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Rescued from near extinction, a rare heirloom pepper is slowly making a comeback

It took the Beaver Dam pepper 100 years to make its way from Hungary to Wisconsin to Chicago—but it's finally becoming more common.

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Lee Greene, founder and owner of the Scrumptious Pantry, with a Beaver Dam pepper - JULIA THIEL
  • Julia Thiel
  • Lee Greene, founder and owner of the Scrumptious Pantry, with a Beaver Dam pepper

More than 100 years ago, Hungarian immigrant Joe Hussli brought the seeds for a medium-hot pepper from his homeland and planted them in his new hometown of Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. The pepper was popular enough to be named after the town where it arrived, but like many other heirloom vegetable varieties, it fell out of favor after hybrids (plants created by cross-pollinating two closely related species, usually to select for certain characteristics) were introduced in the 1950s, and the pepper was all but forgotten—even in Beaver Dam—until recently.

Since 2010, Lee Greene has been on a one-woman mission to resurrect the Beaver Dam pepper. She's the founder and owner of Scrumptious Pantry, a Chicago company that makes various products with the pepper (as well as other heirloom fruits and vegetables), and has organized multiple Beaver Dam pepper festivals in Chicago and Milwaukee. "One day [in 2013] my phone rings, the ID says Beaver Dam, Wisconsin," says Greene, who lives in Logan Square. The caller was from the town's chamber of commerce; she'd learned about Greene from an Associated Press story on the pepper festivals and talked to the town mayor, who'd never heard of the pepper. "She's like, 'We thought you were a total fraud, but we did some research and we realized that it's actually a thing.'"

Greene, who's originally from Germany, left a job as the general manager of a biodynamic vineyard in Tuscany in early 2010 to move to Chicago with the goal of starting a company that would promote local food. It was a concept she'd become interested in while getting her MBA in Italy, and continued to develop while working at the vineyard. One catalyst, she says, was "observing my peers debating which tomato is better, the one from town A or town B—I'm like, there's only five miles between your two towns. What are you talking about?" she says. "It was just full flavor immersion."

Gradually, she realized her classmates were right about the flavor differences that terroir can create. "I saw it in our vineyard, the olive oil we made—we only had like 500 trees. Depending on if they got exposure to the sun in the morning or afternoon, or more or less wind, it mattered. The olive oil tasted completely different once you went around the corner. That was inspiration to say, how can I share that experience and excite people about regional flavors, varieties, and food grown with a certain love and attention?"

When Greene moved to Chicago, her plan was to find farmers who needed help marketing products they were creating from what they grew. Immediately, she hit a snag: not many existed. There were a few farmers with their own line of products, like Tomato Mountain in Brooklyn, Wisconsin, and River Valley Ranch & Kitchens in Burlington, Wisconsin, but those companies already had their business models set up and didn't need her help.

"I was like, I'm just going to have to make my own," Greene says. She started looking at the Slow Food Ark of Taste, a list of "delicious and distinctive foods" that are on the brink of extinction, and quickly settled on the Beaver Dam pepper for her first product, a pickled pepper—not least because Beaver Dam is only 150 miles from Chicago. Greene started asking around to see if anyone was growing the pepper; after being told that John Hendrickson of Stone Circle Farm in Reeseville, Wisconsin, did, she gave him a call to ask if that was true. "He just laughed hysterically," she says. "He said, 'Well, growing is exaggerating. I have one row of peppers.' I was like, 'I'm going to buy all your production!"

Hendrickson had found the pepper in the Seed Savers Exchange catalog earlier that year, and like Greene, was intrigued—in part because his farm was only ten minutes from Beaver Dam. He produced about ten pounds of peppers that year, and sent them to North Pond restaurant for Greene to pick up. Searching the walk-in cooler for the delivery, she says, the chef asked what the peppers looked like. "I was like, 'I have no idea!'"

