The Journey of the Beaver Dam Pepper

26 Nov 2012

Joe Hussli tucked the seeds of his favorite pepper into his garments before he glanced one last time over the land that has been his home. He took his bags and left, towards the new land that seemed to promise a better future in light of the political tensions that were building in Apatin in 1912 (then the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, now Serbia).

Last month – exactly 100 years after Joe left for the new world – the pepper traveled back to Europe, to the Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre in Turin. It traveled as an Ark of Taste passenger, as a pickle in the Scrumptious Pantry’s line of heirloom foods: an effort to revive interest in this delicious heirloom varietal and preserve it. A lot has changed in agriculture over the last century, and with the advancement of hybrid varietals, cultivation of the pepper has been pretty much abandoned. What would Joe think of this?

I often wonder what emotions he experienced when he delicately tended to the pepper plants in his new hometown of Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. What did he feel when he took a bite of this mildly spicy, delicious pepper that was traditionally served stuffed or on the grill? Was he sad, homesick or did he enjoy the memories he tasted with every bite?

Joe’s pepper – now adequately named the “Beaver Dam Pepper” – is a prime example of an Ark of Taste varietal. It has been passed down through generations and is now on the brink of extinction. Growing over nine inches long, the pepper is much more labor intensive to grow than hybrids, so as a result its commercial cultivation – which Joe Hussli and his son had successfully encouraged in his new community – has been abandoned. When I embarked on the mission to create a commercial food product with the Beaver Dam Pepper in the Scrumptious Pantry in order to preserve it, it took me a good six months to find a farmer who had some experience in cultivating the pepper. Although “cultivating” might be a little exaggerated. John had grown some experimental plants after seeing the Beaver Dam Pepper in the Seed Saver Exchange catalog. This year, the second year of collaboration with John and another farmer in the area, we grew close to three tons of peppers and are planning to double production again next year. A small step for mankind, but a giant leap for this pepper.

It has been a rewarding journey, working with farmers to rebuild the competencies needed to cultivate this pepper and developing a food product around it, so we can bring the pepper to market on a potentially larger scale. We humans have the weird behavior to predominantly buy foods we know. So growing the pepper for sale in the produce aisle was clearly not a solution. We needed to find a way to put it up, make it a shelf stable product, in a preparation that appealed to today’s lifestyle, eating habits and taste buds – while staying true to its heritage.

So we developed the “Heirloom Pickles Beaver Dam Peppers”. They are preserved in our signature low-salt, low-vinegar brine, highlighting the Eastern European heritage of the pepper with just a little bay leaf, coriander and black peppercorns. Food is a powerful ambassador of traditions and history, a celebration of regional differences, of the land and the climate. Reviving authentic food products that are deeply rooted in the culinary traditions of the regions – that is what we do at the Scrumptious Pantry.

You can imagine my excitement when we were asked by Slow Food to participate in the Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre as the first ever commercial producer to represent Slow Food made in the USA. We are honored to have had a chance to represent this country’s great food movement in Turin, answering many questions on American food culture from visitors that came form all over the world and chatting pepper varietals with growers from – you guessed it – Apatin! It might well be that our Wisconsin Beaver Dam Pepper is the sole survivor of that pepper variety Joe Hussli packed, as our new Serbian friends were not able to identify the Beaver Dam Pepper as any varietal they knew. Is it extinct in Serbia or has it adapted so much to US soil and climate that it cannot be matched to local Serbian varieties anymore? The truth is to be unearthed, but I think Joe would be proud to know that when he tucked those seeds in his garments 100 years ago, he did much more than just preserving them for his family. And he would be thankful to Slow Food for that ticket which boarded the pepper on the Ark of Taste for curious farmers, cooks, foodies and gardeners to discover.

By M. Lee Greene, Owner, Scrumptious Pantry

Article first published on the Slow Food USA Blog.

Find out more about the Ark of Taste, Slow Food’s catalogue of quality products at risk of extinction.

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