When I began to thaw out my grandfather’s seed collection back in the 1960s, many heirloom treasures emerged from the dark depths of the freezer where they had been stored. One of the best known of the peppers I discovered was the popular Fish Pepper, which is now offered by many seed companies, including Baker Creek. Most of the rare peppers my grandfather collected were given to him by his friend, an African-American folk artist, Horace Pippin. Mr. Pippin visited my grandfather’s West Chester, Pennsylvania, garden often, and the story about how he traded seeds for bee stings (my grandfather had beehives) is described in my book Heirloom Vegetable Gardening. However, the ‘Fish Pepper’ was not the only pepper I retrieved from obscurity; for many years I have been maintaining several other Pippin varieties with equally fascinating histories. One of them is Buena Mulata, a “new” Capsicum annuum which is being offered exclusively through Baker Creek.
According to my grandfather’s annotation on the seed jar label, he received the pepper from Horace Pippin in 1944. There was no other information, apart from grow out dates, right down to 1955. After growing it a few times in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I became enamored of the chameleon-like color changes the pepper underwent as it ripened: violet to pinkish-flesh color, then orange changing to brown, and eventually to deep red. I thought at first that it might be the commercial pepper known as Aurora, but it is showier, better flavored and much, much older.
Two of the patterns I have noticed in all the peppers Mr. Pippin gave to my grandfather are a consistent emphasis on unusual appearance and special culinary qualities; this may have been the result of Mr. Pippin’s artistic eye for color and his enjoyment of good cooking. Whatever the case, Buena Mulata is a long, pointed, violet-colored Cayenne which fits both of these criteria. It is startlingly beautiful and packs high voltage flavor along with its heat. The long, round pods measure as much as 6 to 7 inches in length and undergo a flavor change as they ripen to red, the reds being sweeter and meatier than the violets. The plants are also massive producers, giving them excellent value for commercial-scale farming. That said, Buena Mulata makes a very nice potted plant for the summer terrace, so it is highly adaptable to different modes of cultivation.
I do not know where Mr. Pippin found this pepper, but after researching old Caribbean cookbooks, I discovered that there was a commercial hot sauce sold in Cuba during the 1920s which carried the brand name Buena Mulata (“The Merry Mulata”). The bottle label featured a smiling mulatto (person with a mixed white and black ancestry) woman in a bandana, very similar to the mammy images from the Old South. There may be a connection between this heirloom and the sauce, although this needs further and more conclusive documentation. What I do know is that Buena Mulata makes an extra flavorful salsa morada with high-test heat.
For that recipe, see: Salsa Morada with Buena Mulata Peppers.
William Woys Weaver is an internationally known food historian, author, and heirloom gardener living in Devon, Pennsylvania.