There’s a pepper that’s fruity and spicy, similar in texture to a serrano, but without any bitterness in its bite. It transforms from milky white to yellow to stripy green to blazing red as it matures: a sunset on the vine. This is the fish pepper, and its history is as compelling as its flavor.
Although the exact origins of the fish pepper are unknown, it is widely believed that it came from somewhere in the Caribbean, arriving in the United States in the late 1800s. Culinary historian Michael Twitty believes that fish peppers were brought to the Baltimore, Maryland, area by Haitians, and soon began to pop up in gardens, kitchens, and produce markets in the city.
Once they were here, fish peppers thrived. While it seems that white people didn’t grow them very often, African Americans all along the Chesapeake Bay began to plant the peppers in their gardens. There’s a saying that what grows together goes together, and Black caterers and cooks often used the pepper in seafood dishes, taking advantage of the local bounty. Since one out of every 50 or so fish peppers lacks chlorophyll and remains pale in color, fish peppers were especially useful in recipes that had a cream base, where they provided a stealthy flavor while remaining stylishly invisible.
Tracing the tale of fish peppers is a tricky task: There are very few mentions in cookbooks of the time. In part that’s because recipes in the Black community were often passed down orally—they simply weren’t written down. Few cookbooks by Black authors were published. And it’s possible, too, that chefs might have been hesitant to reveal their special ingredient.
Harry Franklyn Hall is one example of a chef who might have used fish peppers. Hall was a Black caterer and chef in Philadelphia who cooked in high-end hotels and wrote 300 Ways to Cook and Serve Shellfish in 1901. He included recipes for Baltimore oyster pie (similar to an oyster stew, but baked with vegetables inside a pie crust) and a spicy crab gumbo, listing hot peppers as necessary ingredients. A specific pepper is not denoted, though it’s easy to imagine that fish peppers could have been used in either dish.
Fish peppers were not only used to season food, though. They were considered a powerful remedy for joint pain and were employed to discourage bugs from destroying tobacco plants. Oral history describes how enslaved people rubbed fish peppers on their feet in order to disguise any scent and throw off the dogs who tracked them as they escaped to freedom.
As more African Americans moved away from agricultural lifestyles, the fish pepper’s popularity waned—by the early 1900s it became nearly extinct. But then Horace Pippin came along. Pippin was a Black painter who lost the use of his right arm while serving in World War I and began to suffer from arthritis. He resorted to seeking out bee stings for relief, a popular remedy at the time, and began exchanging seeds for bees from H. Ralph Weaver, a neighboring beekeeper. Weaver saved the seeds, and in 1995, his grandson, William Woys Weaver, found baby food jars full of seeds in his grandfather’s freezer. He shared the seeds with the Seed Savers Exchange, and now every seed that is purchased today can be traced back to Pippin.
The seeds are now widely available, and the popularity of fish peppers is on the rise. Hardette Harris, chef and owner of Us Up North in Louisiana, says she finds them easy to grow in a pot on her porch—and easy to work with in the kitchen. “Fish peppers pair well with seafood dishes and sauces. I use them wherever I need heat…in curry chicken and guacamole. But I only use a little bit—you’d be surprised by how spicy they can be,” Harris warns.
Adrian Lindsay, an adviser for the Global Food and Drink Initiative, placed an order with Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds when he learned about the link between African American culinary history and the pepper. “Fish peppers are my favorite because I like the flavor, and they’re easy to grow. They’re similar to jalapeño in taste and heat,” Lindsay notes. Two ways he enjoys using them is roasting a whole pepper (similar to a bay leaf) and in coleslaw, where he removes the seeds and juliennes the pepper.
If you’d like to grow fish peppers in your garden, you’ll need a spot in full sun where you can plant the seeds 18 to 24 inches apart. The plants will grow to about two feet tall, turning a variety of colors as they mature. While a few on each plant may remain white throughout their lifespan, most of the peppers start off pale in color with light green stripes, then become darker yellow with green stripes, then orange and finally red, when fully mature. The longer they stay on the vine, the deeper the flavor.
Along the Chesapeake Bay, Black farmers and growers are planting fish peppers again. Xavier Brown, an urban farmer and the founder of Soilful City in Washington, D.C., makes a chile sauce with the peppers called Pippin Sauce, which he sells in local markets. The sauce, Brown says, is a way to pay homage to seed keeping, D.C. culture, and Horace Pippin—and all the peppers used are grown by Black farmers and urban gardeners.
“This is really a crop that has been sustained by Black people,” Mitchell says. “That in and of itself is powerful.”
Farmer, cook, and agricultural educator Denzel Mitchell became aware of the fish pepper in 2008. “I did some research...and I found out about the Landreth Seed Company, which did an African American seed series, and fish peppers were on that list.” Mitchell began working with Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore, who created a dry seasoning and a hot sauce with the peppers (locals can order the hot sauce online).
Fish peppers are just as relevant now as they were two centuries ago—for anyone looking to perk up a plate, they’re an ideal ingredient. But for many, including Lindsay, growing the pepper is a way of paying tribute to their ancestors. Each plant and each bottle of pepper sauce is a physical embodiment of the legacy of Black culinarians in America. “This is really a crop that has been sustained by Black people,” Mitchell says. “That in and of itself is powerful. I have to keep the legacy of this alive.”
Originally Appeared on Epicurious