It is one of those hot, slow summer days in Virginia. The cicadas screech from the tops of the magnolia trees. There is no wind, not a puff of breeze. The river moves languidly upstream, due to the Chesapeake's tidal flow. The humidity is oppressive.
In this soup of a Southern summer, I dream of relief. A tall glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade. Perhaps, more daringly, a mint-enhanced mojito. Or maybe it's time to simply pop a pepper to induce that "let's sweat and sit in front of a fan" survival mode. It is one that I've learned to indulge in since leaving arid New Mexico for Washington DC a few years back.
Actually, I live across the Potomac River from the capital in the historic river town of Alexandria, Virginia. This inside-the-Beltway metro sits in the geographic region known as The Northern Neck. That strange sounding name implies some kind of abnormal Yankee appendage to me, but much here is defined by geography and history. So is the cuisine. Virginia smoked ham, the Maryland crab cake, and DC's default food--a dubious hot dog called the half-smoke. These relatively bland entrees make up the traditional plates here. But as is often the case, peppers have come to the rescue.
The Washington area has become a mecca for new immigrants coming to America. Thais, Cambodians and Vietnamese have brought their rocket-red peppers to the mix. Mexicans, Salvadorians, and Hondurans deliver their south-of-the border heat. And mid-Asian people from Afghanistan to India contribute their distinctive spices. But as I discovered one day, peppers are not new to the mid-Atlantic. In fact, it was the distinguished father of our country, George Washington, who had a penchant for peppers.
George was a Virginian, as well as a country farmer. At his Mount Vernon plantation, just eight miles down the Potomac from where I live, one can stroll through the many gardens that surround the great estate. It was here, I found out from research specialist Mary Thompson that Washington was involved with peppers for at least three decades.
"According to an early invoice from Washington's British agent, dated March 15, 1760, the Washingtons were sent four pounds of 'long Pepper' from Joseph Etherington, who had an apothecary shop on Gracechurch Street in London. It was part of a shipment of herbs and medicaments, but I have not been able to find out yet what 'long pepper' might be." [Editor's note: Long pepper is Piper longum, a close relative to black pepper, which is Piper nigrum.]
Mary found this in The Papers of George Washington, the Colonial Series. Another sighting from the same papers occurred a dozen years later on July 20, 1772. Washington wrote to Daniel Jenifer Adams, who was heading to the West Indies. Adams, who just a few years later became a dashing Revolutionary War hero, was asked by Washington to pick up a few items for him including "one pound of Kian (cayenne) Pepper."
Garden at Mount Vernon (Photo by Dave DeWitt)
But the greatest find that proves George was a serious pepperhead was recorded after the war was over. Mary states, "Washington's diary entry for Monday, June 13, 1785, indicates that in the Botanical Garden, he planted: 'two rows of the Bird pepper--then one row of the Cayan pepper.' The editors of the Papers of George Washington project at the University of Virginia identify bird pepper as Capsicum frutescens and cayenne pepper as Capsicum frutescens longum. This is not exactly right, as bird peppers can also be Capsicum annuum and cayennes are definitely Capsicum annuum. According to the editors, all the planting done this day was apparently with materials brought to Washington by George Augustine Washington--the president-to-be's nephew who had just returned from Bermuda and the West Indies about one month earlier. On Wednesday, June 29th, Washington reported that he had 'Discovered the Cayan pepper Which was sowed on the 13th. to be coming up.' The bird pepper took a little longer, however. Washington noted on Wednesday, August 31, 1785, that 'the Bird Pepper which was sowed in the Botanical garden on the 13th. of June was just making its appearance and thick'." Bird peppers still go by that name in the Caribbean. The term is derived from the fact that West Indies birds ingest the seeds while munching on the pods, and in the process, spread the peppers from island to island.
Washington's tradition of growing peppers along the banks of the Potomac continues today. I had to look no further than my next-door neighbor's bountiful terrace. Peeping over the red brick of our mutual courtyard wall, I see flashes of yellow vitales, brown chocolate habeneros and fiery red Hungarian paprikas. Steve Potter grows more than twenty varieties of pungent pods every summer, and this year (2007) was no exception.
Steve Watering His Container Garden
"Come to my garden." invites Steve as we walk through the maze of mammoth containers overflowing with pungent pods. "I've found growing the peppers in large pots to be the best for a small terrace like this. I can easily control water, soil and sunlight to maximize the needs of each plant type."
Steve learned much of what he knows from a somewhat reclusive farmer, Robert Farr, known to most as The Chile Man. It was on Farr's Round Hill, Virginia farm, about 45 miles out of the city that Steve discovered the wonders of growing peppers. He was amazed by how many types Farr had on his organic farm, and how well they prospered in the traditional tobacco country of Virginia. The Chile Man has since closed his operations, but supplied Steve with much of his original seeds and plants. Potter now gets his pepper seeds from a couple of Italian brothers named DeBaggio that have a small farm in the suburb of Chantilly, Virginia.
