More Pepper Trails

May 7, 2012

Seems there are quite a few pepper projects around the world!

Here’s a review of some non-profits with missions to revive hot pepper crops and to create sustainable markets that support rural farming communities.

Lambrineu Foundation Chilli Pepper Project. Located in Jakarta, this project is one of three economic projects that were created by the Lambrineu Foundation to restart this country’s social and economic development programs after the devastating 2004 earthquake and subsequent tsunami.

Before the tsunami, one local area, the Lhok Nga Sub district, once counted 120 chile farmers. After the tsunami, only 85 chile farmers were still alive. The Foundation, which operates from a community home in Lampaya Village, has aided production for local chile farmers. Funding has cleared land of rubble from the tsunami and purchased seed, fertilizers and pesticides. Efforts are also underway to create a Chile Farmers Association.

• A chile pepper project in Nicaragua is sponsored by Agros International, which aims to break the cycle of poverty for rural families in Central America and Mexico by enabling landless communities to achieve land ownership and economic stability.

Through a series of agricultural loans and technical training and support from Agros, families in El Eden and San Jose started a pepper project in March 2006. Since then, 115 families in six Agros communities have harvested 18 acres – nearly 70,000 pounds – of chile peppers! These villages have contracts with Chiles of Nicaragua which guarantees an export market for their chile peppers. In this case, it provides a large share of those chiles to US-based Original Tabasco Brand Pepper Sauce.

The Pepper Eater Project  was started in 2009 by four Stanford University engineering and business grad students.


The Pepper Eater… photo from Compatible Technology International website.

The project originated in the university’s Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability class at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. After completing a successful feasibility study, two of the students, Sam Hamner and Scott Sadlon, continued with the project with the goal of implementing the Pepper Eater in Ethiopia and other developing markets. They’ve since partnered with Compatible Technology International to achieve that goal.

Dried red pepper is the most widely consumed spice in the world. In Ethiopia, it’s estimated that some 400,000 women process hot peppers by hand. This laborious process turns fresh peppers into higher-value products, like dried flakes, seeds and powder.

What is the Pepper Eater? It’s an affordable, hand-cranked device that mills dried peppers much quicker than flaking by hand. It allows for continuous processing and easy seed preparation while limiting direct human contact with caustic pepper dust and oils. This simple device provides these enterprising women with safer and more efficient tools.

Animals on the Edge began in 2008 as a non-profit program of Living Earth. “The goal is to conserve and protect wildlife by bringing together local communities and decision makers, and proposing economy-based solutions that provide people with a financial and social incentive to conserve wildlife.”

One of its programs is a chile pepper project in India that aims to minimize the impact on forest habitat and wildlife caused by farming communities living at the edge of the protective buffer zone with Kanha National Park. Animals from the Park often wander beyond this buffer zone onto agricultural land, destroying crops and impacting livelihoods.

The pepper project in India mimics one used successfully in Africa. It involves planting chile peppers around core crops to form a natural barrier to protect farmers’ crops. The animals go out of their way to avoid the unpleasant pepper plants. What’s more, the chiles can later be harvested and sold, providing a secondary income to farmers.

Anita Mc Kelvey © 2011-2016 The Philadelphia Pepper Project


A Sowing Primer

April 29, 2012

Early Spring weather has restless gardeners eager to get outside and plant the garden quick! But it’s still too early to sow pepper seeds outdoors: the nights are too cool. Best to start those seeds indoors or under the care of a hotbed or cold frame outdoors. That’s what Bernard M’Mahon recommends.

Growing Hot Peppers

America’s first-ever gardening handbook, published in Philadelphia by Bernard M’Mahon in 1806, is a handy primer for home gardeners of all abilities.

The handbook’s full title says it all: The American Gardener’s Calendar; Adapted to the Climates and Seasons of the United States: Containing a Complete Account of All the Work Necessary to be Done in the Kitchen-Garden, Fruit Garden, Orchard, Vineyard, Nursery, Pleasure-ground, Flower-garden, Greenhouse, Hot-house, and Forcing Frames, for Every Month in the Year; with Ample Practical Directions for Performing the Same.”

