Nibbles of history

Winter sprouts surprises

The endive is a hardy little leaf that has much to tell us in wintertime. It refuses to be bullied by the season: where other plants suffer, in darkness and the cold, the endive thrives. The journey from seed to shoot is a long and painstaking one. It begins, strangely enough, with a chicory seed.

Together with the usual round of early crops, chicory seeds are planted in spring. But by the time we pop English peas and pluck peeking radishes, only the roots of the chicory plants are harvested – any leaves are cast aside. The roots are laid to rest for as long as 10 months, like knobby sleeping beauties, until they’re brought to a cave-like home – a place where you might expect to find gloriously moldy wheels of cheese – nestled in dirt, and finally allowed to sprout. This underground process is called blanching, since only the very tips of the leaves that poke out of the earth develop color.

It’s impressive to see a bunch of full-grown endives with the roots still attached – they are as big and dense as the cones of leaves they support. Or, to put it another way, the leaves can only be as big as their roots. Laying the groundwork, the endive reminds us, is just as important as the results to come. It’s an investment in slow growth, an edible hint that the slogging productiveness of winter has a sunnier payoff.


The endive is a child of neglect. Some claim that it was discovered by a Belgian farmer after the War of Independence in 1831. Before setting off to fight in the war, the farmer had stored chicory roots in his cellar, with the plan to roast them for coffee upon his return (in Europe, dried and roasted chicory roots have long been mixed with coffee to cut costs; the French brought the tradition with them to New Orleans, where it’s now one of the city’s culinary trademarks). When the farmer returned home, he found that the roots had sprouted leaves, thankfully gave one a try, and was struck by its fresh crunch and bitter bite.

Others say that the endive was stumbled upon by a gardener at the Brussels Botanical Garden in the mid-1800s. He had forgotten about his chicory plants, which where sitting in a dark warehouse for several months, sprouting surprises.

Either way, we have a Belgian to thank for this accidental discovery, which is why the plant’s common name in English is “Belgian endive” (back in the Low Countries, it’s called witloof, or white leaf, and has the nickname “white gold”). Its English name is misleading though, because endive as we know it is not really endive; it’s chicory – a grouping of plants comprised of radicchio and other bitter leaves. The actual endive genus, instead, includes frisée and escarole.


Belgians’ yearly consumption of Belgian endive averages about 18 pounds per person; the French follow with 8, and the Dutch with 7. Americans, instead, have a more timid relationship with bitter greens, averaging only 4 leaves per person each year. Rather than being intimidated by bitterness, Europeans are spurred on by this flavor in the kitchen, and prepare endive in many ways: a Frenchman might bake it in a blanket of béchamel and Gruyere; an Italian might braise it with garlic and olive oil; a Belgian might enjoy it raw in a salad with apples and walnuts or shallots and mayonnaise. Cooking endive tempers its bite, while leaving it raw challenges you to bounce other flavors off its bitterness, adding something sweet, something salty, and something nutty to the mix.

The leaves of Belgian endives have a natural elegance that lends itself well to accepting this challenge in a simple appetizer. In a sustainable version of that catering mainstay, the wonton soup spoon, the leaves can be used as little boats to hold a dollop of something tasty.


The endive is a reticent participant in this boat-making endeavor, since it holds its leaves close, unwilling to shed its many layers. But if you trim the stem a couple of times as you peel them back, the leaves can be coaxed apart without breaking. Remove the leaves one by one and watch the core shrink, like a miniature Russian doll, until the boats become too small to hold the filling (you don’t need to throw away the core; it can be cut in half and throw into a salad, or dipped in hummus for a quick snack).


This appetizer with gorgonzola, walnuts, and balsamic glaze is an Italian-inspired combination, but you can run with this idea in any direction: beets and goat cheese, caviar and crème fraîche, curried chicken salad, lox with ricotta and capers. Just embrace the bitter chill, and eat more endive.


Nibbles of history

The Creole Chesapeake: Fishing for Peppers in Baltimore and D.C.

Seafood has long been the stuff of Maryland’s soul. As it reaches back into the coastline, almost splitting the state in two, the great Chesapeake Bay has given Maryland an edible identity of blue crabs and bivalves – so much so that a feisty crustacean makes an appearance on my state driver’s license, as integral a part of my personal records as my address and eye color. Now, however, the region famed for its shells and pincers has begun to look to a little hot pepper as the key to its culinary past and future.


