Tabasco sauce has been a globalized product, made with chiles grown on Louisiana’s Avery Island and in Latin America, since 1965. That year, the McIlhenny family, which owns the coastal island and the hot sauce company, ran out of space for growing Tabasco chiles there and began to contract with growers far away from Cajun country.
Demand may have driven that change at the time, but in 2005, when Hurricane Rita washed the bayou up onto the relatively high ground of the remaining Tabasco fields, it was a reminder that Avery Island, like so much of the Gulf Coast, was threatened by climate change. The island fared worse that year than during the Great Flood of 1927, when the storms were so bad that their echoes are still heard in every delta blues song about the waters rising.
“I mean, there were whitecaps on the field right out in front of us here,” Harold Took, who works at Tabasco, told the authors of Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots Along the Pepper Trail about the farm after Rita. “From here to those trees over there was all underwater.”
The 2011 book looked at global chile production as a lens for climate change issues, from drought in the Sonoran desert threatening wild chiltepin chiles to rising sea levels and increasingly damaging hurricanes on the Gulf Coast. If the book is ever updated, the authors may have to add a chapter about Sriracha and jalapeño farming in Southern California.
One of the most interesting things to learn about the famed rooster sauce since the relationship between the company that makes it and Irwindale, Calif., where its factory is, went sour has nothing to do with regulation. While much of the focus has been on the noxious clouds of chile that waft across the Los Angeles suburb, there’s been little mention of Sriracha basically being like Tabasco pre-1965: It’s a localized product. All of the 100 million pounds of red, ripe chiles Huy Fong processes every year come from one Southern California grower, Underwood Family Farm.
David Tran, the Vietnamese immigrant who started making Sriracha, a Thai-style hot sauce, in L.A.’s Chinatown back in the early 1980s, tells NPR that he’s decided to stay in Irwindale, despite the ongoing conflict with the city and plenty of invitations from Republican politicians to move Sriracha operations to a regulation-free haven such as Texas.
But while Huy Fong will continue to be based in Southern California, the jalapeños might not be grown there exclusively for much longer. The NPR story says Tran is considering a second facility, which would “allow him to keep up with the ever-growing demand for Sriracha and develop an added source for peppers, in case climate change threatens his current supply.”
Chiles, which originated in Mexico and are now grown all around the world, have the advantage of liking hot, dry weather. But even so, jalapeño fields in California are irrigated, and as water becomes more scarce in this third year of drought, even the least thirsty crops are threatened. Like the threat of flooding on the Gulf Coast, the changing climate in California could make growing chiles here less viable. That’s a bigger Srirachapocalypse threat than some air quality–control regulations dispute.