Remembering a Bayou Legend

Eric Kiel

Years ago, New Orleans chef John Besh was duck hunting with the late Paul McIlhenny, the fourth-generation CEO of the family-owned company that makes Tabasco sauce, when the typically boisterous McIlhenny turned to him with a serious look on his face. “You know, my father asked me a question when I was young,” McIlhenny said. “Now that you’re coming up in the world, I’m going to pose it to you: How are you going to use what you have to make the world a better place?”

To this day, Besh says, he thinks about that conversation each morning. “I was struck by his sense of stewardship,” he remembers, “of using the talents that you have to do good.”

McIlhenny, who died Saturday at the age of 68, spent a lifetime answering his father’s question. Though he was born a giant in the world of hot sauce, he was equally well known around Louisiana as a devoted conservationist, an avid hunter, and a staunch defender of his region’s cultural traditions.

Under Paul McIlhenny’s stewardship, Avery Island—home of Tabasco—was a sanctuary for Louisiana’s native fauna and a testing ground for progressive techniques of wetland management. As president of the Bayou Club, McIlhenny mentored young duck hunters and presided over post-hunt drinks and conversation. And after Katrina, he pushed hard to make sure Mardi Gras bounced back, serving as the relentlessly optimistic post-storm Rex. The impact of his devotion to the land, culture, and people he loved will be felt for generations.

If you want to learn more about the McIlhenny family’s conservation work on Avery Island, read “The Spice Island,” by T. Edward Nickens, which ran in G&G in August 2010. As McIlhenny told us then, “It’s not just about Tabasco sauce, not just about our families. We’re doing everything we can to keep this way of life alive in Iberia Parish.”