In the 1800s, backyard Baltimore gardens were brought to life with splashes of color: streaks of creamy white, yellow-green, burnt orange, eggplant purple, and chili red dangling from green and white splotched leaves – the fish pepper plant. Chopped fresh or dried and ground, the pepper lent its smoldering heat and sweet undertones to Chesapeake seafood dishes full of Creole personality, rivaling even that of legendary New Orleans.

Like African staples such as okra and sweet potatoes, the fish pepper followed the course of slave ships to land in the mid-Atlantic. From the 19th to early 20th centuries, the plant was at the heart of the truck farming industry that sustained much of the African American community throughout the Chesapeake – a lifeline especially for the large free black population in the Baltimore area before the Civil War. It tells an agricultural history of the area different from that of cash crops and instead focused on smaller-scale farms and gardens, with truck farmers driving around the Bay supplying ingredients to the teeming network of crab and oyster houses.


Port Tobacco, Charles County, Maryland, c1936-7. Library of Congress.


Farmers sharing a truck on market day, 1942. Montgomery County, Maryland. Library of Congress.

The symbiotic relationship between the fish pepper and local seafood joints is what gave the plant its name. In its early stages, before it transitions through a spectrum of bright colors, the fish pepper pod is white. This quality made it a sought-after ingredient for cream-based seafood sauces, where it adds kick without muddying the color – the ultimate secret ingredient. Bushels of peppers were sold stacked next to seafood stalls in markets, the pairing as second nature as tomatoes and basil.


July 1938. %22House in Negro section of Baltimore, Maryland.%22 Crabs and clams to go, please. Medium-format nitrate negative by John Vachon

Photo by John Vachon. Baltimore, Maryland, July 1938. Credit: Shorpy Archive

Long before Old Bay Seasoning became Baltimore’s trademark spice, the fish pepper, along with other Afro-Caribbean ingredients, combined with European and Native American traditions to form a vibrant Chesapeake cuisine. “You had these three strands interweaving and creating something that was Creolized in the sense that they combined to create something that was wholly new,” said Spike Gjerde, chef and owner of the Baltimore restaurant Woodberry Kitchen, in a conversation with NPR’s Kojo Nnamdi.

While New England was seen as more of a symbolic extension of Europe, taking its style cues and food traditions from the Old World, according to Gjerde, the Chesapeake was, from its early days, simply perceived as tobacco country. Without this conscious project of nation-building, the workers of Maryland-area fields had the opportunity to grow and cook a range of foods in their backyard gardens to actually feed themselves. Cookbooks like Mrs. Benjamin Otis Howard’s 1873 Fifty Years in a Maryland Kitchen and Harry Franklyn Hall’s 1901 300 Ways to Cook and Serve Shellfish speak to the uniquely Chesapeake style that emerged, featuring recipes for terrapin soup, crab gumbo with okra, Maryland fried chicken, and broiled oysters – dishes often relying on the fish pepper for their sassy flavor.


Lexington Market, Baltimore, 1921. Maryland Historical Society.

The port city of Baltimore was the core of this flourishing Chesapeake food culture, with lively public markets and emerging ethnic neighborhoods (Baltimore was second only to New York for the numbers of immigrants it welcomed through its port in the 1800s). Local culinary historian Michael Twitty even recounts how the writer Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. declared the city’s celebrated Lexington Market “The Gastronomic Capitol of the World” when he visited in 1859. But the scene went from bustling to bust as the waters of the Chesapeake suffered from pollution and disease in the mid-1900s, shutting down the seafood houses lining the Bay. With no demand for the spice, the fish pepper fell into obscurity, gradually disappearing from menus and gardens. With it went Maryland’s Creole sense of self – less gumbo and piccalilli, more crab cakes and football.


Lexington Market, c1850-1900. Library of Congress.


Lexington Market, Summer 2014


Lexington Market, Summer 2014


Lexington Market, c1903. Library of Congress.

Now the fish pepper is finally making a comeback. Very much a part of the urban gardening resurgence in the Baltimore area, the pepper has made its way from the handful of gardeners who saved a few seeds to the back pages of heritage seed catalogues – and then finally to the menus of upscale restaurants where it has become the locally-sourced darling of the Chesapeake dining scene. Today, at Woodberry Kitchen, you can launch a meal with grilled Chesapeake oysters with spring onion-horseradish verjus and fish pepper butter, and then continue on to corn dumplings with fish pepper, charred leeks, and fresh cheese at Volt further afield in Frederick, Maryland.

