Pepper Mouths of Fire
We were eating lunch with a new friend from South America, when he bent down and reached into his concealed leather ankle holster,
“I never go anywhere without my weapon. Here -- shoot your salad first, and ask questions later. Everyone needs a little excitement several times a day.”
This was the first time we knew that Dr. Pepper (the name he was affectionately known as by friends and family), was a serious connoisseur and developer of his own pepper spices and hot sauces. It has been the only time, I've ever met anyone who wore a special spice holster, ready to take on the most boring of meals, and to make them special. He carried his hot sauce in a toy water pistol.
It was his hobby to grow thirteen different pepper varieties, and harvest not only the pepper fruit for his own hot sauce creations, but to also create a wonderful blend of pepper seeds ground into a spice combo -- guaranteed to give you a delectable mouth of fire. This too, was something that he always had on him, again in a special belt holster, in small corked medicine vials.
We've all probably met the black and white peppercorns of the family, but how many of us know that there are both pink and green peppercorns?
We have India to thank for pepper, for that is where peppercorns are known to exist from pre-historic times.
Dr. Pepper's Spice Recipe
Dr. Pepper knew that making your own spices is not as difficult as most people believe. Making your own spices taste better, are fresher, and save you an immense amount of money annually. The added plus, is that your spices can be suited to your individual tastes, and your own dietary needs (such as low sodium or no sugar).
All you need is:
- Your own containers (easily obtained by saving old store bought spice dispensers, baby food jars, or other small glass jars).
- A small spice mill (electric grinders, coffee bean grinders, nut grinders)
- An old fashioned mortar and pestle (stone, wooden, marble, etc.)
A Long Association With Hot Peppers
I didn't start out being a fan of spicy foods, but as a mother and grandmother -- I'm pretty sure that's true of almost all kids. My earliest memory of hot peppers is a plot of them that Gram planted when I was about nine, and my little brother was around seven years old. That year, she had also bought two twin black calves, that we were in charge of helping to raise.
The calves were spoiled on cookies and other such treats and would eat whatever we kids had in our hands. They followed us everywhere and that included the pepper patch. We were in the ever familiar sibling rivalry brother-sister taunting mode of "I dare you" that summer. Each of us picking the pepper the "other" was supposed to eat. Intent on our little pointed game, we somehow forgot the calves were following us and took off for our tree house for the finale.
"No, you first."
"No, we both put one in our mouths and chew at the same time."
"OK, but the one who spits it out first is the loser."
I swear I was winning (since I was older, wiser, and knew the difference between a sweet pepper and a hot pepper). I was thinking Den would give up, until nothing was left, but what probably was a habanero pepper. We faced each other off with tears in our eyes, and a tongues that were smarting with fire -- each determined not to spit the contents out of our mouths, or swallow first.
It was about that time, that we heard the calves bawling and running from the pepper field. Seems they too, were sampling the wrong kinds of peppers. I don't know where they ended up after the sight of them running and caterwauling -- I only remember Den and I scurrying down out of the tree house and into the garage as fast as our legs would carry us.
It was there, that Gram found us with our tongues stuck on the built up ice in the now open old chest freezer, trying to get rid of our respective mouths of fire and our tongues unstuck from the ice. Despite our distress, she still rightfully gave the both of us a couple of licks with her whippin' switch, for letting the calves out in that field, that is, after she poured warm water on our tongues to free us.
Chili Pepper Slide Show
Little Known Louisiana Fact
Avery Island is also distinctive for being the place of the earliest known evidence of humans in South Louisiana. Here, they have found stone tools dating back at least eleven thousand years.
On the Island of Oyster Shell
Avery Island, Louisiana is a pepper plant place I know well. It has been owned by the Avery family since the mid-1850s. It sits upon a natural salt dome, that once was a native American source of trading in this precious commodity, well before Europeans invaded. Originally, the early French settlers called it Petite Anse Island (Little Cove), and it wasn’t until the late 1800s, before the island assumed the name, Avery Island. While it is called an "island" it is really not one, being a few miles inland, but it is an island of salt deposits.
As previously mentioned in another hub, I'm a Cajun living with a plant rustler, one who almost got himself arrested trying to smuggle plant specimens out of "M'sieu Ned's Garden," as one of my distant cousins put it. We've made many "visits" to this somewhat pristine area.
This is the shortened version of story of how pepper plants and their products, became a Louisiana icon, as I know it.
About the time of the Civil War and it’s aftermath, a wealthy businessman, Edmund McIlhenny figured out real quick that the newly impoverished South had produced a bad after-taste of war -- tasteless and boring meals. A master gardener of his own generation, world traveler, and foodie, M'sieu Ned, as he was affectionately called by local Cajuns and Creoles, is who we have to thank today for the popularity of hot sauce.
He had often travelled in Mexico, Central America, and even Asia. Historically, it’s believed that Edmund McIlhenny, got his variety of pepper seeds from Mexico or Central America. They come from the stock of Capsicum frutescens peppers. He created the TABASCO® brand Pepper Sauce, that would be come a well-known household name for hot sauce as we know it today.
Hot sauce recipes since then are often a blend of salt, white wine vinegars, lemons, limes, and other fruits -- depending on the recipe and maker’s preferences. Like a fine wine or any wine, hot sauces are meant to be “aged” before they are used.
Note: The word "tabasco" is a Mexican Indian name (not Spanish), that can mean place of the oyster shell, among other interpretations.
