The nearly lost ‘Fish’ pepper, named for its use in seafood dishes, makes its way back into gardens and kitchens.
'Fish' peppers derive from cayennes, so they have don't have the smokiness of habaneros, but rather a subtle sweetness enhanced by lime juice.
The story of the ‘Fish’ pepper (Capsicum annuum) is about bee stings, black history, and a delicious, spicy, white sauce. All the ‘Fish’ peppers now sold by seed companies trace back to seed I shared many years ago through Seed Savers Exchange. This unique variegated-leaf pepper spread from my grandfather’s little seed jar to the world of pepper aficionados and, because of its ornamental character, to landscape gardeners.
My grandfather acquired the seed in the 1940s from Horace Pippin, an African-American painter in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Pippin suffered from a war injury he referred to as “the miseries.” Because the miseries were of an arthritic nature, he would beg my grandfather to let him counter the pain with honey bee stings. My grandfather’s beehives were his pride and joy, and the idea of killing bees (honey bees die shortly after stinging) in the name of an old folk remedy did not sit well with him.
So to humor my grandfather and “pay” for the dead bees, Pippin would bring seeds, sometimes wonderfully rare cultivars from old-time gardeners in his far-flung network of friends that stretched from Philadelphia to Baltimore and beyond. The ‘Fish’ peppers came from Baltimore, where black caterers used them to make white paprika for the cream sauces, which were then popular in fish and shellfish cookery. In terms of heat, these peppers are like cayenne but are more mellow when cooked. The white pods were also used in soups in which red peppers would’ve created a muddied appearance. As far as Pippin could tell, these peppers had been in use since the 19th century — one of those secret heirloom ingredients that never showed up in cookbooks. They were simply part of oral tradition.
Today, ‘Fish’ peppers are popular for their ornamental qualities and because the 2-foot plants are easy to grow in containers. The leaves have patches of white and gray-green that are caused by recessive inherited traits — also the cause of albinism in humans and animals. This results in a curious combination of striped pod colors, from white to red. ‘Fish’ peppers make wonderful accent plants in a landscape. Of course, they’re also grown for cooking and are perfect for drying into wonderful hot-hot chili powder.
Some seed companies are now selling “off” seeds, with leaves that aren’t multicolored enough and that have pods of the wrong shape. So stick to reliable sources. The pods should be short, pendant, and pointed, ideally about 1-1⁄2 to 2 inches long.
‘Fish’ pepper seed must come from fully ripened fruit and from plants that aren’t growing closer than 300 feet to other Capsicum annuums (common peppers, such as bell peppers and cayennes). The reason for the latter is that as insects and wind move pollen around, the recessive gene in ‘Fish’ peppers will spread to other peppers in the area. So you may end up with variegated bell peppers and who knows what else!
To store, take the seeds out of the ripe pods and dry them on paper towels. After about two weeks, they should be dry enough to put into envelopes, date and label, and then store in airtight jars. My grandfather froze his seeds, and you can, too — frozen seeds will last at least 20 years, perhaps longer. At ambient temperatures, save them for no more than six years.
When you go to plant your ‘Fish’ pepper seeds, start them in flats the way you would with tomatoes, but earlier (mid-January is ideal). You’ll get seedlings that are green and some that are white. Discard the white ones, which are pure albino and won’t grow because they can’t photosynthesize; they’re botanical dead ends.
Transplant your seedlings to pots when they have three or four leaves. You won’t be able to tell at this point which will have the most variegated leaves, but after they’re in the ground and growing, you’ll see a difference. I always overplant and pull out the least attractive plants. This is called “rouging,” and you have to be a little hardhearted to do it.
Is there a distinctive flavor? ‘Fish’ peppers derive from cayennes, so they have none of the smokiness of habaneros or the fruity quality of some Andean peppers, such as ‘Aji Límo.’ On the other hand, white ‘Fish’ peppers have a subtle sweetness that is enhanced with lime juice or, better yet, pineapple. They’re also very hot, so the combination is quite pleasant, especially when the peppers are served with fish and shellfish. You can get quite creative with ‘Fish’ peppers after you learn to control them, which was doubtless one of the first things one learned as a black caterer in Old Baltimore.
To honor its culinary tradition, I have developed the following recipe for a white hot sauce with ‘Fish’ peppers. The color is, of course, unusual, and the flavor is unique. Do wear rubber gloves when working with the peppers!
William Woys Weaver has gardened with heirloom cultivars since childhood. He found his grandfather’s rare seed collection in a deep freeze and now has more than 4,000 flowers, fruits, and vegetables.
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