The pepper has become the rallying cry of those who want to reacquaint Marylanders with their Creole cuisine. Chief among them is Chef Gjerde, who in addition to featuring the ingredient in his restaurant menu produces a fish pepper hot sauce called “Snake Oil” for larger distribution. With Snake Oil, his mission has been “to try and create a pepper sauce that could be identified with a region, the way Tabasco is intellectively connected with Louisiana.”

But Snake Oil goes at $15 a pop. The 6oz bottles are only available at the shabby chic Salt & Sundry (of DC’s trendy Union Market), or at Woodberry Kitchen, tucked in another tony nook of Baltimore – catering to just a certain niche market.

Before his untimely death last year, Michael Kipp, a beloved Baltimore bartender and spice-maker, made a point of not only collecting fish pepper seeds and growing the plant for area restaurants, but also sharing the seeds with inner-city schools, encouraging young people to forge a connection with their heritage in school gardens. Historian Michael Twitty is a staunch advocate for piecing together these “gastronomic genealogies” in African-American communities, seeing it as an opportunity to reclaim their rightful place in history.


Fish peppers have also begun to spice things up further south in Washington, D.C. Last year, the urban gardening outreach group City Blossoms launched its own Flying Fish Pepper Barbecue Sauce, made with the peppers grown in its public garden, and this spring, Slow Food DC planted a crop at Wangari Gardens. While crab gumbo spiked with fish pepper has yet to take the city by storm, the pepper has enjoyed more formal institutional recognition in its carefully curated gardens: it’s been among the rows of vegetables in the Smithsonian Victory Garden and the White House Kitchen Garden, as well as on the grounds of Monticello down in Virginia. On the international stage, Slow Food has inducted the fish pepper into its Arc of Taste, a listing of endangered heritage plants with hopes of market recovery.

As it trickles down from Baltimore to D.C., the fish pepper suggests that we look at Maryland area seafood in a different light: as the centerpiece of a Creole cuisine which pulled seasonings and ingredients from all different directions, a backyard blend of colors that flourished in the region’s community of crab houses. The revitalization of the pepper is not just a case study in heritage seed awareness but an integral part of Chesapeake Bay conservation, a beam of support for the seafood that has defined this region for centuries but has often been mismanaged. And in its gradual embrace of the fish pepper, D.C., a city-state suspended between regional identities, is hinting it wants to be a part of this rebirth.


Fortunately, the way to save the fish pepper is to eat it. And the time is now: fish peppers are in season from late July to August. I tracked some down at Five Seeds Farm’s stand at the Columbia Heights Farmer’s Market – show up early; they sell out quickly!

Fish peppers can liven up many a fish, from crab cakes to stir fries, stews to fresh salsas. And like other hot peppers, the fish variety lends itself well to preserving – be it pickled, or dried and ground for later use. Historically, it’s been a favorite addition to piccalilli, a vegetable relish cobbled together from whatever is in the garden at summer’s end (some also know it as chowchow – the definitions vary from region to region and cook to cook).

I updated Mrs. Benjamin Otis Howard’s 1873 recipe for “Piccalilly” – which called for a gallon of vinegar and a pound of salt – with some modern riffs, like John Martin Taylor’s low country piccalilli recipe and the Lee Brother’s southern chowchow recipe. I also added some fresh fennel for variety. Vinegary, spicy, and sweet all at the same time, this piccalilli is a great topping for grilled meat, fish, or veggie burgers.


(Makes about 2 quarts)

5 green tomatoes
1 fennel bulb
1 onion
1 red bell pepper
3 fish peppers

2 cups cider vinegar
1/3 cup water
½ cup brown sugar

1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon coriander seeds (toasted and smashed)
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
½ teaspoon celery seeds
1 teaspoon turmeric
½ teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
salt to taste

  1. Quarter the tomatoes, fennel, onion, and bell pepper, toss with a generous amount of salt, and let sit overnight (or at least several hours).
  1. Rinse and drain the vegetables, then chop them into small chunks. Cut the fish peppers into thin rings.
  1. Meanwhile, bring the vinegar, water, and brown sugar to a simmer, and let cook for about 5 minutes. Add all of your spices, with more salt to taste, and continue to simmer for another 10 minutes or so.
  1. Add the vegetables, bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer for about 15 minutes. Process the piccalilli in jars according to your preferred method.