Volume 24 - May 3, 2004
Aerial of Avery Island, a salt dome. The green fields to the right of the dome are pepper fields.

Salt and Peppers

A barge prepared to be loaded with salt at the Avery Island Salt Mine.

Avery Island abruptly rises out of the flat, grassy marshlands of southern Iberia Parish like a high hill “mirage” of oak trees and other greenery. It is not actually an island surrounded by sea water but rather a salt dome that pokes up prominently above the nearby low elevation marshes. The 200 million year old salt under the earth’s surface that created it is known to be as deep in the earth as Mount Everest is tall (about 6 miles)! The largest of five famous salt domes on and near central Louisiana’s coast, Avery Island, is a marvelous treasure in a small and peaceful setting.


Named (from southeast to northwest): Belle Isle (on the Gulf coast) and Cote Blanche, Weeks, Avery, and Jefferson islands, they are called the “Five Islands;” they are the only salt domes in Louisiana with high elevations above the surrounding territory. Did you know that Louisiana has a little over 200 salt domes? There are about 30 of them in north Louisiana, 100 toward the coast, and 70 offshore. Today salt is mined in only Weeks, Avery, and Cote Blanche islands. Louisiana is the nation‘s leading salt producer, and there is plenty more such “white gold” in the deep mines!  


There are not many places that are as enchanting as Avery Island! Naturally beautiful landscapes and a thriving business of natural resource extraction seldom mix well, but the families in control of Avery Island will not be denied their opportunity to set a good example! The high land sitting on top of the massive column of salt is 152 feet above sea level; it is 8 miles long and 1 mile wide. Salt is mined, under a lease by the Cargill Salt Co. of Minnesota, which barges grain from the Midwest down the Mississippi River to Louisiana; the otherwise would-be empty barges return north filled with salt from the Five Island mines. Nearly 2 million tons of salt are mined yearly from a depth of 1,600 feet by workers who are surrounded by floors, walls, and ceilings of pure rock salt!


Wells have been producing oil on Avery Island since 1942. Family members insist on strict rules to protect the landscape and wildlife around drilling sites. “White gold” and “black gold” are taken from this land so carefully that the plant and animal treasures are allowed to continue to flourish.


Tabasco, the famous pepper sauce, is made here. Entrepreneur Edmund McIlhenny produced his first batch for sale around 1868! He combined ground peppers with Avery Island salt and a bit of vinegar to create the now world renowned sauce. Peppers are planted on 75 acres of Avery Island land, but this produces only about 5% of the peppers needed to fill the demand for Tabasco products. The Avery Island pepper plants remain at the heart of all Tabasco sauces since these plants provide the “seeds” which are planted on the larger farms elsewhere! CC cannot wait to photograph the pepper plants next fall, when they are colorful and ready to harvest. 


The botanical gardens of Avery Island began long ago with E.A. McIlhenny. The 200-acre “Jungle Gardens” has very old oak trees and lush native plants, as well as plantings from around the world. The flowers and foliage in the gardens are beautiful, and you are likely to see also deer, alligators, bunnies, and birds of all sorts.


Bird City” had its start in 1892, when conservationist E.A. McIlhenny helped save the great egret from extinction. Annie the M.U.T.T. wrote about this in Volume 22 of the Coastal Correspondent. Remember people were using egret plumage for hats; well, E.A. McIlhenny started a small snowy egret rookery with only 7 birds on a lake in the gardens. Through the years the egrets thrived along with many other birds that return to “Bird City” to nest. More than 100,000 birds now make their homes on Avery Island.


To get to Avery Island CC and I traveled west from Franklin, Louisiana, on the Intracoastal Waterway to Bayou Petite Anse and then headed north. Parking by and exploring this Louisiana treasure will long be fondly remembered. Avery Island is 4 miles north of Vermilion Bay and 8 miles southwest of New Iberia, “as the ‘egret’ flies.” The family members running the salt dome are doing a wonderful job of keeping their privately owned marshland as pristine as humanly possible. As a nation we need to do the same.

Crawfish Crazy

A swamp red crawfish mother, with her babies under her tail. Carrying them this way keeps them safe from predators.

