A piece of pickled jalapeño history begins in the Mexican town of Xalapa
All my life, the smoky, vinegary smell of pickled jalapeños—and their little-known origin story—has lingered under my nose. I grew up with immigrant parents in California, and at any gathering pickled chilies were as common as tequila bottles and Squirt for making palomas.
But it wasn’t until this summer, when I visited my family in Xalapa, Veracruz, that I realized that my parents’ hometown had played a major role in the history of the pickled jalapeno.
My curiosity was ignited when my mother casually mentioned that the jalapeño was from Xalapa. I wasn’t sure if I should believe her, because the power of passionate exaggeration is something many Mexican mothers have mastered. Neither she nor any of my close family members had ever mentioned the connection before, so I was skeptical.
Saying the jalapeño comes from your hometown is like saying the Aztec pyramids were first discovered in your backyard.
Jalapeños are universal. Go to any sports game in a North American arena and you’ll find them on cheesy nachos. Walk into just about any taqueria in the world and the sliced and pickled jalapeños are likely a complementary side dish.
Are jalapeños really from Xalapa (formerly spelled Jalapa)? Saying the jalapeño comes from your hometown is like saying the Aztec pyramids were first discovered in your backyard. I had to take a break. I had to dig.
It turns out that the plump green chili has marinated well in this unlikely region surrounded by mountains in southeastern Mexico for generations. Jalapeño, or Xalapeño, literally means “from Xalapa”, where the chili was widely cultivated due to the fertile lands of the region. Its history here is steeped in vinegar and spice.
A majestic place
The state capital of Veracruz, Xalapa (with a relatively small population of 488,000) is best known for its bohemian culture and verdant green spaces. As a compact, A colonial city tucked away near the base of a volcanic peak, it’s easily overshadowed by the sprawling metropolis of nearby Veracruz, one of the largest and most important ports in the Gulf of Mexico. The city of Veracruz is home to the most famous musical style son jarocho (as in “La Bamba”) and culinary traditions such as pescado en escabeche and ceviche.
But Xalapa is a majestic place in its own right, with an abundance of agricultural exports, including coffee now. And despite being sometimes overlooked by outsiders, Xalapa has made an outsized contribution to Mexico’s culinary reputation: the canned jalapeño.
Even modern Xalapeños seem to have forgotten – and some never even knew – about the pickled jalapeño factory that once thrived in the center of town.
I wouldn’t have known either, but while researching jalapeño knowledge, I asked my uncles, and through a network of WhatsApp group chats and Facebook direct messages, I learned the rise of jalapeño pickling. in Xalapa.
An essential colonial outpost from 1791, Xalapa attracted many Spanish merchants, military officers and their families to its cool, mountainous climate, providing respite from the coastal heat of nearby Veracruz. In the 19th century, canning was a common practice, regularly implemented to prolong the shelf life of perishable goods, especially when crossing long distances of water.
In the early 1900s, Narciso Jimenez Guerra changed the jalapeño pickling game. In 1910, Jimenez Guerra, a descendant of Spanish settlers from Veracruz, began experimenting with ways to use native jalapeños. At the time, the chili pepper was known as “chile cuaresmeño”. Salmuera (or “salt water”), oil and vinegar were often used to preserve a variety of vegetables. Jimenez Guerra decided to can the green pepper – with various spices, bay leaves, onions and carrots – to make jalapeños en escabeche . Traditionally, the local chili was dried and smoked, rather than pickled and canned.
Jimenez Guerra’s specialty will eventually become one of the spiciest in the world Dependencies. In 1921, he registered his brand of pickled jalapeños under the name name of La Jalapeña and began packaging its peppers for public consumption.
At that time, you had to live or visit Xalapa to encounter Jimenez Guerra’s style of escabeche peppers.. Soon locals began raving about his condiment. Jimenez Guerra’s business grew rapidly and opened a cannery in 1928, becoming one of the most important businesses in the city.
“That factory was really emblematic of Xalapa at that time,” says Jimenez Guerra’s granddaughter, Nelly Jimenez Barradas, 60, whose father, Mario Jimenez Cabrera, inherited the business in 1944. given, buying a gift box at La Jalapeña was a sign of your visit to our city,” she said. said.
Eventually, companies in more industrialized areas of Mexico—notably La Costeña in Mexico City—overtook production of La Jalapeña. Around the 1950s, more and more brands were supplying canned and potted jalapeños across the country. La Jalapeña’s smallest family business in cramped downtown Xalapa couldn’t keep up with the changes in post-World War II capitalism. But even as canned pepper grew in popularity elsewhere, La Jalapeña remained focused on producing it in small batches at its home location.
“After the 1940s, my family stopped using the intensive process and the branding became more personalized,” says Jimenez Barradas. “You would bring jalapeños as gifts to give to your family, with each batch being carefully prepared.”
In the long run, however, it was an approach that didn’t work out financially for the company. At least in part due to a changing economic landscape in Mexico, La Jalapeña was sold in 1995. The factory closed two years later.
But make no mistake: this well-known Mexican specialty is as definitively linked to Xalapa as tequila is to Tequila in the state of Jalisco. You can’t separate flavor and tradition from its distinct point of origin. Yet unlike Tequila, a pueblo that capitalized on the market for agave-based liquorsXalapa never enjoyed the jalapeño.
Echoes of a fading legacy
My tío Enrique Chazaro, who grew up in the 1970s in Xalapa, remembers the importance of La Jalapeña while driving me around town (and recalls a time when every child in Xalapa ate sandwiches that were nothing more than cheese and jalapeño slices on a roll).
On the site of the old factory in the city’s bustling downtown, there remains an empty parking lot and a convenience store. There is a barely perceptible hint of what once stood there: La Xalapeña. The name is erased on the dilapidated facade of the building. (The town officially changed its name to an “X” spelling in 1974; La Jalapeña also did so to reflect the tenure of then-mayor Ruben Pabello Rojas.)
“A traditional jar of jalapeños from La Jalapeña contained vinegar, garlic, spices, onions, carrots, and bay leaves,” my tío explains. “I remember that smell every day when I was growing up.”
There is a taqueria in Xalapa that still bears the name of a bygone era. My tío took me there as part of his ad hoc tour, letting me know that’s where you can get what he considers dad’s best tacos.. Decades ago, the taqueria sold jars of freshly packaged jalapeños from the once nearby factory. The taqueria, still known as La Xalapeña, is a remnant of La Jalapeña’s once glorious presence in the town.
And while no one thinks of Xalapa anymore when eating jalapeños, a legacy remains.
Somewhere, a hardworking cook is serving Mexican food on a street corner. Maybe it’s a plate of tacos de tachera, a torta de tinga de pollo, or a supreme-sized burrito of carnitas. Then the essential question is asked – “¿Picante?” — with the offering of a small bag of pickled peppers.
For over a century, pickled jalapeños have become standard with Mexican food, going way beyond Xalapa. The jalapeño fueled my understanding of the wonders of a uniquely Mexican experience — and Xalapeño. And for that, I say gracias.
Chazaro is a Bay Area-based poet and writer and author of “Piñata Theory” and “This Is Not a Frank Ocean Cover Album.”