‘Ole Pepperpot’ Pepper (Capsicum annuum var. annuum) is the answer to the Mid-Atlantic grower who wants a bountiful harvest of genuinely hot peppers and wants to be able to save seed so that they can keep growing those peppers into the future.
Pepper plants are grown as annuals, but in their native lands (which never know frost), they are perennials. The plant, when grown from seed, feels it has all the time in the world to set fruit and even more time for that fruit to ripen.
In lands where we know frost and the cold of winter, growing peppers from seed to seed can be a frustrating business. Sweet peppers can take until the day before the first frost to fully ripen and many colorful and fiery hot peppers can’t be grown here in Southeastern Pennsylvania at all.
‘Ole Pepperpot’ first ripens in August and continues prolifically until the first frost. The ripe red peppers (which look like a cayenne because, as William Woys Weaver related below, it is one) actually produce enough of a harvest that the grower and the grower’s entire extended family can eat all the hot peppers they like in season and still have enough to sell fresh, dried as pods or in cute little jars of dried hot pepper powder.
“Perhaps it is best to begin with a soup called mondongo, a pepper called chiltepe, and Schell’s Long Red Cayenne. Schell’s pepper was essentially a selection of the large Mexican chiltepe pepper, trained to grow on a low bush for field culture. It was a variety sold to truck farmers in the 1920s by the Walter S. Schell seed company of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, as well as by William Henry Maule in Philadelphia. This pepper was intended to supply the kitchens of the Horn and Hardart cafeteria chain with peppers for its once-famous pepperpot soup, not to mention a number of soup and scrapple companies in the region that needed fresh cayenne for seasoning. Not only is the chiltepe a pepper of great antiquity, a pod of it floating in mondongo (Mexican tripe soup) was considered the only proper finishing touch by Mexican cooks. Philadelphia tripebased pepperpot is a Yankee relative of mondongo demanding a similar marriage of tripe and peppers. Most of the heirloom hot peppers that have survived in the Philadelphia region were connected, in one way or another, with the city’s pepperpot soup culture, especially in the heyday of the nineteenth century, when this spicy soup was sold by vendors in the street.
This background history provides the explanation for the name of the cayenne pepper under discussion. Ole Pepperpot is not nearly as hot as a true chiltepe, which may explain why it was more acceptable in upper-class cookery years ago. The pepper was preserved by two families of black Philadelphia caterers, the Augustins, who were famous nationally in the 1800s, and the de Baptistes, who later married into the Augustin clan. The Augustins did not raise the pepper themselves; someone raised it for them under contract. Yet interestingly enough, Ole Pepperpot contains a “blush” of chiltepe, for it ripens like a chiltepe, with a hint of orange at its extremities while still partially green. However, the pods are much different, being twisted, sometimes even curled, about 4 inches in length and 3/4 of an inch in diameter at the stem end. On the blossom end or tip of the pod there is usually a small hook that is sometimes quite pronounced. The plants are tall, often 3 1/2 feet, and branching. The pods ripen by midsummer and produce heavily until frost.
The Album Vilmorin (1873, 24) illustrated an identical cayenne, but yellow in color. If Ole Pepperpot came to America with the Augustins, then it arrived about 1816 while Peter Augustin served as chef to the Spanish ambassador in Washington. Beyond this, very little else is known about the early history of this pepper, except for two interesting coincidences. The Ram’s Horn pepper, preserved by the Fischer family in North Carolina since the early part of this century and now part of the Heritage Farm seed collection (SSE PEP 13), is similar in shape to Ole Pepperpot and may represent a collateral genetic line. Furthermore, the so-called Penis Pepper now so popular among pepper fanciers is a direct descendant of Ole Pepperpot. The tell-tale hook is still there, but sunken into a heavily wrinkled pod. Having crossed Ole Pepperpot with Elephant’s Trunk pepper to create a little monster called Love Gun, I know how this works.
In any case, it would appear that the nineteenth century ancestors of Ole Pepperpot were widely distributed along the coast of the eastern and southern United States. Because of its close association with black cookery in this country and the fact that seed came to my grandfather from Horace Pippin, history has set this pepper apart as one of the important representative heirlooms from the African-American community.”
Buried in all that text above is the nugget that Ole Pepperpot is the unique Philadelphia ingredient for pepperpot soup. Believe it or not, other cuisines have tripe-based soups (as my Google search for the recipe revealed!) and they are liberally sprinkled with hot peppers. But for true Philadelphia-style Pepperpot Soup, you need the Ole Pepperpot peppers.
Next blog post will be about my adventures with Pepperpot Soup, which was worth the effort. But if you’re living in the Mid-Atlantic and frustrated about your ability to produce not only a really hot pepper, but the seed needed to produce those plants in your own growing area, add Ole Pepperpot to your rotation.