An African-American heirloom popular in the Philadelphia/Baltimore region. A chili pepper notable for its unique history. Fish pepper plants are like no other, with striated and speckled white and green leaves; the compact 2 foot tall plants stand out, even for their small stature. The peppers themselves are a feast for the eyes. Starting as a solid creamy white, they develop into a light green with dark green striations, turning orange with dark brown striations until they finally mature into solid red peppers of flavorful culinary fire. The fish pepper more than likely originated in the Caribbean and was introduced to the mid-Atlantic region in the 1870s, where it gained a strong a foothold in the oyster and crab houses of the area. The young cream-colored peppers were used for adding a kick to the creamy sauces that topped seafood. The pepper was kept as a secret ingredient in these dishes and its part in recipes handed down orally. The peppers were grown exclusively by black farmers and fell out of favor in the early 1900s as the people of that era began to embrace a more urban lifestyle. This one-of-a-kind pepper would be lost to us if not for an unusual exchange. Horace Pippin was a black folk painter who served during World War I in the 369th Infantry called the “Harlem Hellfighters.” He lost the use of his right arm after being shot by a sniper, and this left him with arthritic pain. Searching for some relief, he resorted to an old folk remedy that called for bee stings. Horace began giving seeds to a bee keeper named H. Ralph Weaver. Horace’s seeds sometimes came from his far flung old-time gardening friends, who sent wonderful and rare varieties. H. Ralph Weaver saved the seed in his private seed collection, where it remained until 1995 when his grandson William Woys Weaver released it to the public. Every fish pepper seed sold today can be traced back to that fateful exchange. The fish pepper is a hit again upon its re-release, and the Caribbean flavor and heat are just as much to credit as its truly unique and eye-catching features.
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