Every spring I scream, you scream, we all scream for CRAWFISH! We eat them boiled, fried, over rice, and in stew, and CC loves crawfish even in an omelet! Poor little arthropods, not only are they a popular dish for humans, but they are also well known members of the natural “feed” community. Raccoons, bass, otters, snakes, frogs, opossums, perch, catfish, owls, egrets, herons, mink, and many other critters gobble them up regularly!


Crawfish, crawdad, crayfish, and mudbug are just some of the names for this tasty little crustacean that has been both the delight of the gourmet foodie and fare of the lower classes for over 200 years. There are many common names and scores of scientific names for them because 29 species live in Louisiana, and about 100 species occur in the United States. Though they range in size from tiny to large, the relatively big swamp red crawfish, Procambarus clarkii, and white river crawfish, Procambarus acutus, are the only ones of importance that end up on all tables. The “river” type needs the high oxygen content of flowing, turbulent streams, while the “swamp” species (which makes up 90% of the typical commercial harvest) easily tolerates the relatively low oxygen content of stagnant swamp water.


Crawfish begin as one of from 200 to 700 eggs attached to the bottom of a mother’s tail and grow fast. The eggs hatch in about two weeks, and the babies cling to the underside of mom’s tail for protection. When they are big enough to forage on their own, they will drop off. It’s a funny sight seeing all those babies under the tail. CC told me that he had a female crawfish in an aquarium with a small blue gill, a fish in the perch family. The blue gill was too small to eat the mother, so he would try to sneak up on her and get the babies. CC often watched the momma crawfish ferociously try to protect her young with her pincers.


Arthropods are a huge group of critters with their skeletons on the outside of their bodies. The class Insecta (containing all insects) is the largest class of arthropods, but spiders, crabs, and crawfish also belong to the group. Since mudbugs have their hard skeletons on the outside, I asked them how they could grow. The answer was amazing! Have you ever heard of a soft shell crawfish? Many find crawfish in this stage of development a delicacy! When a crawfish runs out of growing room in its shell, it must shed it and grow a new one. As the shell is cast off, the crawfish keeps its shell hardening calcium in the form of two limy pebbles. The now “soft-shelled” crawfish uses its pebbles to help harden the new, larger exoskeleton.


Humans catch annually about a hundred million of pounds of crawfish, especially in the Atchafalaya Basin, to fill their bellies, and very “lucky dogs” get a piece of that action! The other numerous animal species (mentioned earlier) that fancy eating crawfish probably catch many more pounds than that! Louisiana produces 99% of our nation’s home grown crawfish. So, no surprise, we also consume a lot more crawfish than any other state, especially because it has always been an important Cajun French food item. No wonder this critter is named our “state crustacean!”


I learned a lot while interviewing crawfish, and I certainly dressed for the occasion! Click here to see a few more pictures of me in my crawfish hat!

- When natural resources are extracted from plant and wildlife habitat areas, it does not necessarily follow that such habitats must be ruined. The McIlhennys of Avery Island have proved that if strict rules are carefully followed when minerals and fossil fuels are mined, habitat damage can be kept to an absolute minimum.
- Cultural heritage can influence a society’s inclination to eat certain foods. In the U.S., outside of south Louisiana with its French ancestral heritage (a part of which is eating the crustacean), very few crawfish are commercially caught and eaten. In general, non-French societies of north Louisiana and elsewhere in the U.S. perceive the crawfish to be nothing other than a lowly “mudbug” that is good for only fishing bait.
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1. Does your family eat crawfish? If it does not, write a paragraph with as many reasons as you can think of about why that is so. If it does, write about what you can recall experiencing when you ate the first batch of crawfish that you can remember. If your family had guests from outside of south Louisiana for a crawfish meal, did the guests refuse to eat them? What reasons did they give? If they tried eating them, did they like them or ate no more than the first one? Why did they like them or refuse to eat more than one?

Visit this link to find out how Avery Island is doing their part to save Louisiana's Wetland's.
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la·gniappe    (ln-yp, lnyp)
2. An extra or unexpected gift or benefit

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L.J. Alleman Middle School asks:
Have you ever seen a cougar on your journeys in the wetlands?
CC answers:  No, they are very rare and only a few live in the entire state.
L.J. Alleman Middle School asks:
We learned that the brown pelican was once extinct in our state but was brought back.  Were black bears ever extinct in our state?
CC answers:  No, but the population got very low.  See Annie's critter corner in Volume 23 to learn more.
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