Traditionally, Greene says, the pepper would be red, but the midwestern growing season is too short to allow that much ripening. The ones she gets here are the color of a Granny Smith apple, with a sweetness that slowly morphs into a mild spiciness, similar in heat level to a poblano pepper. Greene believes it works well for recipes, because the pepper's heat doesn't overpower other flavors. "When you take a bite, you get the other flavors first and then the heat kicks in," she says.

It's not clear, though, whether the pepper still exists in its homeland. While attending a Slow Food conference in Italy a few years ago, Greene talked to several pepper growers from Apatin—the area Joe Hussli immigrated from in 1912 (then a part of Hungary, now part of Serbia). She showed them Beaver Dam peppers she'd brought, as well as photos of the plants. No one had seen them before. "It's interesting," Greene says. "Is it actually extinct in the homeland for the same reason people don't cultivate it here, because it's laborsome? Or did it just change a little bit here, take on the regionality and terroir of the midwest, and develop into a pepper that's so different from what left the homeland that they can't recognize it?"

After Greene finally got her hands on some Beaver Dam peppers, she began experimenting with recipes in her kitchen while trying to find a manufacturing facility. That turned out to be even more of a challenge than locating the peppers; the scale at which she wanted to make her products ruled out a shared kitchen space, but most midscale facilities aren't set up to deal with fresh ingredients, Greene says. Most places she looked at that made tomato products, for example, were working with 55-gallon drums of preprocessed tomatoes, not fresh ones. It took her the better part of a year to locate two facilities that were willing to work with her.

Greene calls the Beaver Dam pepper her baby—in addition to the pickled peppers, she's made a Beaver Dam pepper hot sauce in collaboration with Co-op Hot Sauce, and just released a Beaver Dam pepper jelly. She also makes a variety of ketchups, pickles, relishes, and preserves, mostly with local and heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables. She's worked with pawpaws and persimmons (both native to the midwest), Wisconsin-grown cranberries, the Sheboygan tomato, and the Snow Fancy cucumber, which was the main pickling cucumber for the region before the introduction of hybrids.

A late-season Beaver Dam pepper with Scrumptious Pantry's Beaver Dam pepper products - JULIA THIEL
  • Julia Thiel
  • A late-season Beaver Dam pepper with Scrumptious Pantry's Beaver Dam pepper products

So why do heirlooms matter? The definition can vary, but most people consider heirloom varieties to be ones developed before 1951, when hybrids were introduced. Greene acknowledges that hybrids have their advantages: "They're optimized for this weather, easier to cultivate, more uniform in shape," she says. That's why the Beaver Dam pepper fell out of favor: the peppers are large and heavy, and if plants aren't staked they tend to bend over and mold. "If you have 4,000 pepper plants, you gotta go and stake them all—or you can get 4,000 pepper plants that perfectly stand up on their own," she says. "Which one would you grow?"

The problem with the hybrid varieties, Greene says, is that they're less flavorful. "The tomato is a perfect example. It needed to be firmer so it could be transported without getting squished; they created a tomato with more flesh and less seed cavity." But most of the tomato's flavor lies in the seed cavity, so making the tomato hardier meant it lost some flavor. Researchers have also found that the "green shoulders" (green streaks at the top of even perfectly ripe fruit) tomatoes used to have are key to their sweetness; the green color signals the presence of chlorophyll, which converts sunlight to energy (in this case, sugar). The gene that produces green shoulders disappeared when tomatoes were bred to have a uniform red color.  "I always say that heirlooms actually taste the way that nature intended food to taste," Greene says.

In 2012, a year after she brought her first products to market and 100 years after Joe Hussli brought the pepper to Wisconsin, Greene worked with local Slow Food chapters to organize the Beaver Dam Pepper Centennial Celebration in Chicago and Milwaukee—a small event with a big name. Five restaurants in Chicago—including Perennial Virant, Uncommon Ground, and Birchwood Kitchen—and several in Milwaukeee offered menu specials featuring the peppers for one week in September. "That was all the peppers we had," Greene says. "Like 700 pounds—nothing, really. We couldn't push the pepper out like crazy maniacs."

And Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, has embraced its pepper since being reintroduced to it, hosting its first annual Beaver Dam Pepper Festival in October 2014. The event also served as an informal family reunion for Joe Hussli's descendants, many of whom had moved away from Beaver Dam and never met each other until they returned for the festival last year, Greene says.

At the inaugural Beaver Dam Pepper Festival in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, in 2014. Left to right: John Hendrickson of Stone Circle Farm, Larry Hussli (grandson of Joe Hussli), and Lee Greene.
  • At the inaugural Beaver Dam Pepper Festival in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, in 2014. Left to right: John Hendrickson of Stone Circle Farm, Larry Hussli (grandson of Joe Hussli), and Lee Greene.

Greene isn't the only person who's fallen in love with a particular heirloom variety; in San Francisco, Paula Shatkin has been working for 20 years to preserve the Gravenstein apple. When she saw apple orchards increasingly being replaced with vineyards, Shatkin started a project to promote the local apple, creating outlets for the apples to be turned into products that offer a higher return on investment, like cider, and working to get them on the menu at local restaurants.

The most recently rediscovered heirloom variety that Greene knows of is the Bradford watermelon, once the most coveted watermelon variety in the south for its sweetness. But it doesn't ship well, and it was abandoned as a commercial crop in the 1920s. "One of the sons of the Bradford family heard about this supposedly disappeared watermelon, and was like, 'I think that's the watermelon I'm growing in my backyard!'" Greene says. "That family had passed down the seeds—it was just their family watermelon."

That descendant, Nat Bradford, has since started growing Bradford watermelons to be made into molasses, watermelon-rind pickles, and brandy. Production is still low: "They're at the same stage I was at five years ago," Greene says. "But it's a start."

Distribution has been growing gradually for the Beaver Dam pepper; in 2013 Greene and Slow Food repeated the previous year's festival with more restaurants participating, and last year Greene donated Beaver Dam peppers to the Green City Market so that on one day in September all the food vendors could use the peppers in a special menu item. This year was the first that the farmers Greene works with had enough peppers that chefs could put them on the menu for more than a week; Local Foods acted as a distributor, selling Beaver Dam peppers to 19 Chicago restaurants that used them all summer.

Still, the vast majority of the 5,000 pounds of Beaver Dam peppers grown this summer went to Greene. Next summer, she's hoping that 35 restaurants will use the pepper; chefs, she says, are the best ambassadors for them. "Consumers go to restaurants in order to be inspired, get something exciting that they're not used to," she says. At a grocery store or farmers' market, on the other hand, most people won't buy varieties they're not familiar with.

And there's plenty that the average consumer isn't familiar with. While doing demos at Whole Foods, Greene has had people tell her that they're from Beaver Dam and the Beaver Dam pepper doesn't exist. "The same with the pawpaw," she says. "A customer was like, 'I live in Paw Paw, Michigan! Why is our town name on your curd jar?' I'm like, your town is named after the fruit, not the other way around."

"But that shows me the importance of what I'm doing. If someone who lives in Paw Paw doesn't even know the origin of their town name and that there are pawpaws growing in their backyard, there's a long way to go until local food is actually celebrated locally."

Progress is slow: even though the amount of Beaver Dam peppers produced each year has increased exponentially in the five years since Greene started her business, they're still not being grown on a large scale. Good Earth Farms in Oakfield, Wisconsin, has joined Stone Circle Farms in growing the peppers, and Greene says another farm is prepared to start growing them next year if demand is high enough. The supply is there; now Green has to work on increasing demand for the Beaver Dam pepper. "We're far from consumers going into the farmers' market and saying, 'Yes, I want the Beaver Dam pepper! Finally, the Beaver Dam pepper season has started!,'" Greene says. "The moment that happens, and people rush to photograph and Instagram the first pepper with the hashtag #yaybeaverdampepperseasonishere, that is when I will retire."  v

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