Search inside its pages and find step-by-step instructions of what to do, when and how. Here’s what M’Mahon says about planting capsicums or peppers in April:

“Sow capsicums, towards the end of this month, on a warm border, to produce plants, for planting out towards the latter end of  May, or beginning of June; the large heart-shaped capsicum, is in the greatest estimation for pickling, but the small upright kinds, are the strongest for pepper: if they are desired at an early season, sow them on a slight hot-bed, the beginning of this month, and with due care they will be fit to transplant, where they are to remain, towards the middle of May. In the eastern states, the tenth of May will be soon enough to sow them, in the open ground, but in the southern states, they may be sown any time this month.”

Spicy Pepper Plants from Hot Head Heaven

Many modern-day seed merchant catalogs and websites present equally helpful growing tips about starting pepper plants from seed.

“You’ll find an enormous range of choices available from seed,” writes Jill M. Nicolaus for Dave’s Garden, which publishes a “Seed Starting 101” guide for all kinds of garden plants. “If you’re new to growing peppers, you’ll be amazed at the varieties available at seed racks, in catalogs, and on on-line websites.”

Bartram’s Garden has just published its latest garden catalog, offering ten kinds of sweet and hot peppers.

Sweet varieties include the Bullnose Red Bell, originally introduced from India in 1759; the Doe Hill Golden Bell, a pre-1900 family heirloom from Virginia, described as a “cheese-shaped pepper”;  and the Chervena Chushka, a Bulgarian heirloom traditionally used for roasting.

Hot peppers include the Bulgarian Carrot; Fish Peppers from William Woys Weaver’s collection of Afro-American varieties; the Hinkelhatz, a rare Pennsylvania Dutch heirloom,  used mostly for pickling and pepper vinegar; Long Red Cayenne, a pre-1827 heirloom; Habanero, a fiery Scotch-Bonnet variety originally from Cuba or the Yucatan and a key ingredient in West Indian jerk sauces; Willing’s Barbados, a useful ornamental with tiny peppers, featured before on this blog; and, the Numex Twilight, a hybrid ornamental, originally developed by New Mexico State University, that’s also good for cooking.

Most growers warn gardeners that unlike tomatoes or some other kitchen garden plants, peppers take a bit more patience as they’re slow to germinate and picky about soil and temperature conditions.

Here’s another gardening website that feature tips for growing hot peppers

Photo credits

“Growing Hot Peppers,” a Facebook photo essay web page.

“Spicy Pepper Plants,” from Hot Head Heaven, featured on the Daily Loaf website.

Anita Mc Kelvey © 2011-2016 The Philadelphia Pepper Project

Last month, a reader asked if the Landreth Seed Company was the earliest garden seed company in Philadelphia. He also wanted to know if Landreth sold hot pepper seeds in those early years.

What triggered the query was this advertisement published in 1792 in Claypoole’s Daily Advertiser, one of dozens of Philadelphia newspapers published at that time.

Garden historian Barbara Wells Sarudy writes about the origins of such seed dealers and nursery owners like David Landreth on her blog Early American Gardens as well as in her book Gardens and Gardening in the Chesapeake 1700-1805.

David Landreth

David Landreth

She writes: “The method of selling seeds and plants changed dramatically in the Mid-Atlantic and Upper South after the Revolutionary War. The growth of urban economies gave rise to new commercial gardening ventures, nurseries and seed stores, operated by professional gardeners who initially imported and then grew their own seed and plant stock.”

David Landreth was one of dozens of seed men in America in the early 1800s. But seeds and all varieties of plants and trees were grown, traded or sold by a number of garden suppliers long before Landreth. The most famous of those collectors and suppliers were Philadelphia botanists John Bartram and his son William Bartram from their Kingsessing farm. Another early gardener was James Alexander, who sold vegetable and herb seeds imported from London in Philadelphia in 1751. But the most successful seed merchant of all was a Welsh woman, Hannah Davis Dubre of Northern Liberties, who kept the business going and expanded it after her husband’s death in 1768. To accommodate customers who didn’t want to trudge out to her remote plantation, she introduced the idea of relying on agents in town to sell and supply to retail and wholesale customers, including international traders.

William Bartram (April 20, 1739 — July 22, 182...

