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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

IGNATZ PFEFFERCORN -- The Hot Pepper Jesuit

Today I told the doctor, "I'm 60 years old. I piss like a race horse and wake up every morning with a hard on, for which I'm very grateful. There's nothing wrong with me a thick stack of hundred dollar bills and a big bag of weed won't cure."

So, I must be feeling better. And I attribute this recovery, in no small part, to liberal doses of hot peppers – both fresh and in hot sauce – these last 2 days. Today, for lunch, I made a local omelet from eggs from chickens less than a half mile away, a plum tomato and a hot pepper and garlic and oregano flowers all from my garden. The onion was from the farmers’ market, and the olive oil from Italy. I made a side order of fried blue potatoes from Farmer Frank's Rolling Hills Farm. It was delicious.

After lunch I got to thinking about Ignatz Pfeffercorn, who I have dubbed in my mind as the hot pepper Jesuit. The good padre was a German sent to the high desert of Sonora in the mid-1700s.. There he became acquainted with the chiltepin pepper – a wild tiny red pepper that grows on bushes and is highly prized; so highly prized that in the 1980s these peppers were fetching $32 a pound in the southwestern USA.

Ignatz Pfeffercorn (what a perfect name for this story) recalled first discovering the chiltepin, sometimes called the bird pepper due to its size and popularity with our flying feathered friends, a quarter century later: “After the first mouthful the tears started to come. I could not say a word and believed I had hellfire in my mouth. . . . It is bitingly sharp yet it is manna to the American palate and is used in every dish with which it harmonizes.”

I learned all this from a chapter in Gary Paul Nabhan’s “Gathering the Desert” which Farmer Frank gave me to read. Farmer Frank (be sure to try his garlic vinegar, if it's available) has a potted chiltepin bush that I once cheekily asked him to leave to me in his will. It is flat out the most awesome hot pepper plant I have ever seen, and I’ve seen a few. The chapter is titled “For the Birds: The Red-Hot Mother of Chiles”. A bit of Farmer Frank’s marginalia describes the chiltepin as “the world’s hottest pepper”.

The fatali from Africa, the Scotch Bonnet from the Caribbean, and the habanero all have their adherents. Frank grows fatalis on his organic farm and now says they are the hottest. JJ Deluxe, bass sax player par excellence, music collaborator and the source of my hot pepper plants this year, grows both Scotch bonnet and habanero savinia. I’ve eaten them all. I've read Scoville scale rankings, but damned if I could tell you which is hotter simply by taste. The Scoville rating on Wikipedia lists the chiltepin in a grouping of the fifth hottest peppers.

While looking up all this for this blog post, I discovered the name of the bhut jolokia – which is apparently accepted as the hottest pepper on the planet. I never heard of it before. But you can be sure the next time JJ and I are practicing (available for bookings from New York City to Philadelphia -- with a female vocalist/whistler! – please contact me for info) we’ll be discussing where to get some Indian seed for next year’s crop.

Meanwhile, I learned something while re-reading the chapter in Nabhan’s book after lunch – chiltepins can be grown quite successfully from cuttings from a mature plant. Don't know how this slipped past me the first time I read it. I’m sure Farmer Frank’s plant is one of the most mature to be found outside the wild. So, I called him immediately and asked if he would mind me taking a cutting to root and start. He was totally amenable to the idea. I'm going out to visit him tomorrow.

Life is good. I'm feeling great!


  1. Oh Brother! Glad all your systems are running on high!