"My grandfather, Garfield Young, had a farm in Vermont where I spent a number of summers as a kid," continues Steve. "Grandpa always said to me, 'Every man needs a garden'. I guess that's where I first got interested in growing plants."
Garfield Young might have raised an eyebrow in Steve's plant selection. Other than a few herbs, his terrace is full of pepper plants. My tour continued. "I got three kinds of Thais, these sun-loving Fataliis rated at 500,000 Scoville Heat Units, several kinds of habaneros, Scotch Bonnet, cayenne, chiltepins, and more."
Suddenly, we were interrupted by three people walking by on Union Street, our often tourist-filled lane that leads to the center of Alexandria's Old Town. The group was attracted by the vibrant colors of the peppers. Steve jumped at the chance to give away samples of the heat, and before long, the trio from Dallas were sweating away. After they left, I asked Steve if this happens often. "Oh, yeah. That's part of why I do this. You give some of the peppers' goodness away and share the love."
Potter continued to tell me the intricacies of soil and sunlight. He has learned much on his own since getting The Chile Man's seeds for the first time three years ago. Now, he concentrates on the nuances of growing his peppers, fine-tuning his garden to this Potomac riverside microclimate.
But Steve is more than a mere pepper propagator. He is an avid fisherman who makes annual summer sojourns to Alaska in search of the fin. Potter returns every year with copious amounts of salmon, halibut and cod. Then, the blending of garden and sea begins. "I like to use my grill. I roast my jalapenos using wood chips and get some awesome chipotle out of that. Then I grind that up for all kinds of uses in the kitchen. But I also use the grill to cook the fish. I like to soak a slab of cedar in water for four to five hours, and then put the fish on that, and grill it. Then I make different peppers-based sauces to go on top. Fish and chiles are a great mix."
Some of Steve's Varieties
Steve went to work and cooked up a storm that afternoon. He was gracious to give me a couple of his recipes for you to enjoy. But before I left, I asked about what he wants to do next in his garden. "There's so much to try. I never get tired of this, and for four months in the summer, these colorful pods make this place look and smell great. I love the pepper plants. They are my children."
Recipes From Steve
Planked Sockeye Salmon with Mango Chutney and Chipotle Pepper Glaze
Serve the salmon with asparagus cooked al dente and garlic mashed potatoes. Note: This recipe requires advance preparation.
1 untreated cedar or other aromatic wood plank (18 x 8 x 1)
1 4 pound fresh sockeye salmon fillet with skin on
1-2 teaspoons sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 12 oounce jar sweet mango chutney preserve
1 canned chipotle pepper (more if you like it hot!), finely minced
1/2 cup light brown sugar
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1/3 cup orange juice
Plank: Soak the wood plank in water for 24 hours in advance of grilling.
Salmon: Lightly salt and pepper the salmon fillet, cover and place in refrigerator.
Glaze: In a mixing bowl, combine and whisk together the chutney, chipotle, brown sugar, vinegar, and orange juice.
Grilling: Pre-heat grill (400-500 degrees).
Place the salmon on the plank skin side down and cover the salmon with the glaze and place plank on the grill and cover the grill. Cook for about 10 to 12 minutes at 400 to 500 degrees. The plank will begin to smoke at around 5 minutes but keep the grill covered. Check salmon at 10 minutes to see if the flesh begins to flake. If so, it's done. Turn off grill and gently remove the salmon from plank and place on a serving dish.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Heat Scale: Mild
Bowtie Pasta with Basil-Chipotle Marinara Sauce
All this dish needs is a fresh salad and you've got a meal!
2 cups hickory chips for smoking
10 yellow tomatoes and 10 red tomatoes
1/2 cup virgin olive oil
1 Vidalia or other sweet onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 cups dry white wine
1 cup low sodium chicken broth
3 cups chopped fresh basil.
2 tablespoons minced fresh thyme
2 canned chipotle peppers
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, minced
2 tablespoons sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound bowtie pasta
1/2 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
Chips: Soak the hickory chips in water 24 hrs in advance of grilling. Add the hickory chips to the grill 5 minutes prior to cooking the tomatoes.
Grill: Slice the tomatoes in half and place them on the grill. Grill them for 10 minutes at 250 degrees and remove them from the grill.
Sauce: In a large sauce pan combine the olive oil, onion, and garlic and saute until the onion is golden brown. Deglaze the pan with the wine and add grilled tomatoes along with the chicken broth. Add the basil, thyme, chipotles, vinegar, vinegar and salt and pepper. Cover the saucepan and simmer over low heat for 1 hour. Remove the sauce pan lid and add remaining 1 cup white wine for reduction. Continue cooking on low heat for and additional 1 hour.
Pasta: In a large pan, bring 2 quarts of salted water to a rapid boil. Add the pasta and cook until done 15 minutes prior to serving. Strain the pasta and serve pasta on a large serving dish and cover with sauce and sprinkle with cheese as desired.
Yield: 4 to six servings
Heat Scale: Mild
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