William Bartram (April 20, 1739 — July 22, 1823) was an American naturalist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Shakers too built a substantial business selling seeds in the 18th Century, and were the creators of a most important innovation in seed trading, the seed packet!

Seed merchants often supplied wealthy landowners like William Hamilton of the Woodlands, whose mansion still stands in West Philadelphia, and Robert Morris, who owned a large estate on the Schuylkill, today’s historic Lemon Hill in Fairmount Park. Both men had huge gardens and greenhouses. The breadth and exoticism of their botanic collections rivaled those in Europe. They also supplied seeds and plants from their working estates to agents like Landreth and others.

However, it’s Irish immigrant Bernard M’Mahon of Philadelphia, trained by Landreth, who is credited with printing the first seed catalog in 1804 and making it widely available to the public. Just two years later, in 1806, he would publish the first-ever book on gardening in the US. The America Gardener’s Calendar is still a very useful guide to planting, caring for and harvesting one’s garden and can be read in its entirety online.

M’Mahon, also spelled McMahon, says in the preface of his book that “he is constantly supplied, at his Seed Warehouse in Philadelphia, with a general assortment of Garden Seeds, suitable for cultivation, in the United States, and in the West Indies; Grass seeds of every important and valuable kind; an immense variety of Tree, Shrub and Flower seeds and roots, procured from various parts of the world, with which the enterprize of American commerce has any connection, as well as from the different State and Territories of the Union….”

He adds that he supplies “at the most moderate terms every convenience for gardening, from spades and shovels to bulb glasses and glass suitable for hot-bed lights and other forcing department.”

So, did Landreth or others also sell hot peppers in those early years? They most certainly did!

Cayenne pepper was a popular spice and was often brought into Philadelphia ports from the Caribbean and is even noted in a merchant shippers ad from a 1723 edition of the American Weekly Mercury newspaper.

M’Mahon’s 1806 catalog notes three classic Central and South American hot pepper varieties  – capsicum baccatum, a South American sweet hot that resembles a Bishops Crown; capsicum frutescens, a small chile like the Bird Pepper, and capsicum sinesen, probably an early Habanero variety.

Landreth and other seed merchants would soon follow with their own catalogs.

Additional Reference:
The 225th Anniversary Commemorative Newsletter Series, “A History of American Vegetables, Herbs and Flowers, From the Landreth Perspective 1784-1950,” Volume 5, Issue 2, February 2009.
Anita Mc Kelvey © 2011-2016 The Philadelphia Pepper Project

Hot Water

March 10, 2012

2011©Nick Blank Photo

This hot pepper was not on display at this year’s annual International Flower Show, hosted by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society at  Philadelphia’s Convention Center, even though this year’s theme was “Hawaii: Islands of Aloha.”

Former Philadelphian Nick Blank, who lives in Honolulu, sent this photo of a Hawaiian Chile Pepper, a very common hot ornamental that grows with abandon in his and many neighbors’ backyards. Dozens of other hot pepper varieties also grow all over the lush Islands.

Nick’s neighbor, Lynn, is native Hawaiian and her husband is Japanese. They use this particular pepper to make “Pepper Water,” a popular condiment that’s splashed on just about everything to give foods additional tang and kick.

Lynn’s recipe is simple: Add boiling water to some dried hot peppers in a clean, sterilized jar. Let cool, cover and refrigerate.

Like most things in Hawaii, these peppers are not a native species. In a land with a 12-month growing season, perfect weather – even when it rains – and near perfect soil conditions, Hawaii has long been an easy landing strip for introducing all manner of plants and produce from other parts of the world.

In the olden days, smart world adventurers brought their own food with them when headed for parts unknown. Polynesians came to the isolated archipelago possibly as early as 300-500 A. D. and soon colonized it with taro, sweet potato and yam, breadfruit and bananas, coconuts and sugarcane, as well as pigs, chickens and dogs.

Much later, in the late 1700s, roving seafarers like Captain Cook brought European animals and seeds. Another sea captain, George Vancouver, gifted a few longhorn cattle to Hawaiian King Kamehameha I, who allowed the critters to run wild on The Big Island, safe from all predators, including man. The lusty cattle begat unchecked until the King hired John Parker in 1809 to capture and domesticate the feral beasts. By 1830, beef was soon added to local menus and salt beef became a major export. To this day, the Parker Ranch on the island of Hawaii is one of the largest free-range beef cattle ranches in the US.

