Posts tagged ‘African-American’

The Fish Pepper

This is the second in a series of blog posts highlighting heirloom plants growing in our Victory Garden at the National Museum of American History with ties to the FOOD in the Garden theme of the week. Every Thursday in September we are exploring one of four key maritime regions with connections to the War of 1812: the Long Island Sound, the Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes, and New Orleans. We hope to see you tomorrow evening in the Victory Garden as we enjoy garden-fresh food, cocktails and hard cider from New Columbia Distillers and Distillery Lane Ciderworks, and learn more about two hundred years of Chesapeake Bay foodways. This week’s event is sold out, but you can follow @amhistorymuseum on Twitter for live updates. Tickets for the programs on September 18th and 24th can be purchased here.

The 'Fish' Pepper

The fish pepper in the Victory Garden at the National Museum of American History.

This spicy heirloom pepper has deep roots in African-American history, the fishing industry, and the food traditions of the Chesapeake Bay region. The fish pepper is both a decorative and culinary treasure; beautiful variegated foliage provides an attention-grabbing backdrop for the striated peppers that range from white to green to deep oranges and reds. It’s a workhorse plant that’s pretty enough to show off in the front yard as an ornamental and produces peppers with a mellow heat all summer long.

The heirloom 'fish' pepper

A young fish pepper on the left, and a more mature pepper with stripes on the right. The fruit matures to a vibrant red.

The origins of the fish pepper (Capsicum annum, the same species as the Tabasco pepper) are mysterious, but it likely arrived in North America by way of the Caribbean. A possible genetic mutation caused the plant to produce the prized spicy, light-colored peppers. African-American slaves and freedmen in Antebellum Maryland used the pepper to add an unanticipated heat to fish, shellfish—and even terrapin—stew. It was a prized “secret” ingredient in white sauces. The creamy, green young peppers added undetected heat to a white sauce without muddying the color. According to the authors of Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots along the Pepper Trail, the decline of the fish pepper (and its brush with extinction) is closely tied to the decline of the fishing industry in the Chesapeake Bay, though this heirloom is now is making a culinary comeback in the Baltimore area and is available from some seed companies.

Here are two past blog entries from Smithsonian Gardens and the National Museum of American History on the history of fish pepper. Enjoy!

-Kate Fox, Smithsonian Gardens educator

September 10, 2014 at 3:21 pm Leave a comment

The American Bottle Tree

Have you ever caught a glimpse of a bottle tree shimmering in the sunlight of your neighborhood? Made from brightly colored bottles placed over the branches of a tree (or in more recent years a metal frame), these garden sculptures catch attention in any space, such as the one pictured below in the Gibson Garden in Dallas, Texas. Although they are not a particularly common sight, they have a long history as an element of spiritual, cultural, and aesthetic significance in American history and garden design.

[Gibson Garden]

A Bottle Tree in the “Oak Lawn” garden room of the Gibson Garden. Although this garden in Dallas is typically noted for its Japanese-inspired design, the presence of a bottle tree demonstrates how this garden feature of African and African American origin has evolved to become a component in a range of garden designs. Image from the Garden Club of America Collection, Archives of American Gardens, Smithsonian Institution. David H. Gibson, photographer.

Folklore and written sources from as early as 1776 indicate that this centuries-old custom originated in the kingdom of Kongo on the West African coast, where vessels were combined with tree branches.  When Africans were brought to the Americas as slaves, some were able to continue this practice, using whatever resources they had available. Variations appeared on islands in the Caribbean. The more familiar bottle trees we recognize today were likely a Creole invention, becoming particularly prominent in the southern United States from eastern Texas to South Carolina, where bottles were often placed on the branches of crape-myrtle trees.

While the  meaning of bottle trees continues to evolve as it has for centuries, one of the more common interpretations is that they protect the home and garden by catching evil spirits, which some say are attracted to the bottles by their bright colors (sometimes made by swirling paint on the inside of a clear bottle). Once inside, the sunlight destroys the spirit.   Other interpretations suggest the spirits are trapped inside the bottles in the evening. Then, the morning sunlight destroys them. If you pass by and happen to hear the wind blowing across the bottles, it is thought to be the sound of the spirits trapped inside. Bottle trees have also been thought to bring rain, luck, and to make trees bloom.

