Heirloom Fish Peppers Carry on the Story of African-American Cookery in Maryland
by Amy Scattergood | Photography by J.M. Giordano
Published December 5 in Baltimore Magazine
Excerpt: On a warm morning in late August, Myeasha Taylor wades down a row of nearly waist-high greenery at Black Butterfly Farm, a teaching urban farm on 6.7 acres in Curtis Bay that’s part of the nonprofit Farm Alliance of Baltimore. Taylor, the farm’s education and production manager, picks a handful of ripe fish peppers—bright red chiles about the size of small jalapeños—from among the 100 “row feet” of plants running down the plot between columns of indigo, flowering okra, and red amaranth taller than she is. Bees weave through the summer air. Butterflies alight on the tallest sun-drenched plants.
“This is our little ancestral crop section,” says Taylor as she lifts a tangle of vines woven through a line of near-invisible trellises. Most of the peppers are still the same shade as the leaves surrounding them, some are painted in stunning kelly-green and orange stripes, some are vermillion, still others the color of butter. A few are white, a distinction that gave the fish pepper its name, as it was favored by cooks in 19th-century Chesapeake Bay oyster and crab houses for use in their fish stews, disappearing into pale, creamy soups, and before that, in Black communities in the Mid-Atlantic where the peppers were grown and used in fish and seafood cookery.
That fish peppers are now growing in this South Baltimore field, are being sold at the 32nd Street Farmers Market, and are on the menu of such places as Blacksauce Kitchen, Artifact Coffee, and Spike Gjerde’s Woodberry Tavern—where they’re used so liberally, the peppers have their own mis en place containers at the chefs’ stations—is largely because of Denzel Mitchell Jr.