Hot Beginnings

August 31, 2011

Fruit in a Silver Basket, by Raphaelle Peale, c. 1814

The humble hot pepper figures large in Philadelphia’s long and complex culinary history.

As early as 1642, Habanero or Bonnet peppers, also known as Fall Peppers, could be found growing at Swedish farms along the Delaware River. By the 1700s, a popular trade import was hot peppers from the West Indies, and along with them a style of cuisine that would become uniquely Philadelphia’s in flavor and spirit.

A number of hot pepper varieties would literally take root in Philadelphia, growing wild in flower boxes, gardens and byways throughout the city. Poor and rich alike took advantage of the free bounty, using them in all kinds of dishes and also creating endless varieties of hot pepper sauces, oils and vinegars. Others made a living preparing and selling popular street foods like Pepper Pot Soup. Even Jefferson and Washington grew many varieties of hot peppers from Philadelphia on their Virginia farms.

Many varieties of hot peppers, which would later be marketed and shipped all over the world by 18th and 19th century Philadelphia seed merchants, are now quite rare or extinct. Fortunately, a number of heirloom varieties, such as the Willings Bird Pepper, are still cultivated in historic enclaves such as Bartram’s Garden.

Other rare varieties with Philadelphia connections include the Black Bird’s Beak pepper, a small, tapered fruit with a hooked tip that’s shaped, of course, like a bird’s beak. The Bull Nose pepper, familiar to many 18th-century gardeners like Jefferson, was even featured in a painting by Raphaelle Peale, although the present-day heirloom is probably not identical to its ancestor.

It’s important to note, too, that Philadelphia’s extraordinary black caterers of the 18th and 19th centuries employed a wide variety of Fish and Chiltepe peppers into their French and Creole-styled cuisine. That tradition would carry on well into this century as many of the heirloom varieties today survive because the Afro-American community continued to grow and save these seeds for generations.


William Woys Weaver, Heirloom Vegetable Gardening: A Master Gardener’s Guide to Planting, Seed Saving, and Cultural Historypublished by Henry Holt & Company, ©1997.

Fruit in a Silver Basket, by Raphaelle Peale, c. 1814; American Paintings from the Manoogian Collection.

Anita Mc Kelvey © 2011-2016 The Philadelphia Pepper Project


Pick of the Peck

August 28, 2011


What to do with the bounty?

Nothing beats homemade roasted hot or sweet peppers which can be added to salads, sauces and soups or turned into various condiments, like Piri Piri sauce.

However, before you start cooking, take care handling hot peppers. The hottest parts of the peppers are the skins, seeds and soft white ribs on the inside of the peppers. You should also rate the hotness of your peppers before handling them.

You can consult Scoville scores, developed in 1912 by American pharmacologist Wilber Scoville, which measures capsaicin levels, or you can rely on a simpler gauge for hotness — reputation.

Common hot pepper varieties are Jalapeno, Habanero and Scotch Bonnets. Much, much hotter varieties than these exist, but frankly they probably shouldn’t be eaten at all. Indeed, malevolent uses are planned for the latest, hottest pepper of them all, the Naga Viper.

Roast peppers in a hot oven, under the broiler or over the open flame of the gas jets on your stove. The best flavor comes from roasting over a wood fire from an outdoor grill or fireplace. Place well-washed whole hot peppers on foil or a metal baking sheet if cooking in the oven or under the broiler. Place peppers directly on the grill rack or use extra long grilling tongs or skewers to hold them over the fire of an outdoor grill, stove or fireplace.

Turn peppers as they blacken on all sides. Avoid rough handling or piercing the softening skins so you don’t lose the juices that have built up inside. Put hot, fully charred peppers into a glass or stainless bowl and cover with foil or a lid to continue steaming and softening the peppers. Avoid standing too near the bowl as the rising steam has oils from the hot peppers that can burn your eyes or nose. Cool peppers thoroughly before handling them.

You can wait up to a couple of days before handling them again – the flavor will only improve! When you do get around to peeling the peppers wear vinyl food handler gloves to protect yourself, especially if handling very hot peppers like Scotch Bonnets or Habanero, and be very sure not to accidentally touch your face in the process. Use small tongs or a paring knife to carefully trim off the burnt parts; slice open the peppers and pull out the stem holding the seeds and rib membranes as best as you can. Retain the steeped juices and some seeds and add them to your prepped peppers. Slice, dice, mash or leave peppers whole for stuffing – whatever the recipe dictates.

Plain roasted peppers keep in the fridge for up to one week or more. They freeze well too. Canning takes a bit more work but is certainly worth it if you’re putting up large quantities. Local blog “Food In Jars” is an excellent resource for canning all kinds of foods.

Culinary historian William Woys Weaver talks about a popular hot pepper vinegar in his book, “Sauerkraut Yankees,” which offers recipes from an 1848 Pennsylvania Dutch cookbook.

Says Weaver: “Among Philadelphians, pepper vinegar was used with the same frequency (and just as sparingly) as horseradish or its closest cousin Tabasco. It was sometimes poured hot over salad greens, added to pickles and sauces, or even sprinkled over scrapple, sausage, and other pork products. It appears to have been one of those hot West Indian things that gained popularity in the United States during the late 18th and 19th centuries but is now gratefully forgotten, retired by the much milder Creole chili sauces, which are now as popular among the Pennsylvania Germans as they are anywhere.”