Writer Eudora Welty (1909-2001) took the bottle tree from the landscape onto the pages of American literature in her short story “Livvie,” giving her work a distinct sense of place in the American south. As she described the scene,

Coming around up the path from the deep cut of the Natchez Trace below was a line of bare crape-myrtle trees with every branch of them ending in a colored bottle, green or blue.  There was no word that fell from Solomon’s lips to say what they were for, but Livvie knew that there  could be a spell put in trees, and she was familiar from the time she was born with the way bottle trees kept evil spirits from coming into the house…Solomon had made the bottle trees with his own hands over the nine years, in labor amounting to about a tree a year, and without a sign that he had any uneasiness in his heart, for he took as much pride in his precautions against spirits coming in the house as he took in the house…

This story, as Welty said in a 1987 interview, was inspired by bottle trees she saw and photographed in rural Mississippi during the 1930s and ’40s: “it was the place, really. And it was the bottle tree that made me write it.” In the same interview, she lamented that “there are hardly any anymore because of the highways. You know, the interstates have come through….They have vanished now, and the roads have come in…But there probably still are some away back in somewhere.”

Weltey_bottle_tree_l

Writer Eudora Welty photographed this house with bottle trees in Simpson, County, Mississippi during the time she worked for the WPA in the 1930s and ’40s. It appears in her book of photographs, “One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression” (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996,pg. 45).
Image © Eudora Welty Collection, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

Although they continue to take on varied forms and uses today, bottle trees still have a presence in gardens and cultural landscapes across the United States, such as those photographed by Vaughn Sills and in the Gibson’s garden in Dallas. Through a long journey encompassing slavery and freedom, and into the Archives of American Gardens, the bottle tree continues to be a garden feature with an American story to tell.

- Joe Cialdella, Enid A. Haupt Fellow

February 28, 2013 at 9:00 am 2 comments

Gardens All Their Own: Early African American Gardens in Detroit

Detroit was still a burgeoning industrial center in 1918 when John and Elizabeth Crews ended a journey “through six states seeking a home” and settled in the city. As part of the Great Migration, when African Americans began moving to Detroit in large numbers for employment opportunities and an escape from Jim Crow segregation, the Crews and many others were faced with the challenge of making a place and building community in a new environment.

In Detroit, many stopped their traditional gardening and food growing practices because urban-industrial life offered new opportunities to escape toiling on the land. Others changed and adapted their horticultural practices. Although the East Side of the city where many migrants first lived was quite dense, some managed to cultivate gardens here, while others moved to areas with more space.

bh001663-c

Although photographed in 1949, this house with a small garden in Detroit’s East Side neighborhood suggests some of the ways Detroit’s African American migrants in the early 20th century made use of their yards. The image was taken by the agency charged with documenting and appraising the neighborhood before it was demolished to build Interstate 75.
Image Courtesy of Corporation Counsel – Real Estate Division records, Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library. Used with permission.

For those with financial means, the West Side of the city offered one of the first opportunities for African Americans in the area to cultivate a suburban garden aesthetic in a neighborhood of mostly single-family homes. Yards were landscaped with lawns and adorned with flowers and trees (often fruit trees). One resident planted so many flowers along her fence that she was known as “The Flower Girl.”  Unlike other suburbs, however, rock gardens were often a common feature, especially in the more private space of the backyard. As one resident remembered, “Roosevelt was a serene and beautiful street with trees, green grass, butterflies, [and] beautiful rock gardens in back yards…”  The neighborhood was so closely knit one resident described it as “village.” Home ownership created a shared sense of community as residents worked to maintain a suburban sense of place.

Image 7_Rock Garden_West Side

This rock garden in a back yard on Roosevelt Street was created from rocks the owners collected on their travels. From “Remembering Detroit’s Old Westside: 1920-1950,” 1997.

In the Eight Mile-Wyoming area, where the Crews lived, residents often had a different vision of the suburban ideal, raising chickens and growing gardens that often included vegetables, such the “Kentucky Wonder” green beans the Crews canned to eat throughout the winter.   Corn was also a common sight in the neighborhood, along with an informal system of community gardening. As one resident told a visitor, they had no trouble with people stealing from their garden because, “we just plant a little more than we need each year to take care of that.”  Alternately, “if we run low, we just get a few [ears of corn] off of somebody else’s. We all know that. We don’t care. We’re friends out here!”

LoC Vachon Image

A house with a cornfield in the Eight Mile/Wyoming neighborhood. Photograph by John Vachon, U.S. Farm Security Administration (courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division).

Not everyone found this more rural way of life appealing, however. During the 1920s and 30s, the Detroit Urban League (an organization founded to assist African American migrants in Detroit) often sponsored flower garden contests (complete with prizes of cash or flower bouquets)  in this neighborhood to beautify what they considered to be unsightly “yards,” not gardens. According to one observer,  during the spring contest houses in the neighborhood were “surrounded by riots of bloom…porches and fences sag under the weight of rambler roses, honeysuckle, and clematis; the yards bloom with myriads of flowers.”