253Pineapple, from Brazil originally, wasn’t cultivated here until after 1813. In the mid-1800s, Hawaii’s bounty supplied California’s 49ers with Irish and sweet potatoes, onions, pumpkins, oranges, molasses, and coffee.

By the late 1800s, as certain commercial food growers became more dominant, Hawaii’s ruling monarchy was deposed by European and American business interests, with support from some US government agencies. Plantation crops of pineapple and sugarcane for export took over much of the agricultural landscape on the Islands. Hundreds of Asians and other ethnic groups immigrated to work on the plantations, contributing even more culinary influences to Hawaiian menus. Puerto Rican and Vietnamese immigrants followed in subsequent decades.

Where does the hot pepper figure into all this diversity? No doubt many varieties of hot peppers arrived via various immigration channels over the years, but credit for the Hawaiian Chile Pepper is usually given to Portuguese immigrants from Madeira and the Azores, who arrived on the Islands in the 19th century to work the fields and ranches. They also introduced the ukulele, as well as Pão Doce, a traditional Portuguese sweet bread. The popular brand King’s Hawaiian is a staple in supermarkets everywhere.

Hawaii’s agricultural heritage continues to evolve. Over the past decade, the pineapple and sugarcane industries have relocated their operations to other shores, and the former growing fields lie fallow on the garden islands. Small organic farms and specialty growers of Kona coffee, Macadamia nuts, and Maui onion and limes continue to thrive, yet more than 90 percent of Hawaii’s food is still imported!

Meanwhile, five major companies that dominate the world seed industry are buying and leasing prime Hawaiian farmland. The latest agricultural frontier in Hawaii? GMO corn seed.

History of Agriculture in Hawaii, State of Hawaii Department of Agriculture,
•    •    •
“King Corn Takes Root in Hawaii,” by Paul Voosen of Greenwire, published August 20, 2011, The New York Times.
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Anita Mc Kelvey © 2011-2016 The Philadelphia Pepper Project

A Chile Spring

February 28, 2012

It might be February, but dozens of honey bees are feasting on blooming crocuses in West Philly gardens.

Clearly, it’s not too early to start planning and planting seeds for the summer garden.

Landreth Seed Company’s 2012 Special Edition seed catalog arrived in the mail in January and its 78 illustrated pages of photos and folk wisdom beckon.

Landreth's Special Edition 2012 Collector's Catalog

Landreth’s Special Edition 2012 Collector’s Catalog

Just three pages in is a Children’s Garden Collection of old-fashioned vegetable and flower favorites, including the Chervena Chujski, a Bulgarian variety heirloom pepper which ripens from green to brown to shiny red. “The fruits taper to 6 in. and resemble hot peppers, but they are incredibly sweet,” reads the caption.

An entire page is devoted to hot peppers (p. 39) starting with Anaheim Chiles, and featuring other hot pepper varieties with names from around the globe – Caribbean Red, plus the mildly hot Black Hungarian Pepper, as well as the Bolivian Rainbow, with purplish-green leaves, that will produce tiny cone-shaped hot peppers of many colors on fully grown plants within about 80 days.

The Fish Pepper, featured before on this blog, is also represented. Other long-time favorites include Cayenne, Habanero, Jalapeño, Poblano, Scotch Bonnet, Thai Hot, Serrano, and Tabasco. For those who prefer white-hot to red-hot, there’s even a White Habanero.

Sweet pepper offerings are available further along in the catalog. These include the imperfectly shaped Bullnose pepper, introduced into the US in 1759, possibly from India. This bell pepper was originally used for stuffing and pickling. (See Mrs. Emlen’s Pickled Mangos) Another old standby is the Red Cherry Sweet, introduced before 1860, that produces small round, very sweet fruits, and excellent also for pickling or canning. Miniature Bells, perfect for container gardening, are available in three colors – chocolate, red and yellow. These sweet peppers are family heirlooms shared with Seed Savers Exchange, says Landreth.

