Garden Pepper, Both a Vegetable and a Condiment

The garden pepper (Capsicum frutescens) is not related to the true pepper (Piper nigrum) from which we get the common black pepper on our tables.

Why do we call C. frutescens "pepper"? The answer goes all the way back to Columbus. He had set forth on his famous voyages to find a short route to India and the East Indies largely for trade. Spices from the East were important in commerce and therefore of much interest to Columbus and his commercial-adventurer associates. When they found the Indians of the West Indies growing and using fiery forms of Capsicum, the product was thought to be a kind of pepper.

As early as 1493 Peter Martyr wrote that Columbus brought home with him "pepper more pungent than that from the Caucasus." In 1494 the, physician to Columbus's fleet on his second voyage referred to the plant in a letter to Spanish authorities; 20 years later the plant and its uses were described in detail by another explorer for Spain.

This intense interest in the pungent forms of Capsicum from the very time of their discovery, accompanied by definite records and descriptions, is unique in the history of American plants. While important plants such as the potato were long ignored, to the spice-conscious discoverers this pepper was an unexpected and most welcome find.

Ancient Indians Liked Fiery Food

Fragments of different types of peppers have been found in Peruvian ruins believed to be more than 2,000 years old. Fruits of the pepper are unmistakably illustrated in the elaborate embroidery of an Indian garment unearthed near the coast of Peru and believed to date back to about the first century. The Olmecs, Toltecs, and Aztecs also are known to have cultivated and used peppers extensively.

In the first half of the 16th century, voyagers to the Americas encountered many forms of peppers, not only in the West Indies but in Central America, Mexico, Peru, Chile-wherever they touched the American Tropics. By the beginning of the 17th century virtually every form known today had been found, all being grown by the Indians.

Anyone familiar with Mexico or our own Southwest knows that the Mexicans and Indians today eat almost incredible quantities of hot peppers. They are marketed and used fresh, both green and red ripe, as well as in the dried mature form.

Peppers were introduced into Spain in 1493, were known in England by 1548, and in Central Europe by 1585 or earlier. In the 17th century they were taken to India and southeastern Asia by the Portuguese. Peppers became so common there that their American origin was long overlooked, despite the fact that in India they are all consistently called "chillies."

In Spain the hot peppers are called chili (from Chile), and certain hot kinds are called chili peppers in the United States. A mixture of chopped meat and beans, highly flavored with chili pepper, is called chili con carne-"chili with meat."

The mild or sweet kinds in Spain are called pimenta or pimiento, while in the United States "Pimiento" refers to only a single type of thick-fleshed, bright-red sweet pepper. It yields the brilliant stuffing in olives, the red particles in "pimento cheese," and the pimiento we buy in tiny cans or jars.

A distinctive form of long, thick, bright-red pepper with nonpungent flesh has long been cultivated in Hungary and adjacent areas under the name of paprika. There is now a small paprika industry in this country. The tabasco pepper is the basis of pungent tabasco sauces made in our South.

Cayenne pepper is the dried, ground fruit of a long, slender form of hot "red pepper." This form, named for a coastal city in French Guiana in South America, was doubtless taken to Asia by Spanish or Italian explorers and re-introduced into America from there.

Sweet Peppers Most Important in United States

All these forms are important commodities of trade and add zest to the world's cookery. In the United States, however, the nonpungent, large-fruited form has become by far the most extensively grown.

As a boy in the Middle West, I heard our large, sweet, garden peppers commonly called "mango peppers," but that term is rarely used in America today. Now, when we say "peppers" without any qualifying word, we usually mean sweet or nonpungent kinds that are eaten as a vegetable, either cooked or raw in salads. Large quantities are now being commercially preserved in brine, or even diced and dehydrated for use in vegetable and salad mixtures after re-freshening.