While images of these gardens are sparse, bits and pieces from the written record help to illuminate the ways African Americans used gardens to create a sense of place, belonging, and community in Detroit, a tradition that continues with community gardening projects in the city today.

-Joe Cialdella, Enid A. Haupt Fellow

Image 12_Manistique Community Garden

Sunflowers at the Manistique Community Garden, on Detroit’s East Side, August 2012. Photograph by Joe Cialdella.

February 12, 2013 at 8:00 am Leave a comment

William Woys Weaver: Trading Bees for Seeds

If you’ve been following our twitter and facebook page, you’ve been learning about our newly planted vegetable garden at the southwest corner of the National Museum of American History. The Gillette Family Garden is an important adjunct to the current exhibit, “Slavery at Monticello: Paradox of Liberty.” http://www.monticello.org/slavery-at-monticello/about/breaking-ground-gillette-family-garden

Fish Peppers

Fish Peppers

Out of all the vegetables in the garden, the fish pepper is likely to have the most interesting history. Fish peppers are dated to the early nineteenth century, where they were popularly grown as an heirloom vegetable by African Americans in Philadelphia and Baltimore. The green, inconspicuous fish pepper was often the secret ingredient in fish and shellfish cookery, passed down in recipes communicated through oral history.

The story of these peppers’ mid-twentieth century rediscovery may be traced to an important barter made by men trading bees for seeds.  In the 1940s, Horace Pippin of West Chester, Pennsylvania, sought a unique remedy for his war wounds. Learning that bee stings may relieve the pain of his wounds, Pippin bought bees from H. Ralph Weaver.

NMAH Garden's Wattle Fence

NMAH Garden’s Wattle Fence

In exchange, Pippin offered what he had – tons of interesting vegetable seeds, including the rare fish pepper, for what would become the Roughwood Seed Collection, run by Weaver’s grandson, William Woys Weaver. For the first time, the fish pepper was advertised to the public on a grand scale when William Woys Weaver offered the seeds in the 1995 Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook.

The garden will be on view during the length of the new exhibit, ending October 14, 2012. For more info on the exhibit, see http://ow.ly/bQgBF

To purchase your own fish peppers, go to http://ow.ly/bs0Yc

Kristina Borrman, Katzenberger Art History Intern

June 22, 2012 at 2:00 am 3 comments

Summer Crops from Monticello: A Gillette Family Garden Update

The National Museum of African American History and Culture’s current exhibition Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty, may be found in the in their gallery on the second floor of the National Museum of American History and outside at the southwest corner of the terrace. There, you’ll find a vegetable garden, replete with plantings which will be rotated throughout the time of the exhibition. Jefferson’s estate was known for growing cash crops, chiefly tobacco and wheat. So what do all these vegetables have to do with Monticello?

USDA Farmer's Market with Leni Sorenson on Friday, June 8

USDA Farmer’s Market with Leni Sorenson on Friday, June 8

The Gillette Family Garden  is a representation of the garden cultivated by the Gillette family, individuals in the enslaved community on Jefferson’s estate. The Gillettes were truly entrepreneurs; they gardened in their limited free time and sold the produce to improve their situation. The plants growing in the NMAH garden were carefully selected based upon the research of Peter Hatch, Director of Gardens and Grounds at Monticello, who examined the estate’s account books and researched plants typical of contemporary nineteenth-century gardens.

Out with the turnips, in with the okra! We just changed out the crops for the summer. The harvested turnips were shared with the chef, and turnips, beets and cabbage were displayed at Monticello culinary historian Leni Sorensen’s cooking demonstration at Friday’s USDA Farmers Market.

Summer plantings

Plants

Fish Pepper

Fish Pepper

Okra: Cow’s Horn Okra, Abelmoschus esculentus

Peppers: Fish Pepper, Capsicum annuum ‘Fish’

Sesame: Bene, Sesamum indicum

Strawberries: Wild Strawberry, Fragaria virginiana

Seeds

Gherkins: West Indian Gherkin, Cucumis anguria var. anguria

Squash: Sweet Potato Pumpkin, Cucurbita moschata

Cymling or Pattypan Squash, Cucurbita pepo variety

The exhibit is on view until October 14, 2012. For more information and to see how the garden was made, go to http://www.monticello.org/slavery-at-monticello/about/breaking-ground-gillette-family-garden

June 15, 2012 at 8:28 am Leave a comment


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