Org celebrates endangered Beaver Dam pepper

Farmers say sweet, spicy vegetable can be tricky to grow

Food enthusiasts are holding a weeks-long celebration of a hot pepper that they said is one of Wisconsin’s endangered foods.

The Beaver Dam pepper will be showcased in cooking demonstrations, on Milwaukee restaurant menus and at other events in September as the nonprofit Slow Food, and farmers and chefs working with it, aim to draw attention to what they said is one of thousands of forgotten vegetable varieties threatened with extinction.

Many of the vegetables fell out of favor as farmers and gardeners focused on hybrids bred to produce more while requiring less care. The Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity estimates 300,000 vegetable varieties have been lost over the past century.

“Each of those losses is the loss of a family’s story,” said Jennifer Casey, Slow Food Wisconsin Southeast’s leader of biodiversity efforts.

Casey is among those working to revive interest in the Beaver Dam pepper. Brought to the Wisconsin community of the same name in 1912 by a Hungarian immigrant named Joe Hussli, the pepper’s attraction is a sweet-yet-spicy flavor.

“There’s heat in the back, but the first thing you taste is a sweet chili taste,” said David Kozlowski, who grows the pepper on his farm south of Milwaukee.

The pepper can be tricky to grow, though. Some gardeners said it requires a trellis or some other support or the 9-inch long peppers will pull over the plant. Kozlowski’s wife, Sandy Raduenz, said the Beaver Dam often produces fewer peppers than other varieties, which can make it a poor bet for farmers.

“In a warm, dry year, it will really produce,” she said. “In a normal year, well a normal year for us, when you get the cool mornings and damp, it doesn’t do as well.”

Seed banks consider varieties like the Beaver Dam important because they can carry valuable genetic traits, such as heat tolerance.

Slow Food also considers them culturally important. Its Ark of Taste program finds farmers to grow forgotten vegetable varieties and raise endangered livestock species and works with chefs and food companies to popularize them. It has more than 1,200 foods listed in its catalog and hopes to bring that number to 10,000 in the next four years.

Slow Food Wisconsin Southeast held its first Beaver Dam pepper celebration last year at the urging of Lee Greene, the founder of Scrumptious Pantry, a Chicago company that uses heirloom vegetables in its products. She sells pickled Beaver Dam peppers, which she recommends in grilled cheese sandwiches.

“It cuts through the richness of the cheese,” Greene said. She described the pepper as having “a really nice, mildly spicy flavor profile. So it starts out mild, but the heat builds up.”

The chapter expanded its effort this year with a “grow out,” in which it ordered seeds, had a Milwaukee nursery start them and then gave or sold seedlings to area gardeners.

Wisconsin farms are growing the Beaver Dam pepper as well, and the results will be seen — and eaten — during the celebration that starts Saturday with a cooking demonstration at the South Shore Farmers Market in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood. Other events are scheduled as well, and the celebration culminates on Sept. 21, when more than a half-dozen Milwaukee restaurants will serve dishes featuring the pepper.

“I think, traditionally, it was used in things like Hungarian goulashes, and one of the things the Hussli family was famous for was slicing it and just putting it on sandwiches,” said Casey, who grows the pepper and uses it in everything from pickles to quiches, soups and stews.

Greene has organized a similar restaurant event with some Chicago restaurants from Sept. 19-22. She said while anyone can nominate new foods for Ark of Taste preservation, the most important criteria is taste.

“You can’t force consumers to eat a product just because you want to keep it around,” she said.