One of my favorite things about growing heirloom varieties is learning the history behind the seed and how it arrived in my hands. In the case of these fish peppers, they come from a long history in African-American culinary culture that predates the 1870s.
Fish peppers are distinctive plants due to their vividly striped fruits and beautifully variegated foliage. They’re like no other pepper plant I’ve seen, and they nearly became lost in the early 20th century.
Believed to have arrived in North America by way of the Caribbean, fish peppers were immensely popular among the African-American community in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and the Chesapeake Bay region.
They were the “secret” ingredient at crab and oyster houses. African-American slaves, freedmen, and farmers found that the young, cream-colored peppers blended beautifully into creamy white sauces that commonly topped fish and shellfish dishes of the time (hence, where they got their name). With none of the red color typical of chile peppers to muddle the creams, fish peppers added an invisible heat to those sauces that no one could quite figure out. As such, their use in recipes was rarely mentioned in cookbooks and mostly passed down through oral tradition.
Fish peppers were grown exclusively by black farmers throughout the mid-Atlantic region until they started falling out of favor in the early 20th century, as blacks began to embrace more urban lifestyles.
So how did the fish pepper plant reappear decades later in the catalogs of seed houses?
Turns out, all the fish pepper seeds in existence today originated from seeds that were obtained in the 1940s from a black folk painter in West Chester, Pennsylvania, named Horace Pippin.
Hoping to cure some of his arthritic ailments, Pippin sought relief in an old folk remedy that called for bee stings. In exchange for the bees, he offered what he had — a collection of vegetable seeds — to a white beekeeper named H. Ralph Weaver. Some of these seeds were wonderfully rare varieties from old-time gardeners in Philadelphia and Baltimore, including the elusive fish pepper.
The seeds were passed down to Weaver’s grandson, William Woys Weaver, who finally made the fish pepper available to the public in 1995 through the Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook. (Today, William Woys Weaver maintains the Roughwood Seed Collection, which includes over 4,000 varieties of Pennsylvania’s lesser-known heritage food plants. Isn’t that incredible? Over 4,000 old varieties preserved from one state alone!)
Fish peppers are a mutation of serrano or cayenne peppers (history has never been certain), bearing the recessive gene that causes albinism. They start as pale cream-colored fruit, gradually maturing into light green with dark green striations, then orange with brown striations, and then finally red, at which point the peppers are at their hottest. It is really interesting to watch the peppers change color, all at different times, over the course of several weeks on a single plant.
The leaves themselves are distinctive from one another; some are speckled while others are half green and half white. Some leaves may even be all green or all white, and this is all on one plant!
Fish peppers cross very easily with other peppers, so if grown in close proximity to other varieties of Capsicum annuum, it’s not unusual for their traits to turn up on other plants. That means you could end up with a mottled or a white bell pepper with a bit of spice!
I’d call these peppers a 3 on a scale of 1 to 5. They’re similar to serranos and cayennes with a subtle sweetness that comes out more when kissed with the heat of a pan.
The fruits grow about 2 inches long with pointy tips. The variegated leaves make them a gorgeous choice for ornamental planting, and they also grow well in containers. Depending on how much space you give them, they’ll stay petite like mine, averaging 1 to 2 feet high, or grow up to 3 feet high and 3 feet wide with dozens of peppers at any given moment (bearing hundreds of peppers in a good season).
Like many peppers, fish peppers take a little time to get started. They’re most successful sown indoors (around January, ideally) and transplanted when they have at least three or four sets of leaves. Pay attention to the seedlings as they emerge, and thin out any with all-white leaves. These leaves will be unable to photosynthesize, making them DOA in a botanical sense.
You won’t be able to tell which seedlings end up with the most variegated leaves when they’re young, so growing them is almost like a game of garden roulette. I overplanted my fish peppers when I started, and eventually kept the two most vigorous and colorful plants from my first batch.
They’ve been thriving in our Indian summer and producing handfuls of peppers every week. I pick them at all stages, from green to red, for the full spectrum of heat. Traditional use of fish peppers paired them with lime juice or pineapple to bring out their sweetness and spice, which to me spells out ceviche or salsa!
They’re still considered a rare variety, earning a spot in Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste (an international catalog of endangered heirloom foods). So if you’re lucky enough to get your hands on a packet of seeds, grow them with pride and remember the vibrant history that brought them into your home.