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.

References

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

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