Fish Pepper: Resurrecting Baltimore’s Chili Pepper Past
I’m making the horseradish sauce from this recipe for tomorrow’s roast beef (a different cut from the one at the link):
2 cups crème fraîche
1/4 cup white horseradish
Grated zest of half an orange
Salt and pepper
I sent the recipe to my daughter who lives in Baltimore and said I would probably use white pepper, and she said that in Baltimore, people often used dried ground “fish pepper” – a white chile pepper – for this purpose, and sent me this link. From the link:
There are few peppers as beautiful, and as rare, as the fish pepper. Along with its lovely flowering plant, the fish pepper follows one of the most unique coloration paths (among chilies) while maturing.
With its heat that’s capable of topping a serrano, the fish pepper was a favorite during the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Baltimore and the mid-Atlantic states, spicing up crabs and fish dishes in particular. But its popularity wained, and this jewel of a chili nearly became lost to us all. Now, though, it’s making a comeback both as a cooking chili and as an ornamental pepper plant.
This is one of those chilies that became part of a region’s fabric, at least for a period. The fish pepper was brought to the mid-Atlantic region – it’s believed – from the Caribbean in the late 19th century (1870s). The African-American communities of the Chesapeake Bay area and major cities of the region (Baltimore and Philadelphia in particular) took to the chili and made it a culinary staple for oyster and crab houses. That’s where the name for this chili was coined.
But the fish pepper was more of a cooking secret than something well-documented. These fish houses typically used the white-hued versions of the chili (very early in the chili’s maturation process), so that the pepper blended perfectly into cream sauces – keeping the fish pepper low-profile in meals. There were few (if any) recipes written down, just the knowledge passed down orally from generation to generation.
As urbanization in the mid-Atlantic spread in the early 20th century, the fish pepper nearly became a casualty of the changing times. With few written recipes and an evolving cultural landscape, its use in the region slipped. In fact, the fish pepper essentially disappeared.
It was only in the 1940s that the fish pepper was saved from being an after-thought on the Scoville scale. A Pennsylvanian named Horace Pippin, while seeking some bees for an arthritis folk remedy, exchanged a selection of seeds to a beekeeper name H. Ralph Weaver. In the bunch were fish pepper seeds.
These seeds stayed in the Weaver private collection until H. Ralph passed down the seeds to his grandson William Woys Weaver. In 1995 – nearly a century after the top of its popularity – the fish pepper was reintroduced by William to the public. That’s some journey back to the kitchen. . .
Read the whole thing. There’s more info at the link.