Posts tagged ‘heirloom vegetable’

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

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


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