was noted, he asked guests to dab the mash with a finger and gingerly lick it. Tears flowed, air was gasped for and, at the host’s invitation, spit flew to clear tongues.

“Mr. McIlhenny had no doubt played the culinary instigator countless times in his 45 years at the McIlhenny Co., the makers of Tabasco pepper sauce, perhaps Louisiana’s best-known product. But he still chuckled as he gave his guests small spoons that earned them entry into the Not So Ancient Order of the Not So Silver Spoon.”

McIlhenny was an icon of the Southern food world, a man also dedicated to the region’s natural and cultural heritage. He was a major contributor to organizations such as the Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited. He also was a master business leader who saw the company’s sales soar with the introduction of new sauce flavors such as chipotle, Buffalo wing-style and sweet and spicy.

The Tabasco catalog included numerous items containing the company’s distinctive logo, and McIlhenny entered into licensing deals with everbody from the makers of Spam to the makers of A1 steak sauce.

He truly made Tabasco an international brand.

The family history is fascinating. Edmund McIlhenny was born in Maryland and moved to Louisiana in 1840. He first produced Tabasco sauce in 1868, putting it in discarded cologne bottles for family members and friends.

When Edumund McIlhenny died in 1890, oldest son John Avery McIlhenny took over the company and quickly expanded its operations. He resigned to join Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and was replaced by brother Edward Avery McIlhenny. Edward was a naturalist who had just returned from an adventure to the Arctic. He would run the company from 1898 until his death in 1949.

Walter McIlhenny became the next family member to run the company, serving as president from 1949 until his death in 1985.

All the peppers used to make Tabasco sauce once were grown on Avery Island (an ancient salt dome) in the Cajun country of southwest Louisiana. Now, the peppers grown on the island are used to produce seeds that, in turn, are shipped to growers in Central America and South America.

Peppers are picked by hand. Each worker carries le petit baton rouge (the little red stick) to make sure that only peppers matching the color of the stick are harvested. The peppers are ground into mash, and the mash is shipped to Avery Island for aging.

Paul McIlhenny attended Woodberry Forest, an elite prep school in Virginia, and graduated with a degree in political science from the University of the South at Sewanee. He joined the family business in 1967 and was groomed by Walter, a cousin.

Paul did everything from loading cases of sauce onto railcars to processing the mash.

In 2010, Paul McIlhenny was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America.

As New Orleans tried in early 2006 to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, McIlhenny reigned as Rex, the King of Carnival.

The adjective often used to describe Paul was “ebullient.”

“He worked aggressively to expand the number of items to which the familiar Tabasco logo could be affixed,” John Pope wrote in The Times-Picayune at New Orleans. “They include T-shirts, aprons, neckties, teddy bears and computer screensavers, as well as seven varieties of hot sauce.

“In 2009, Queen Elizabeth II granted the company a royal warrant, which entitles it to advertise that it supplies the pepper sauce to the British royal family. In honor of the queen’s diamond Jubilee last year, the company turned out a Tabasco-sauce box for its British market emblazoned with drawings of dozens of diamonds. In the United States, the company provides hot sauce for Air Force One.”

Paul McIlhenny and his twin sister were born at Houston because their mother was staying there with relatives while the children’s father was in the armed services during World War II. McIlhenny spent his childhood in New Orleans and at Avery Island.

“Because of his interest in the wetlands around Avery Island, his passion for hunting and his mother’s membership on a committee concerned with coastal-zone management, Mr. McIlhenny became aware years ago of Louisiana’s increasingly fragile coastline,” Pope wrote. “Gov. Mike Foster appointed him to the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Coastal Restoration, Protection and Conservation, and he was a vice chairman and board member of the America’s Wetland Foundation, whose logo appears on every box of Tabasco sauce sold in the United States.

