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New Iberia, Louisiana

Okay, I've got to admit, this small community southwest of New Orleans in Louisiana bayou country draws me every time I'm anywhere near it...primarily because one of my favorite mystery writers bases his stories in this town and surrounding area. James Lee Burke is one of the most evocative authors in the genre, and after reading about the bayous, the cane fields, the crushed shell driveways, the ramshackle tin-roofed speakeasys, the leaden rain swollen skies, the cajun po-boys, the sweaty Jax beer bottles, and the quaint New Iberia Main Street, I have to make this trip south of I-10.

It is always worth the drive, as it was this time. Cherie and I had lunch at Clementine's on Main Street, and we drove a short distance to Avery Island to check out the Tabasco factory and the Avery Island Preserve, home to egrets, alligators, and Spanish moss.

If a taste of cajun country is what you're after, this is the place to jump into your time machine and dial it to "17th Century Plantations," "18th Century Voodoo," "19th Century Bayou Country," or "21st Century Jive."

Welcome to New Iberia.

We lunched at Clementine's Restaurant on Main Street, eating traditional cajun fare served in the main room. Seated at the next table was a gentleman with a southern drawl and the mannerisms of a somewhat sophisticated Boss Hogg: overweight, past his prime, chauvanistic, mockingly cruel, self-absorbed, accustomed to bending people in his direction. Maybe a crude characterization, but observing him in his mileau with a table full of women was a fascinating confirmation that the Old South lives on.

Stop for a pass, then drive across the small bridge to Avery Island, home of the Tabasco Company factory and fields, and Jungle Gardens, a nature preserve that presents bayou wildlife in its natural surroundings.
The Tabasco factory dates back to 1868, where Edmund McIlhenny invented the Tabasco red pepper sauce. We took the factory tour and learned how the sauce is made.

A short version of the tour (about 3 minutes) is available by clicking on the Tabasco sign, below.

Yes, the video shows smiling employees working in the bottling plant, but we must have arrived on a bad hair day, 'cause these folks looked like they'd just swallowed some of their own product.

It was a fun tour, despite the lack of enthusiasm on the workers' part. An interesting tidbit we learned was that the sauce is aged in previously used Jack Daniels oak barrels. Maybe that's why we enjoy sprinkling this stuff on our morning eggs, hey?

Side by side barrels show the peppers aging, one before a layer of salt is added, and one after. The pepper mash is placed in white oak barrels, and the wooden tops of the barrels are then covered with Avery Island salt (salt mined from below Avery Island), which acts as a natural barrier to protect the barrels’ contents. The mash is allowed to ferment and then age for up to three years in the McIlhenny warehouse. Sounds a bit like the aging of fine wine, huh? Pucker up!
Of course the gift shop awaits tour visitors, but not only does this one look like a country store in southern Louisiana, it has some samples of the McIlhenny line, including Tabasco flavored ice cream. It was surprisingly good: cool going down, but with a hot aftertaste in the mouth. I'm expecting our neighborhood Dairy Queen to make this the January Flavor of the Month.
Everything Tabasco is available at the Country Store

Did I mention the moss-covered, tree lined roads in southern Louisiana? This one is in Jungle Gardens, where man meets mandible, in the form of wild alligators and long-beaked egrets.

This little specimen was waiting for me after I climbed the viewing platform for the hundreds, if not thousands, of snowy egrets that nest on Avery Island. As I walked off the platform and down the path back to the car, I kept my eyes on my hungry buddy, mindful of literal ankle biters ruining my day.

Likewise, the lagoons on the island are not swimmer friendly, at least not if you're human. This 'gator beckons me with an invisible dialog bubble: "C'mon in, the water's fine!"

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