Many years after that, Mitchell would order seeds whose lineage can be traced back to Pippin’s bartered handful and begin the next renaissance of the fish pepper in Baltimore.
Not long after Mitchell started growing his 21st-century fish peppers, he ran into Spike Gjerde—one of the foremost chefs in the region and the only Baltimore chef to have won the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef Mid-Atlantic award—and the two got to talking about produce, as food people do. As Mitchell tells it, Gjerde stopped in his tracks when he found out what Mitchell was growing. “He was like, ‘Fish peppers! Fish peppers? Where? Can we go right now?’” Mitchell smiles, considering the jar in front of him, filled with its deeply aromatic crimson treasure.
At the time, Mitchell was farming on six vacant lots in Baltimore’s Belair-Edison neighborhood. “I only had 15 plants, but no one else was growing them,” says Mitchell, whose Five Seeds Farm, which closed in 2016, is now the site of Hillen Homestead’s flower farm. “Spike wanted to get Tabasco out of his restaurant and have a Maryland hot sauce that represented Maryland cuisine on Chesapeake oysters, grown by Maryland farms.” Gjerde bought all the peppers Mitchell had. Soon he was growing enough peppers so that Gjerde could start making Snake Oil, his own brand of hot sauce, a heady mixture of mashed fish peppers, cider vinegar, and sea salt that’s sold at Artifact Coffee and used in abundance at Gjerde’s restaurant, Woodberry Tavern.
Back at Black Butterfly Farm, Taylor says they’d recently started harvesting the season’s fish peppers—55 pounds of them had just gone to Woodberry. “They’re easy to grow. And they’re easy to pick; they just take a long-ass time,” she says, smiling under her broad sun hat.
For years, the Farm Alliance has been buying fish pepper seeds each season—these days primarily from the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange—but this year, says Taylor, they’ll probably start saving some of their own seeds as well. “Seed saving is really important,” she continues, noting how the peppers were off the market for so long and that Farm Alliance gets funding for ancestral crops through a grant from the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education organization. The practice, of course, is also how the pepper survived in the first place.
Taylor surveys the adjacent crops—in addition to the amaranth and indigo, there are rows of sweet potatoes, green beans, tomatoes, and bright marigolds nestled below the amaranth like stray bursts of gold. Those crops will head to Farm Alliance’s market stall at the 32nd Street Farmers Market in Waverly, and many of the peppers will migrate to Gjerde’s kitchen.
“I became aware of fish peppers from reading about them, from accounts by Michael Twitty and William Woys Weaver, because they weren’t around,” says Gjerde, sitting on the patio outside his restaurant one afternoon. “I started asking people about fish peppers, and it was really Denzel who found me.”
When Gjerde went to Mitchell’s farm for the first time, the chef still hadn’t even seen a fish pepper, much less tasted one. “They’re bright, hot, not as aggressively spicy as habañeros, with a grassy quality. That was the first time I’d ever seen an albino [pepper],” Gjerde says. “We even tried to make a white hot sauce, but it was a kind of unappealing tan.” Gjerde smiles ruefully as he considers the notion of beige hot sauce. “We’ve made green Snake Oil in the past, but we mostly just use the red. Anytime we’re adding heat or spice to cooking at Woodberry, it’s through pickled fish pepper, dried fish pepper, or Snake Oil.”
Although the production of Snake Oil paused during the pandemic, Gjerde says they’ve got a healthy supply of it, in the form of about 100 cases of bottles and 50 barrels of pepper mash, and he’s planning to jumpstart production soon. Gjerde likes the rather histrionic appeal of his hot sauce’s name, as “snake oil” has long been used to describe cure-all elixirs.
“It’s not hot hot. We always have to relieve people of the notion that it’s gonna, like, hurt them.”
He looks over his latest menu, cataloging the dishes that use fish pepper: on the deviled eggs and the crudites that make up the Tavern Board, in the scrapple musubi, the pit-beef carpaccio, the smoked-clam savory pie, the fried chicken, the crab cake, and the steak au poivre. So, most of the dishes on the menu? “Yeah,” he says, with a rather startled laugh, “now that you mention it.”