Most books devoted to heirloom peppers will tell you that ‘Scotch Bonnet’ peppers are from Jamaica and that they represent a recent addition to the American spice cabinet. In fact, they have been here for a long time, and the earliest ‘Bonnet’ peppers that reached our shores were not from Jamaica. That fascinating story has only recently unfolded as a result of my ongoing research into the history of Philadelphia cuisine and especially its flavorful heritage of pepper pot soups (yes, there is more than one kind!). However, permit me to observe at this stage of the pepper story that more archival work needs to be done, at least to pin down dates and biographical data, yet it all traces back to pepper pot soup and what went into it once it was ready to serve.
As you might gather from the name, pepper pot soup is spicy; beyond that, it can be composed of almost anything because the recipes are as variable as the whims of each cook. In Philadelphia, pepper pot was originally a street food, a soup sold in the late 1700s by vendors: mostly women of color of Caribbean origin. It was generally made with tripe and secondary animal parts, like beef shins: throw-away ingredients not considered worthy of first class cookery. Yet, as a one-pot poverty dish, pepper pot was wonderfully adaptable and, of course, highly flavored peppers were one of the defining ingredients.
Contrary to popular myth, pepper pot was not invented for George Washington at Valley Forge; that little marketing myth was created in 1926 by the Campbell Soup Company in an effort to infuse its canned, factory-made pepper pot with a more distinguished and patriotic origin. Real hand-made Philadelphia pepper pot based on tripe is an off-shoot of Latino mondongo (a type of tripe soup notable as a cure for hangovers), yet the Pennsylvania Historical Society owns many manuscript recipes from the 1700s showcasing other ingredients, even sea turtles and sunflower buds (cooked like artichokes). The oldest recipe discovered thus far bears the date 1767 (which demolishes the Valley Forge myth), but the pepper part of the recipes are often vague. Enter the orange ‘Scotch Bonnet.’
The classic Philadelphia mode of adding heat to pepper pot, turtle soup, stewed terrapin and shellfish dishes was to add it at table in the form of pepper sherry or pepper Madeira. This finishing touch is what lifted the street food from grubby ceramic bowls (the street soup was sold by the bowlful) into the realm of high class silver tureens. Philadelphia style pepper sherry was made with orange ‘Scotch Bonnets’ brought to Pennsylvania from Haiti. The classic smoky flavor of those close relatives of the ‘Habañero’ pepper became de rigueur in all forms of Philadelphia seafood and turtle cookery, even to this day. Private social clubs like the Union League, the Philadelphia Club and The State in Schuylkill still maintain pepper sherry on their menus.
The heroine of our pepper story is Elizabeth Beauveau who in 1802, along with her five daughters, escaped a slave rebellion in Haiti and who brought ‘Scotch Bonnet’ pepper seeds with her from Cap Français. Madam Beauveau already owned a house in Philadelphia because she and her merchant husband (who did not survive the rebellion) had been moving back and forth seasonally between Philadelphia and Haiti in connection with their trade in sugar and other Caribbean products. Since the 1780s, the family had been exporting pepper Madeira to Philadelphia for the carriage trade, as wealthy customers were then known, and Madam Beauveau cashed in on her Philadelphia social connections when she arrived as a displaced, although not altogether poor, émigré.
Madam transformed her elegant townhouse into a French boarding house, planted her pepper seeds in a large kitchen garden behind the property and went into the business of making pepper sherry for the local market: including hoteliers, chefs and caterers. Her daughter Sophie married J. J. Borie (another French émigré) in 1808 and carried on the pepper sherry business by moving the peppers into hothouses at their Eaglesfield Farm in what is now Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. Short, plump and disciplinarian, Madam Borie became famous in Philadelphia for her rich eccentricities and her manorial French house with French-speaking servants but most of all for her orange ‘Scotch Bonnet’ peppers that were guarded like royal crown jewels. This unique pepper was the secret ingredient in the family’s pepper sherry which Madam Borie marketed under the brand name “Borie’s Pepper Sherry.” No one to date has been able to locate a bottle with an original label — that would be gold indeed for any eBay auction!
The truth of the matter is that the Bories did not use cheap sherry early on, rather Rainwater Madeira and other distinguished wines that together with fresh bay leaves, a few garlic cloves and perhaps one or two allspice berries, created a mellow and altogether distinctive flavoring agent for sophisticated soups and shellfish dishes. Later on, as the family went into financial decline, less expensive sherries were substituted. Still, the family was able to market its unique pepper sherry into the 1980s when the sherry was still being sold by John Wagner and Sons, a one-time Philadelphia culinary institution that specialized in teas, private label wines and high end food products.
Borie’s Pepper Sherry is still being made informally by the chefs of private clubs, but the family no longer manages to produce it. The original strain of orange ‘Scotch Bonnets’ brought to Pennsylvania in 1802 has gone extinct within the last ten years. And while pepper sherry may seem to some readers effete, its total identity was keyed to a rare heirloom now lost. This should remind us how little time we have left to preserve the culinary treasures that once defined the unique roots of the cuisine we now call American.
William Woys Weaver is an internationally known food historian, author, and heirloom gardener living in Devon, Pennsylvania.