Founder David Landreth originally started his company in Montreal Canada in 1780, but its harsh climate induced him to relocate to Philadelphia in 1784. His first garden center was located on former High Street, now 1210 Market Street, very near where the Loews Hotel resides within the former PSFS Tower. Landreth’s loyal customers included George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Joseph Bonaparte.

Like William and John Bartram, the Landreths introduced a number of botanic firsts to Philadelphia – the Zinnia from Mexico in 1798; the first truly white potato in 1810, and Bloomsdale Spinach in 1826. And for a city that markets itself “with Love,” Landreth introduced the tomato, aka the Love Apple, in 1820.

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Jeffrey C. Nekola from the University of New Mexico publishes a terrific website, the “Heirloom Vegetable Archive,” that depicts a broad array of heirloom vegetables along with great photos and descriptive captions.

Anita Mc Kelvey © 2011-2016
The Philadelphia Pepper Project

Feeding the Spirit

February 15, 2012

Turn on and tune in to the webcast “Feeding the Spirit: Museums, Food and Community” this Friday, February 17, from 1:45-5 p.m.

This “national potluck” is a gathering of food scholars, professionals and others who will explore how museums can promote food literacy, healthy and sustainable food services, as well as use food to build participation and strengthen community connections.

It’s every bit what the Philadelphia Pepper Project is all about.     logo

The free program is being hosted by the Center for the Future of Museums (CFM), a think tank and research and design lab to help museums transcend their traditional missions by fostering more creative programming. CFM is affiliated with the American Association of Museums.

Although the primary audience for this webinar is people who work in, and with, museums, anyone can join in the conversation, especially those who work with food, or who are involved with community health issues such as childhood nutrition and gardening.

Featured panelists on the program include Jeannette Ickovics from the Yale School of Public Health, who will talk about how museums can promote food literacy and improve community health; Elizabeth Meltz, director of food safety and sustainability for the Batali/Bastianich Hospitality Group in NYC; and, Erika Allen, Chicago and National Outreach coordinator for Growing Power. Later afternoon programming, moderated by Elizabeth Merritt from AAM, includes Ismael Calderon, director of science at Newark Museum; Jessica Harris, noted culinary historian and professor at Queens College, CUNY; and, Jane Pickering, associate director at Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

To learn more or to register on line for the program, contact the Center here:


Anita Mc Kelvey © 2011-2016 The Philadelphia Pepper Project

Pick a Pickled Pepper

January 4, 2012

Here’s a recipe for Green Pepper MThe Original White House Cook Book, 1887 Editionangoes from the 1887 edition of The Original White House Cook Book.

“Select firm, sound, green peppers, and add a few red ones, as they are ornamental and look well upon the table. With a sharp knife remove the top, take out the seed, soak overnight in salt water, then fill with chopped cabbage and green tomatoes, seasoned with salt, mustard seed and ground cloves. Sew on the top. Boil vinegar sufficient to cover them, with a cup of brown sugar, and pour over the mangoes. Do this three mornings, then seal.”

Below are Ellen M. Emlen’s recipes for Pickled Mangoes and Pickled Peppers from her handwritten collection of 19th-century recipes published in 2011 by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.


“Choose the mangoes when green, lay them in salt & water till they are yellow. Then green them with weak vinegar & water. Cut a piece out of the side & take out the seeds. Prepare the following stuffing, which is sufficient for 18 mangoes – A pint of mustard seed, 2 oz. cloves, 2 oz. allspice, 2 oz. whole black pepper (all of them whole/ 4 sticks horseradish chipped, wet all these with vinegar, stuff the mangoes, put a clove of garlic in each, & tie the piece in which you cut out; put them in the jars & cover with boiling vinegar – When you green the mangoes, you must put cabbage leaves all round the kettle.”


“Cut a slit in the peppers, put them in an earthen jar, put cabbage leaves over them & 2 handfuls of salt on the top. Boil vinegar & fill the jar completely. Let them stand 3 days; then boil the same vinegar & put on them again – repeat this every 2 or 3 days, until the peppers are of a fine green color when they will be fit for use.”

Anita Mc Kelvey © 2011-2016 The Philadelphia Pepper Project

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