The first time I had a jalapeño popper, half a dozen years ago, I was in the middle of a relationship with a man who had been invited to his friends’ Super Bowl party. I had been asked to join him, and (don’t hate) I didn’t know what teams were playing or care which side won. My primary mission was to leave a good impression on the people who were hosting us; my secondary mission was to eat chips and dip to my heart’s content. On game day my boyfriend, who knew I tended to turn my nose up at things like powdered ranch dressing mix and Bloomin’ Onions, mentioned that the matriarch of the family would be there and that she was known for her jalapeño poppers. “Jalapeño poppers?” I asked as we pulled into their driveway. “What’s a jalapeño popper?”
A jalapeño popper, at its most basic, is a jalapeño pepper that has been stuffed with cheese — often cream cheese, sometimes a cheese blend — and heated. Some say it must be battered or breaded and fried; others call that variation an armadillo egg. Some call the fried version a jalapeño popper, and call a jalapeño popper that has been wrapped in bacon and then fried an armadillo egg. Fortunately, this sort of infighting among snack enthusiasts is irrelevant because a jalapeño popper is, in any iteration, the most perfect Super Bowl snack of them all.
The Super Bowl, a sporting event that frequently causes adults to be overcome with emotion, is like the Fourth of July except in the winter and without as many fireworks. There is a central theme, there is an element of patriotism, there is a casual gathering of friends and/or family, and there is food. Of the myriad snacks that show up on Super Bowl party tables, however, none compare the singular perfection of the jalapeño popper.
Jalapeño poppers are spicy, but by design, the filling tempers the heat of the pepper. Poppers are crunchy and ooze-y at once, like a fried mozzarella stick with the added heat and textual contrast of the hot pepper. If breaded or battered and fried, the snack takes on the gustatory satisfaction of an onion ring. If roasted, the pepper becomes sweet, its heat mellowed, with an inside that tastes like molten queso.
The jalapeño, like all chile peppers, is native to modern-day Mexico and Central America. The word jalapeño means “from Xalapa,” the capital of the Mexican state of Veracruz, and where Spanish conquistadors are said to have encouraged their cultivation. The native Aztecs may have called them cuaresmeños, and records show they were smoked to make adobo and chipotle (a chipotle pepper is a smoked jalapeño) since before Spanish rule.
Although sources suggest jalapeño poppers are a Texas invention inspired by Mexican chiles rellenos, it’s hard to imagine they didn’t already exist in some form, under a different name, across the border: Recipes for chiles rellenos jalapeños and chiles jalapeños rellenos de queso abound, and jalapeños and other chiles have starred in countless preparations long before anyone thought to record recipes. Texas food enthusiasts might disagree, but it’s clear to me that an American jalapeño popper is a Mexican chile relleno — a pepper stuffed with cheese and cooked — by another name. Traditionally, chiles rellenos are made using Poblano chiles, but the process of stuffing and frying is otherwise identical.
Regardless, jalapeño poppers are a packet of melty cheese and crunch, like nachos but without all of the twiddly bits that make nachos fun to look at but annoying to eat. Jalapeño poppers carry with them an element of surprise — will this one burn?! How much cheese will ooze out? — almost like popping open a Christmas cracker. Chef Jason Dady, who owns six restaurants in San Antonio, Texas, says he makes his with “raw jalapeños… I don’t like the ones that are made with pickled jalapeños because they’re not spicy. You want to have a plate of them and, like Russian Roulette, you don’t know if one might blow your face off.”
At Two Bros BBQ Market, Dady serves smoked stuffed jalapeño poppers ($7) as a side; they’re listed next to Frito pie and deep-fried mozzarella logs. “We’re a pretty classic Texas barbecue place so [jalapeño poppers] are on the menu,” Dady says. “They’re easily the most popular appetizer: They always outsell the other appetizers three to one.” The peppers are shaved open horizontally, hollowed out, and stuffed with cold cream cheese. Each one is then “wrapped with a slice of bacon and put in a low smoker for two hours, so the fat renders but the cheese doesn’t ooze out.” Dady and I agree on jalapeño poppers: “With buttermilk ranch dressing on the side,” he says, “I don’t know if there is a better Super Bowl snack.”
In America, cream cheese-stuffed jalapeño poppers and their ilk were certainly made in Texas and the Southwest prior to the 1980s, but it wasn’t until the early aughts when Heinz began running cheesy (pun-intended) commercials for their Poppers products. In 2001, Heinz launched Poppers as a brand after acquiring the trademark from the now defunct Portland, Ore.-based Poppers Supply Company (which made popcorn products). A couple of years before this, the film Office Space immortalized a version of the popper in which a whole shrimp is stuffed into the cavity of the pepper: Shrimp poppers were on the Monday specials menu at the fictional cafe Chotchkie's, where Jennifer Aniston’s character famously quit over her disdain for flair.
The popularity of jalapeño poppers took off and landed squarely alongside onion rings, potato chips, and nachos as established American snack foods. Google Trends supports this theory. By 2014, the fast-food machine had glommed onto their popularity.
But I’m also with Dady on the theory that the handmade version, though tedious, is worth the trouble. If you’re going to have jalapeño poppers, make them, or make friends that will make them for you: Provided you aren’t lactose intolerant or susceptible to indigestion (in which case you should consider avoiding Super Bowl parties altogether), eating a handful is a pleasant experience. It’s hard to overdo it on jalapeño poppers, and they can be satisfyingly filling. Finally — and this is a tiny but crucial detail — jalapeño poppers actually look a little bit like footballs.
If there’s one thing wrong with the jalapeño popper, it’s that it isn’t a photogenic food. It’s brown or green, with some beige and white and sometimes yellow; it’s unevenly textured and shaped. Congealed cheese never looks good in a photograph, but when still warm, it tastes great. That jalapeño poppers aren’t good Instagram fodder makes them even more perfect in my mind. Annoying people (like myself) won’t be angling to find the best shot, won’t worry about styling them just-so, meaning hungry snackers are free to consume at will. The jalapeño popper, unlike the nacho or the chips and guac, releases its fans from the tyranny and angst of social media. In this day and age, there is no more perfect Super Bowl snack.