Heirloom spotlight: Fish peppers almost died out

These beautiful peppers with their creamy green and white stripes ripening to red were once the backbone of a thriving urban cuisine in the 1900s. They’re called fish peppers because they were so good in seafood sauces, but suburbanization nearly killed the species.

The story of this spicy hot pepper begins and ends with oral tradition. It likely came from the Caribbean in the 18th century and became popular among the black populations in Philadelphia and Baltimore, according to an article in Mother Earth news.

That article was written by William Woyce Weaver, a man who claimed his grandfather, who kept bees, got some of these rare seeds from a black folk painter in the 1940s in exchange for his grandfather allowing the bees to sting the man in places that had become arthritic. (You can’t make this up, right?)

The painter’s name was Horace Pippin, and according to some sources he served in World War I in the 369th Infantry, the “Harlem Hellfighters,” when a sniper took out his arm. He said the bee stings helped his pain.

Anyway, Mr. Pippin said the peppers were grown exclusively by the black community for years and years but had become very rare. And according to Baker Creek Heirloom seeds, they had been a main ingredient inthe sauces of many restaurants and crab and oyster houses in the 1800s, where the recipes were passed down orally.

This cuisine became very popular in the mid-Atlantic, according to several sources, including the Seed Savers Exchange. Baker Creek and Seed Savers are companies dedicated to saving and selling heirloom garden seeds. But the use of this pepper almost died out in the early 1900s as people adopted more urban lifestyles.

Instead, thanks to that unusual exchange and Mr. Weaver’s submission of seed to Seed Savers, the pepper but has been preserved through it and other seed saving organizations.

The seeds are now commercially available, easy to grow and result in plants with beautiful foliage and peppers that can be used in a variety of ways. And like most other peppers, it grows beautifully right here in Northeast Florida with the right care.

The takeaways:

  • This variety is more than 150 years old
  • It probably originated in the Caribbean
  • It’s medium hot (the less ripe the pepper, the less hot it is)
  • It’s an Ark of Taste food, meaning it has been internationally designated as a valuable part of culinary history with exceptional taste and in danger of going extinct
  • Dried, it makes an amazing hot chili sauce
  • It’s as easy to grow as any other pepper
  • It has gorgeous foliage and fruits, making it a lovely plant in the landscape
  • We will grow it for you. Check out the details here.
  • Mother Earth News has a recipe for a fish pepper salsa here.

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