Fish Saved By Pirate

October 24, 2011

Grant Folin, nursery manager at Bartram’s Garden, recently shared a story about a Baltimore-area entrepreneur who wants to bring back some of that city’s culinary heritage via the fish pepper.

Mick “the Pirate” Kipp owns a specialty foods and spice blends business in Maryland called the Whiskey Island Pirate Shop. His mission to revive heirloom fish peppers started off as “a two- to five-year project to see how far I could take it. Could I grow enough peppers to grow more peppers? To make my sauces and spices and to sell them? But the ultimate goal was to bring fish peppers back to the local cuisine.”

The fish pepper is an unusual cayenne pepper mutant, distinguished by colorful white-striped greenery and brightly striped fruits. Its two-tone color extends to its two-toned flavor: it has both sweet and hot qualities, providing an ideal, balanced pungency to any number of dishes.                               Mick Kipp at One Straw Farm

The fish pepper has Baltimore origins, first appearing on the scene in the 1870s. Fish peppers were grown almost exclusively by African-American “truck farmers” who supplied restaurants and crab and oyster houses throughout the mid-Atlantic; hence, the origin of its name.  Some of Philly’s most famous black caterers also grew these peppers adding them to their special French-style cream sauces – the secret ingredient in many gourmet recipes.

Popular as they were, there came a time when fish peppers fell off the culinary radar. Kipp said that when he started investigating about the long-lost pepper in the coastal hamlets of southern Maryland, he ran into only one person who even remembered what they were.

Fish peppers fruit white before turning ripe in a rainbow of colors. Back in the day, young fruit was picked early and dried to create “white paprika,” says heirloom vegetable expert, William Woys Weaver, writing about the Baltimore origins of his grandfather’s fish pepper seeds that he shared with Seed Savers Exchange years ago.

With a wild nature similar to bird peppers, and prone to a lot of variation because of unstable genetics, fish pepper seeds can be difficult to grow reliably, says Weaver. He further warns that seed should not be saved from one plant only, but from as many six different ones. He further recommends combining seeds at the end of the growing season so that the genetic mix for next year’s planting is as varied as possible. Plants should be kept close together to enhance cross-pollination. And, lastly, seeds for next year’s planting should be saved only from ripe red pods.

Kipp says he’s taken such precautions growing his fish peppers on land leased from friends Drew and Joan Norman at One Straw Farm, a certified organic vegetable farm in White Hall, MD.  Three years ago Kipp planted his first experimental row of around two dozen plants from seeds purchased on-line from an heirloom seed supplier. They did okay, but it took until this year for his crop to really take off. His pepper project has since grown to some 3900 plants on two fields and he recently harvested some 70 bushels of fish peppers, the bulk of which got processed. “This year, I have around 50 gallons of mash aging in tubs that will eventually get jarred into jams or jellies or salsa,” he said.

During the growing season, with One Straw Farm doing all the field work, Kipp supplies half a dozen local farm-to-fork Baltimore restaurants, like Woodbury Kitchen and Pickles Pub, which serves lots of hot sauce made from Kipp’s fish peppers.

Kipp is sincere about expanding his project enough so that he can also offer the peppers to school gardens and churches, particularly in the city’s Afro-American community. Last year, he shared seeds with two inner city schools in Baltimore, which have grown them ever since. “Bringing fish peppers back into use in the local cuisine,” he says, “is my way of returning that community’s heritage back to them.”


References

“The Prodigal Pepper,” Scott Carlson, Baltimore’s Urbanite Magazine, May 2, 2010.

Photos courtesy of Mick Kipp, Whiskey Island Pirate Shop, and Seed Savers Exchange.

“Fish Peppers,” William Woys Weaver, Mother Earth News, April/May 2009.

Anita Mc Kelvey © 2011-2016 The Philadelphia Pepper Project

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