M'sieu Ned's Birds n' Other Critters
M'sieu Ned's“Bird City” is home to egrets, flamingos, and other wild birds that migrate there every year. There was a time when snowy white egrets were in danger of extinction due to the fashionistas of the time, coveting the feathers. M'sieu Ned was largely responsible for saving them for all of us today.
It is also home to other wildlife that enjoy it’s lush exotic gardens. Among them, are the rabbits, blue herons, turkey vultures, deer, turtles, squirrels, swamp dragons or Spanish el largarto (the lizard), and then there are the invaders -- the nutria who came from Argentina, South America.
They were brought there as an experiment, during times when native muskrat pelts were fetching high prices. They escaped in the late 1930s from some cages. By the late 1950s, there were over a half million of them. While the pelts still contribute to Louisiana’s fur trade -- they are an alien nuisance, that are partly responsible for wet land loss of land. These vegetation foodies quickly can destroy native plants by “eat outs.”
So far, it seems the best solution, is one that Americans are not ready to accept -- the fact that they are good eating. With a marketing background, I’m thinking it’s going to take quite a PR campaign to get past the public perception of muskrat (as in “rat”), being something that will make it to the mass grocery market.
M'sieu Ned's Garden
M'sieu Ned loved rare plants and as he traveled the world he planted plants from around the globe in a time when not a lot was known about invasive species of plants. Today, some of these plants would never be allowed to come into the country.
His well-preserved gardens are beautiful, despite the fact that they camouflage oil pumps and pipelines (oil was discovered there in the 1940s).
Like John James Audubon, of slightly earlier times, E.A. McIlhenny, also made extensive drawings and wrote extensively of his botany and wildlife interests. Two of his most interesting books are Autobiography of an Egret and Life History of an Alligator.
The Perfect House Plant
Once the fruit is set, and is the proper color, pepper plants make great indoor plants until ripened. Ornamental peppers are also popular for this form of decoration both indoors and outdoors.
Pepper Growing Facts Worth Knowing:
- Pepper plants are prolific cross-pollinators -- You should keep pepper plants of different varieties separated by hundred of feet.
- Most don't know it, but the secret to successful growing of hot peppers from seeds has to do with "heat" from the very beginning. It is absolutely vital with peppers that nighttime temperatures where you live be at least in the 50 degrees F. range.
- It is also vital that the day time soil be warm before planting peppers. If this is a problem where you live, keep them in a greenhouse, under grow lights, or in a sunny window until soil temperatures warm up.
- Always cut off, and don’t pull pepper fruits off your plants.
- Harvest pepper plants frequently (as soon as any pepper is ripe), because the more you pick, the more you have.
- Most pepper plants are annual. Some exceptions are:
Cayenne(Capsium Annum); Doux D’Espagne(Capsicum Annum); Lemon Drop(Capsium Baccatum); Rocoto(capsium pubescens); and Trinidad Seasoning Peppers(Capsium Chinense).
- Pepper plants always require full sun.
- Pepper plants require fast draining soil, and will not do well in soil that contains a lot of clay.
- Pepper plants need hot weather to set fruit.
- Pepper plants need regular water, but will survive (not thrive) in drought conditions.
- Pepper plants, however, do not like constantly wet, soggy feet.
- Keep the leaves dry on pepper plants, to prevent fungal diseases by not watering from above.
- If you are starting peppers from seed, do not plant them in peat pellets, or any planting medium with peat.
- Never refrigerate pepper plant seeds.
- Never plant pepper seeds too deep.
- Don’t feed pepper plants with Epsom salts.
- Remember, that pepper seeds are slow germinators and can even take a month to sprout. Exception: Sweet peppers.
- When germinating pepper seeds, make sure that they get circulating air for a few hours a day in the container, or they will dampen off with a fungus.
- Some people use water-proof heating pads under their pepper seeds, but I’m not a big fan of this method.
Bonemeal, Kelp, Seaweed, and Bananas
Peppers need fertilizers and probably the most preferred are diluted fish fertilizers. I’ve experimented with my own ground up fish heads and had good success.
I’ve also had good growing success with habaneros by adding calcium, even using Oscal (a common female calcium supplement) and oyster shells from the feed store. Also, bone meal (rose plant food) is an important food for pepper plants.
Other home remedies for proper feeding of pepper plants is using kelp, seaweed, and even banana peels (peppers need potassium) to ensure a bumper crop.
Note: Puckering leaves is a sign that your pepper plants may need calcium.
Getting to Avery Island, Louisiana
Avery Island is a little over two hours driving from New Orleans via Interstate 10 West; exit Interstate 310 towards Boutte (after the airport); at the end of the road take Highway 90 West (towards Houma) and stay on Highway 90 until right before New Iberia. The exit is well marked with a sign shaped like a bottle of Tabasco (Avery Island).
Costs: While the Taabsco Factory tour is free, there is a modest fee of a $1.00 to enter the area and the Jungle Gardens (Mr. Ned’s Gardens and Bird Sanctuary) have additional costs of $6.25 per adult, and $4.50 for children ages six to twelve.
Open: Everyday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m. (closed on major holidays).
Hot Pepper Nasal Spray
The Healing Powers of Hot Peppers
The healing powers of hot peppers is nothing new to those who practice herbal medicine. It's just now that medical science and the media is catching up and many new products for headache and sinus relief are coming on the market.