It’s easy enough to create your own version of this hot pepper vinegar using your freshly made roasted hot peppers. Add a tablespoon of mashed or diced roasted hot peppers to a clean, sterilized glass jar; add one cup boiling white vinegar, apple cider vinegar or rice wine vinegar to the jar. Cool mixture and cap jar with sterilized lid. Keep refrigerated.

Enjoy, sparingly.


William Woys Weaver, Sauerkraut Yankees: Pennsylvania Dutch Foods and Foodways, published by Stackpole Books, 2002.

Pepper photo courtesy of images

Anita Mc Kelvey © 2011-2016 The Philadelphia Pepper Project

Rebel Gardeners

August 5, 2011

Meet the Rebel Gardeners.

Tough on dirt; soft on vegetables. All kinds of vegetables. Fruit too.

At their farm stand at Clark Park on S. 43rd Street in West Philly, there’s an ever surprising array of goodies that evolves over the hot summer. Beets, carrots,  tomatoes, squash, eggplant, various greens, peaches and, of course, hot peppers. Indeed four kinds of hot peppers were on hand this past week, including Poblano, Jalapeño, Habanero and long Chili peppers!

Unquestionable team spirit is smartly announced by their hot yellow polo shirts and their energy as they promote their business cards — handmade constructions that tout their website and the vegetable du jour, garnished with a recipe and home-grown seeds.

So who are these Rebel Gardeners?   

They’re a gregarious group of 8th graders from (can’t make this up) Pepper Middle School, located in Philadelphia’s Eastwick neighborhood.

Last year, the school kids were studying nutrition, science and sustainability when they learned about the impending fate of their nearby neighbor, the Eastwick Community Garden. The seven-acre garden, much-loved and tended to by community residents for almost 40 years, could soon become a parking lot as it’s in the pathway of an expansion of the Philadelphia Airport.

Determined to preserve and pass on their collective knowledge, the community gardeners began mentoring the young students, who made frequent field trips to the Eastwick garden. This year, faced with lessening chances of the community garden surviving, the young group decided to build a garden at the school so that even more students would learn what they were learning.

The Pepper Middle School garden project was created by the Agatston Urban Nutrition Initiative and with Eat.Right.Now. The nutrition initiative is slated to expand to other schools in the school district next year.

Meanwhile, the kids have written First Lady Michelle Obama to tell her about themselves and about the plight of their friends’ garden.

After all, they’re Rebel Gardeners!

To learn more about the Pepper Middle School program, check their website at or write them at

Anita Mc Kelvey © 2011-2016 The Philadelphia Pepper Project

Philadelphia Pepper Trail

August 5, 2011

Willings Barbados Bird Pepper from Bartram’s Garden

This tiny hot pepper grows in the house garden at Bartram’s Garden in West Philly.

It was given to Bartram’s gardeners by William Woys Weaver, noted food historian and author of many articles and books on American foodways. In his book, Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, Weaver writes about the origins of this pepper, known botanically as Capsicum annuum var. aviculare.

“During the 1760s,” Weaver writes, “Philadelphia botanist John Bartram assembled a large assortment of tropical plants for botanical enthusiast Sir John St. Clair at his estate near Trenton, New Jersey… This highly ornamental pepper is believed to have been part of the original St. Clair collection. It is a wild pepper (landrace) that has not submitted to the taming hand of gardeners in spite of its long cultivation in pots.”

In Philadelphia, the Willings Barbados pepper was known as the Barberry or Pipperidge pepper, says Weaver. Because of its attractive foliage and berries, it was typically used as an ornamental houseplant during the 18th and 19th centuries. The berries, harvested green or ripe red, had multiple culinary uses as well. It was a popular Caribbean-style condiment in both Philadelphia and Charleston cooking, particularly as a seasoning for soups, sauces and stews, but it was also used to make a “pepper sherry” prepared with Madeira, says Weaver.

The pepper most likely gets its name from Charles Willing (1738-1788), the second son of a prosperous merchant and politician, also named Charles Willing, who served two terms as City mayor, in 1748 and again in 1754. Charles, the son, who also engaged in mercantile ventures, resided for many years in Barbados, where he married Elizabeth Hannah Carrington. Willing supplied many exotic plants and foods for Philadelphia’s extensive food markets and to botanic collectors and suppliers such as John Bartram.

Bird peppers are a self-seeding variety of wild hot pepper, easily spread by birds, who ingest them, unaffected by the heat of the pepper.

The Willings Barbados Bird Pepper is an heirloom variety; seeds can be purchased on line from various suppliers.


William Woys Weaver, Heirloom Vegetable Gardening: A Master Gardener’s Guide to Planting, Seed Saving, and Cultural History, published by Henry Holt & Company, ©1997.

Genealogies of Barbados Families; from Caribbeana and The Journal of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, reprint by genealogical Publishing Co., Inc. Baltimore, Maryland © 1983.

Anita Mc Kelvey © 2011-2016 The Philadelphia Pepper Project

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