“Although Mr. McIlhenny was serious about coastal restoration and the preservation of Louisiana’s wetlands, he generally was a merry man — one friend described him as ‘Falstaffian’ — who strove to inject humor wherever possible. A few days before he reigned as Rex in 2006, Mr. McIlhenny quipped that if, during the ceremonial toast to the mayor at Gallier Hall, the subject of hot sauce came up, ‘I’ll say that’s one form of global warming I’m totally in favor of. We’re defending the world against bland food.”’

There were many people who believed the Carnival parades in New Orleans should be called off in 2006. McIlhenny, who loved Louisiana and all of its traditions, wouldn’t hear of it.

He said at the time: “If there was any time when we needed distraction, digression, diversion from the grind, it’s Mardi Gras. And if there was any time we ever needed it, it’s here. We need to let it all hang out and, in the sense of pre-Lenten revelry, make sure we relax and recreate.”

McIlhenny’s hunting club in Vermilion Parish was famous among those who hunt waterfowl in the South.

“Paul continued the tradition of running the Tabasco organization, which has put New Iberia, south Louisiana and Louisiana food on the map worldwide,” said Lafayette attorney Ed Abell, a family friend. “It’s a great tradition for the state and our Acadiana area.”

Tabasco sauce now can be purchased in 165 countries.

On the day of the Super Bowl earlier this month, the Times ran a feature story on the ties between Tabasco sauce and the sports world.

Ken Benson wrote: “Walter Stauffer McIlhenny, the fourth chief executive of the McIlhenny Co., was a farsighted risk taker. The son of one of Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, he was an expert marksman who was wounded at Guadalcanal in 1942. He did not have the bullet in his leg removed until the next year so he could keep fighting.

“After the war, he helped turn Tabasco into a global brand. A prominent businessman in New Orleans, he bought a slice of the Saints before their first season in the NFL in 1967. That savvy investment included 50-yard-line seats to Saints home games and the Super Bowl when it was played in New Orleans. But when Uncle Walter, as he was known to his extended family, died a bachelor in 1985, none of his cousins took his stake in the Saints. So the stake was sold and with it access to those seats.”

Paul McIlhenny told the newspaper: “They were wonderful. You could pound on the metal deck at Tulane Stadium and make a lot of noise. Shame on us for not keeping them.”

The company and the family, however, kept their ties to sports. Hugh McIlhenny was a running back for the 49ers in the 1950s. Paul McIlhenny considered buying the naming rights to the Superdome before it was determined it was just too expensive. Tabasco sauce is a staple at football parties nationwide.

“The Tabasco factory has been working overtime to keep up with the seasonal jump in demand,” Benson wrote. “For three-quarters of the year, production lines operate in two 10-hour shifts four to five days a week, producing 750,000 bottles daily. In November, as the holidays and the NFL playoffs approach, the company adds an extra day of production.”

“The Super Bowl is the single biggest month for hot sauce,” Paul told the newspaper. “It’s huge.”

Do you remember the television ad the company ran during the Super Bowl back in 1998? A man was pouring large amounts of Tabasco sauce on his pizza while sitting outside. A mosquito landed on his leg and began sucking blood. When the mosquito flew off, it exploded.

“It was the only time we spent that much on a single ad, but we got a lot of mileage out of that one,” Paul said.

John Madden, it seems, is like my friend Randy Galloway.

“I’ve had thousands of meals with him, and there’s not a food out there that he doesn’t use Tabasco on,” Madden agent Sandy Montag told the Times. “He puts it on food from the time he wakes up. For him, it’s like toothpaste.”

Paul once presented Madden with a personalized bottle of Tabasco. For this year’s Super Bowl, the company released a commemorative bottle with Mardi Gras colors and a football on the label.

Tabasco sauce and the McIlhenny Co. will continue to move forward, but all who have an interest in Southern food, the region’s natural attributes and its culture will miss Paul McIlhenny.

He was indeed ebullient and Falstaffian, a man seemingly made to promote hot sauce and the Louisiana way of life.

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