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Q&A: John Simmons, Sixth-Generation Tabasco Maker, Louisiana

Celeste Allen May 18, 2017

John Simmons of McIlhenny Company, making Tabasco sauce

People across the world associate Tabasco sauce with the very unique, flavorful food culture found here in Louisiana, and we’re honored to be a part of that.”  —John Simmons, tabasco pepper expert, McIlhenny Company, Avery Island

Hot sauce is like salt in Louisiana. People add it to everything.

In New Orleans, about 140 miles east of Tabasco’s headquarters, food is known for its bold spicing. Cayenne pepper gives crawfish their delicious tang, while jalapeños add a subtle, savory kick to cornbread. And Tabasco, perhaps the most famous Louisiana hot sauce, lends its punch to potato chips, mayonnaise, Bloody Marys, and even ice cream.

We wanted to know more about the latter’s regional ties, and there’s no better person to take us back to Tabasco’s roots (literally) than John Simmons of the McIlhenny family and company, which has been making the special sauce since 1868. What began as a way for John’s ancestors to spice up bland, post-Civil War food is now a culinary symbol of Louisiana in 180-plus countries. So, what makes people from São Paulo to Seoul use up every drop—720 per bottle, to be exact—of this pepper sauce? John tells us more about what’s inside that iconic two-ounce bottle.

Crates of Tabasco peppers in a field
All photos courtesy the McIlhenny Company.

What is your job title?
Senior manager of agriculture for McIlhenny Company.

What led you to your line of work?
I practiced law prior to joining McIlhenny Company, but always hoped there would be an opportunity for me to join the family business. I’m the first member of the sixth generation of the McIlhenny family to join the business. I spent summers in college hoeing pepper fields, re-hooping and repairing barrels, and learning about everything that goes into the bottle. All of that helped me fall in love with our process. Not just the what—the three years in the oak barrel and the heirloom seeds and the care and attention inherent in our process—but the why and the who behind those things.

What's an average work day like for you?
In my role, I’m responsible for overseeing the growth of every single tabasco pepper that is used to make Tabasco sauce. I’m writing now from Moyobamba, at the edge of the jungle in northern Peru, where I’m visiting pepper fields tucked among coffee fields and stands of cacao. We work with small stakeholder farms all around Latin America, and I get to visit some of the most beautiful places in the world. When I get home next week, I’ll divide my time between our greenhouse on Avery Island, the barrel warehouse, blending, and then I’ll be back in South America in a few weeks. No one day is the same as the day before.

John Simmons in a tabasco pepper field
John + tabasco peppers

What's it like to work with such an iconic American brand?
McIlhenny Company has always been a pioneer in the world of pepper sauces, and it’s incredible to be a small part of a nearly 150-year legacy. While the ingredients, recipe, and process for making Tabasco sauce have remained virtually unchanged since its creation in 1868, we continue to innovate and experiment with new flavors to meet the needs of the ever-evolving culinary landscape. It’s been awe-inspiring to watch the Tabasco brand grow and reach new fans across the globe. 

Let’s look at regionality. How does Tabasco sauce speak to the culinary landscape of Louisiana?
Since its creation, Tabasco sauce has been bottled on Avery Island, Louisiana, and it’s become a trusted staple by home cooks and chefs everywhere for adding the right amount of heat and flavor to dishes without overpowering them. People across the world associate this sauce with the very unique, flavorful food culture found here in Louisiana, and we’re honored to be a part of that.  

What's a dish or drink that a visitor to Louisiana cannot miss?
There’s no wrong answer to this question, but for me it has to be chicken and sausage gumbo. It’s obviously very standard Louisiana fare, but it does vary around the state. In this part of Louisiana we pour it over rice (which everyone does) and potato salad (which no one does). Or pour it over rice and dip the potato salad into it. Or forget about the rice altogether and just use potato salad. There’s no wrong way to do it, and I do all three depending on the day. It’s divine. Of course, Tabasco sauce is essential, both as an ingredient and as a condiment once the bowl is on the table.

Tabasco pepper crates for McIlhenny Company

On EYW, we ask users to share short food memories related to travel, a favorite meal, growing up—anything. Can you share a brief food memory with our readers?
Tabasco sauce has two great gateway foods: pizza and eggs. For me it was eggs. As a boy growing up, I wanted to be like my dad, and my dad covered his eggs in Tabasco sauce. So one Saturday morning—I think we were living in Singapore, so I was under 6—I told him I wanted my eggs like his. Which meant covered in a healthy amount of Tabasco sauce. It’s 30 years later, and eggs still don’t get made in our house without Tabasco sauce: in the butter as it’s melting in the pan, in the eggs while they’re cooking, and then splashed over them while they’re eaten.

What is the most off-the-wall thing you have added Tabasco to?
Peanut butter tops this list for a lot of people, and while that does not disappoint, the one people tend to get the biggest surprise out of is ice cream. A number of our sauces, from Tabasco sauce through the Family of Flavors, go well with ice cream. For my money, it's tough to beat vanilla ice cream with Tabasco Habanero Sauce. We make that sauce with banana, tamarind, mango, and papaya purees, and all of that fruit really lights up the vanilla ice cream. Habanero peppers on their own have a fruity and floral aroma and flavor that adds to the package. It's hot, but heat and sweet pair so well. Someone with an eye for experimenting would find that chocolate ice cream and Tabasco Chipotle Sauce match up well, too, while Tabasco Green Sauce and Tabasco sauce both work with many different types of ice cream.


About the author: Celeste Allen is a freelance writer, culture lover, and photo taker from New Orleans. You can check out her writing at CelesteAllen.com and photos on Flickr.

Tags: food producer Q&A United States



 



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