As with most story tellers, when I take on a topic I tend to dive in. Oftentimes, the essence of a story lives beyond the surface, beyond the obvious.
Back in 2014 we produced a special mini magazine, which featured a pair of lovely cayenne peppers on its cover. On a tight deadline, I only had minutes to research and write a few paragraphs about the cover peppers. In those few minutes I found myself immersed in the history and healing properties of this exotic and mysterious fruit. We made the deadline, but I couldn’t shake the mystery. I had to know more. I was simply fascinated.
Curiosity led to intrigue. I began to sample different “types” of cayenne, adding a dash on this and a dash on that. How is it possible that so many different flavors are allowed through so much heat? The more I learned, the more alive and elusive it became, as if I was learning backwards instead of forwards. I had embarked upon a delicious journey.
The following summer, while selecting our usual garden starts of selected edibles at the nursery, Bob and I set about in search of something new to plant. We turned the corner and I saw them immediately.
Three tiny plants under a faded cardboard sign that read: Cayenne Pepper HOT. I didn’t even put them on the little wagon, no way, there were only three. I was hanging on to the little buggers. I couldn’t wait to get home and plant them. We planted them in pots near the tomatoes and each day after work, watered and tended to them. Well, watered them. There was really nothing to tend. They grew. I looked forward to spending time with them at the end of each day, eagerly looking between the leaves for signs of budding pepper. “The fruit is coming,” they teased, the high desert sun hot on its leaves.
A medicinal spice used for thousands of years in the Americas, cayenne pepper is said to have almost “magical” properties. (I’m not sure who exactly said that, but I’ve come across it many times.)
I’ll always remember that hot afternoon when we saw the tiny green fruit hiding in plain site close behind the elongated leaves.
Cayenne is of the genus Capsicum, which is in the nightshade family Solanaceae. Related to paprika, jalapenos, and bell peppers, cayenne is high in vitamins A, B, C, E, potassium, and manganese.
The chemical capsaicin that gives the pepper its distinctive flavors is the key to its curative properties. Much of its ancient lore has been corroborated with modern science.
Whereas we delighted at the sight of the tiny green fruit growing from the stems, nothing prepared us for the explosion of color as the hidden pods turned from green to bright red seemingly overnight and all at once. “See? Told you,” they seemed to air, voices different, more clear and resonant than any of the other garden edibles, but not at all overpowering of the others.
Day after day one, two, three more of the pods turned red. I learned to “snap” them from their stems without squeezing the fruit. My wee bit of research turned up two ways to dry the peppers after picking: six to eight hours in a low-heat oven or strung and hung to dry in the open air for three weeks to three months depending on the humidity.
The decision was an easy one. We live in the desert, usually not a big humidity problem. And who wants to run the oven in the house for eight hours in when it’s 95 degrees outside? Not us.
I strung them by their stems about three inches apart, then hung them to dry in the garage then in the kitchen; each day their color grew darker, the skins hardened, the seeds dry and loose inside. Before long, a veritable curtain of shriveling dark red peppers had taken over part of the kitchen. How in the world could three tiny little plants produce so many peppers? I could barely keep up yet I couldn’t get enough of the process. I loved the at-a-glance spectrum of peppers from the dark dry fruit ready for deseeding to the plump red pods fresh off the vine.
By the time the freeze got the last of them in the fall, those three little plants had yielded more than 300 peppers. I had to stop counting because it seemed so pointless after a while.
When the day finally came to process them, I was unfortunately without the recommended protective gear: gloves and mask. And I was too eager to wait despite all the warnings not to use your bare hands. Secretly, I was glad.
I wanted to experience them skin to skin. I wanted to breathe in their essence as I carefully opened each and every pod, the dry chewy seeds bouncing as they landed in the catch-bowl. The delicate skins added one by one to the platter on the counter next to me.
I do not recommend processing the peppers with bare hands and have not done it since. My body and emotional health must’ve been deficient or in need of the capsaicin at that particular time. There was something about the cayenne and all I’d learned through the process that was … healthy for me at that time.
With hands and eyes burning, I dumped the contents of the catch-bowl into a large colander to collect the seeds. For what I’m not sure, but for some reason I felt the need to keep them. They’re too chewy and tasteless to eat. The skins are the delicacy.
I put a small bunch of the dark red skins on the highest speed on the blender then eagerly removed the lid; the fresh powdered pepper filled the air around the blender.
After a series of sneezes (away from the peppers, of course), I ran my finger around the inside rim of the blender and steeled my palate for the heat.
Nicholas Culpepper, in his “herbal manual” of 1652, wrote of cayenne as “this violent fruit” to help “digestion, provoke urine, relieve toothache, preserve the teeth from rottenness, comfort a cold stomach, expel the stone from the kidney, and take away dimness of sight.”
What I was not prepared for was the earthy sweet flavor that precedes the heat. The unique depth of flavor like nothing I’d ever tasted, so fleeting, exotic.
My hands tingled and my eyes burned every time I rubbed or scratched them for three days after processing a batch of the hot dried peppers.
We’ve grown them every summer since. Although we did purchase a small coffee grinder to process the skins; the blender was okay for the first time, but not recommended going forward; the little coffee grinder works great and produces a much finer powder.
Canned and frozen tomatoes and sauces from the garden bring the bright flavors of summer to winter meals, while the home-grown cayenne brings invigorating warmth to cold winter days. I’ve so enjoyed this personal farm-to-table journey with cayenne and its delicate flavors and blazing heat. And someday? I’m going to scatter all those seeds somewhere . . .
© Krystyn Hartman. Similar versions of this story with accompanying photos were published in Grand Valley Magazine (January 2016) and KA Confidential Magazine (2016).