Side Dish: Paul McIlhenny

By Cheramie Sonnier

Those who support community cookbooks and regional culinary traditions lost an ally with the passing of Paul C.P. McIlhenny, who died Feb. 23.

McIlhenny, 68, was chief executive and chairman of the board of the 145-year-old McIlhenny Co. that makes the world-famous line of Tabasco hot pepper sauces.

But foodies and cookbook fans will miss him not for his business acumen, but for his enthusiastic support of nonprofit organizations that created cookbooks for fundraising purposes and his interest in local cuisine.

He was behind McIlhenny Co.’s establishment in 1989 of the Tabasco Community Cookbook Awards “to honor nonprofit organizations and the outstanding cookbooks they create to raise money for local charities and causes.” During the program’s 20-year history, almost 275 books were honored for chronicling and preserving local culinary traditions and nearly $100,000 was awarded to help the publishing organizations in their fundraising efforts. The winning cookbooks are housed on Avery Island, where McIlhenny Co. is based.

McIlhenny didn’t say why the awards program was retired in 2010, but The Advocate’s former food editor, Tommy Simmons, who had been one of the judges for most of the program’s 20 years, said there were fewer entries in the final year of the awards.

I’ve often thought that the establishment of another cookbook award, the Eula Mae Doré Louisiana Heritage Award, said as much about McIlhenny’s character as it did about Doré’s contribution to Cajun cooking. McIlhenny wanted to memorialize the culinary art, the every day cooking, of Doré, who did the cooking and managed the McIlhenny Co. Commissary and Tabasco Deli on Avery Island for more than 42 years and was the co-author, with Marcelle Bienvenu, of “Eula Mae’s Cajun Kitchen.”

I first met McIlhenny in 1993 at The Advocate Food Festival and Expo. He and chef Patrick Mould, of Lafayette, appeared on stage to share tips and recipes on cooking venison, duck and wild turkey. McIlhenny helped demonstrate how to make one of his favorite dishes, venison chili.

What I most remember about our meeting that day was admiring the shirt he was wearing. He was quite pleased since it was a new product he was promoting through the company’s catalog business of licensed merchandise.

His participating in that food show is just one example of his interest in the Baton Rouge food scene. On numerous occasions he invited Baton Rouge area chefs to cook for dignitaries and nationally known food writers and chefs at Marsh House, the company’s guest house on Avery Island. Among those invited to experience Louisiana culture and cuisine were Jacques Pépin, Pierre Franey, Nathalie Dupree, Marion Cunningham, Sara Moulton, John T. Edge, Bill Rice with the Chicago Tribune, Jan Hazard with Ladies Home Journal, culinary historian Jan Longone and Nach Waxman, owner of Kitchen Arts & Letters book store in Manhattan. McIlhenny provided a two-day immersion into south Louisiana cuisine. He took them to eat oysters in Abbeville, Cajun dancing in Lafayette, to a trapper’s cabin for a crawfish boil, and sometimes to a crawfish pond to see how the crawfish were farmed or down into the salt mine on Avery Island. And, of course, they always got a tour of the pepper fields and the Tabasco plant.

“He totally enjoyed hosting and talking with people about Louisiana food and cooking,” Simmons recalled. The urbane, French-speaking McIlhenny “was as happy talking to the field hands about food as he was to the chefs,” Simmons said. “He truly was interested in people, he liked people and liked talking to people about what they were interested in and about food. He was a wonderful host and always knew how to make people comfortable.”

McIlhenny also loved history and made sure his family’s and their company’s history was accurately preserved.

In reviewing everything that’s been mentioned about McIlhenny in the past week, company executives are quoted as crediting him with introducing several new varieties of hot sauces and expanding the Tabasco brand’s reach. He would have enjoyed knowing that one of his brand trademark products, a Tabasco tie, was worn by the minister at my son’s wedding to honor his Louisiana roots.

Cheramie Sonnier is The Advocate’s Food editor. Reach her at csonnier@theadvocate.com.