A City’s Harvest

November 21, 2012

Chile peppers hang to dry on a wire fence at the Community Food and Resource Center at Bartram’s Garden in West Philly. Photo courtesy of Plan Philly’s Blog, Eyes on the Street.

The 3.5 acre Community Food and Resource Center at Bartram’s Garden in just its first year of operation has already got a crop field, greenhouse, community garden and fruit orchard.

Early last Spring, more than 100 fruit trees and berry shrubs were planted by the Philadelphia Orchard Project, and the new greenhouse provided some 60,000 transplants for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s City Harvest Program’s other gardens throughout the city. An additional 10,000 and more plants were given to people who wanted to start home gardens. By late summer, area high school student helpers harvested over 6,500 pounds of organic produce from the garden.

The Center was developed as a partnership program with Bartram’s Garden, Agatston Urban Nutrition Initiative, City of Philadelphia’s Department of Parks & Recreation, and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

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 GrowingAnything.com

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

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.”


“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

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

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

%d bloggers like this: