Eat It to Save It – Join the Beaver Dam Pepper Centennial Celebration!

September 19, 2012 at 10:57 am

Editor’s Note: We’ve known Lee Greene and her company, Scrumptious Pantry, for a few years.  We’ve always been impressed with her efforts to create new products from local food.  More importantly, we really like how Lee has advocated for a more defined Taste of the Midwest, an appreciation of the terroir of eating local.  We gave Lee the chance to write about that last year.  

This year, Lee’s doing something else that we really like.  She’s working hard with Slow Food Chicago to promote the saving of rare and forgotten foods.   One of Slow Food’s primary tasks has been to populate the “Ark of Taste“.   The Ark catalogs foods threatened by industrial standardization, the regulations of large-scale distribution, and environmental damage.   Since 1996, more than 800 products from over 50 countries have been added to the international Ark of Taste. The U.S. Ark of Taste profiles over 200 rare regional foods.  As Slow Food notes, the Ark “is a tool that helps farmers, ranchers, fishers, chefs, retail grocers, educators and consumers celebrate our country’s diverse biological, cultural and culinary heritage.”  Lee has walked on to the Ark to find a special product from our area, the Beaver Dam pepper.  Read more about what she found, and what she’s doing to celebrate it.

Joseph Hussli left his home in Apatin (then Hungary) 100 years ago. He packed his dreams, a few belongings, and made his way to the New World. One of the precious things he decided to bring along on this trek to his new life in America were some pepper seeds, tucked away in his garments. In September 1912, he stepped ashore Ellis Island, and settled in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin,  where the pepper seeds were finally planted. He must have been overjoyed when he saw that these peppers were thriving in the climate and soil there. Soon, he was passing seeds onto others in Beaver Dam, to Austrian-Hungarian immigrants who were thirsty for the flavors of home, and anyone who wanted to grow this delicious thick-walled pepper with a warm, flavorful heat, which lends itself so well for stuffing, grilling, roasting and pickling. And so this pepper became known as the Beaver Dam Pepper.

But then came the hybrids. Perfected peppers that did not need to be trellised (the Beaver Dam Pepper grows 9 inches long and hence needs to be supported), and that required less work to prevent diseases and pests. In short: perfected peppers were easier to cultivate. So, one by one, growers switched to hybrid peppers, and the Beaver Dam Pepper became a rare treasure with a few stewards fighting for its survival. Among them was Larry Hussli, a grandson of Joe, who still grows 500 plants every year in his home in Edwardsville, IL, and passes on seeds to other immigrants from Apatin (which has been part of Serbia since 1918). Another is Slow Food, an international not-for-profit that is working to save and promote regional foods, food traditions, heirloom varietals, and biodiversity. One of the tools Slow Food uses to promote these goals is the Ark of Taste, a listing of varietals that have not been touched by genetic modification and have been handed down through generations — outside the usual commercial channels – and, as a result, are now threatened by extinction.

The Slow Food Ark of Taste is where I discovered the Beaver Dam Pepper when I was looking for regional heirloom varietals to use in The Scrumptious Pantry’s line of heirloom foods. After many phone calls to farmers in Wisconsin I finally got lucky when I spoke to John Henderickson at Stone Circle Farm. He had read about the seeds in the Seed Savers Exchange catalogue that same year, and being close to Beaver Dam, he was intrigued by their story, just as I was. That year, he grew a couple of experimental plants to see how they performed. They. Were. Delicious. The thick flesh made them a perfect pepper for pickling, and in 2011, we rallied another farm – Schauer’s Good Earth Farm – and started cultivating the Beaver Dam Pepper in earnest. 2,000 jars of Heirloom Pickles Beaver Dam Peppers were what we put up the first year. This year, we have already grown enough for 7,000 jars. Few in the world of industrial food production, but a lot for a pepper that no one knew about two years ago.

Over the last two years, I have often thought of Joseph Hussli, and how important these seeds must have been to him that he decided to bring these seeds, not others. That he decided to bring this seeds, not a family photo. I wish I could have thanked him. So to celebrate Joe Hussli and the Beaver Dam Pepper, Slow Food and The Scrumptious Pantry have organized the Beaver Dam Pepper Centennial Celebration. On September 17 -23, we will pop-up at Chicago Farmers’ Markets and stores to tell Joe’s story, and give out samples of the pepper and seeds for those wanting to help keeping the Beaver Dam Pepper around. We are very happy to have some amazing local restaurants supporting the pepper by creating delicious menu specials – Birchwood Kitchen, Green Zebra, Lula Café, Standard Market, Uncommon Ground Devon & Clark and Vera will be showcasing the Beaver Dam Pepper from September 21 to 23 (complimentary seeds will also be available at those restaurants). The full schedule for the Beaver Dam Pepper Centennial Celebration can be found online–see below. We hope you will join us and eat it to save it!

Facebook event Chicago

Facebook event Milwaukee (09.28-30)