It was black pepper, primarily, that inspired most of mans great explorations of the Middle Ages, including the discovery of America. Black pepper started America’s trade with the Orient and played an important role in the early days of the United States. On June 23, 1672, the first colonial American took an active part in spice trading: Boston-born Elihu Yale, later to give his name and wealth to the renowned University, arrived in Madras, India, as a clerk of the British East India Company. There he established contacts upon which he built a fortune in spices. In 1780, Jonathan Carnes broke Europe’s spice monopoly by dealing directly with the East Indies and bringing a shipload of pepper back to Salem, Massachusetts. From 1799 to 1846, pepper, worth many millions of dollars, was brought to Salem by daring Yankee skippers who founded America’s merchant marine.
Black pepper comes from the dried berry (called a peppercorn) of a woody, climbing vine. Its scientific name is Piper nigrum L. There is no relation to the pod peppers which give us sweet red and green peppers and the hot capsicum peppers (chili).
When Columbus dropped anchor in the New World in search of spices, he discovered chili peppers and made at least two mistakes we still live with. Thinking he was in India, he called native Americans Indians. He also named chilies peppers, thinking they were related to black pepper, Piper Nigrum, which they are not. The family of chili peppers is called Capsicum.
In the pre-Columbian tribes of Panama, the Shaman (spiritual medium) used Capsicum in combination with cacao and tobacco to enter into hallucinatory trances, in order to travel to the heavens or to the underworld. Today, the Cuna Indians of Panama burn capsicum so the irritating smoke will chase away evil spirits during a girl’s puberty ceremony. They also trail a string of capsicum behind their canoes to discourage sharks from attacking, thus providing the earliest insight into the possible use of capsicum as a shark repellent.
In southern Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula, capsicums have been part of the human diet since about 7500 B.C. and thus their use predates the two great central American civilizations, the Mayas and the Aztecs. From their original use as a spice collected in the wild, capsicums gained importance after their domestication, and were a significant food when the Olmec culture was developing around 1000 B.C. By the time the Mayas reached the peak of their civilization in southern Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula, around A.D. 500, they had a highly developed system of agriculture. Perhaps as many as thirty different varieties of Capsicum were cultivated.
The American wild chili peppers probably originated in present-day Bolivia by means of birds dispersing the seeds, and eventually spread throughout Central and South America. Chilies were a dominant part of early American diets. The archaeological record at Tehuacan, Mexico southeast of Mexico City, shows that wild peppers were eaten in Meso-America at least as far back as 7000 B.C., and were probably domesticated by 2500 B.C. To the Incas, chili peppers were one of the four brothers of the creation myth, Agar-Uchu or Brother Chili Pepper.
Chilies were discovered when the Spanish explorers came to the Caribbean. In the islands off the New World they found little red-colored vegetable pods which the natives used in cooking and which imparted a sharp bite to food. Peter Martyr, who came to America with Columbus in 1493, wrote, There are innumerable kinds of Agi (the Indian name for pod peppers), the variety whereof is known by their leaves and flowers. Some were red, some yellow, some violet, some brown, some white. They were of all shapes and sizes. The only aromatic plants Columbus found in the Western World however, were capsicums: plenty of Aji, (capsicum pepper), which is more valuable than black pepper, and allspice or pimenta, a tree whose leaf had the finest smell of cloves that I ever met with, thus wrote Dr. Diego Chanca of Columbus expedition.
The podded Capsicum family proved to be extremely adaptable when the explorers sent seeds back to Europe. In an amazingly short time, the cultivation of Capsicum pods spread to almost every part of the world. Moreover, in many places the pods developed different characteristics with regard to shape, color, size and pungency.
The arrival of capsicum from the New World coincided with the invasion of the Ottoman Turks and resulted in their spread throughout Central Europe. The armies of Suleyman the Magnificent conquered Syria and Egypt in 1516-17, Yugoslavia in 1521, and Hungary in 1526. The year 1526 is the date usually given for the introduction of the capsicum known as paprika into Hungary by the Turks. During this invasion a new crop was introduced to the land of the Magyars. The Turks called it Turkish Pepper, the Hungarians called it paparka, a variation on the Bulgarian piperka, which in turn was derived from the Latin piper, for pepper. The brilliant red powder we know as paprika comes from the dried pods (fruit) of the plant species Capsicum annuum L. As such, it is part of a botanical group that ranges from the sweet Bell peppers we eat as a vegetable to the very hottest of chilies. The Hungarian scientist, Dr. Szent Gyorgyi, who won a Nobel Prize in 1937 for his work on Vitamin C, found paprika pods to be one of the richest of all sources of absorbic acid (Vitamin C).
Capsicums are any solanaceous (nightshade species) plant of the genus capsicum, as C. frutescens, the common pepper of the garden occurring in many varieties that range from mild to hot, having pungent seeds enclosed in a podded or bell-shaped pericarp. The term Capsicum is a genus name encompassing twenty species and some 300 different varieties of plants producing fleshy vegetable pods. Botanically it is part of the family Solanaceae which also gives us tomatoes and tobacco. The three most important species of Capsicums are Capsicum annuum, Capsicum frutescens, and Capsicum fastigiatum. In consumer terms the Capsicum family gives us paprika and chili peppers.
Chili peppers come in many different shapes and sizes, though they all belong to the genus Capsicum. There are small, round and red chiltepins, which grow wild in Mexico and the Southwest and are harvested by millions each year for sale in the U.S. market. Mirasol is a brilliantly red pepper that, instead of hanging from the plant, grows straight up. Habaneros are green when unripe, and ripen to a bold orange or red.