Now here’s a hot summertime read: A study of peppers, and how they pep up Latin food

Read this cookbook: “Peppers of the Americas: The Remarkable Capsicums that Forever Changed Flavor” by Maricel E. Presilla (Lorena Jones Books/Ten Speed Press, $35)

 

By Wendell Brock

Of all the foods that the Americas gave the world – from corn and quinoa to cacao and peanuts – peppers are among the most vivid, varied, prolific and peripatetic.

Maricel E. Presilla, the Cuban-born chef who has won James Beard Awards for both her cooking (at Cucharamama in Hoboken, N.J.) and her writing (the masterful “Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America”), now applies her scholarly rigor, and considerable cooking skills, to capsicum.

Starting around 2009, Presilla began to cultivate peppers in her New Jersey garden (and driveway). This exquisite new volume is the result of her personal journey in the piquant.

About 180 cultivars are catalogued in the “Gallery of Fresh Peppers” (with photographs by Romulo Yanes). There are essays on the history, heat factor, nomenclature, agriculture and global spread of the prickly and powerful pepper.

Whether carried by birds or Spanish explorers, peppers, which are believed to have originated some 15 or 20 millennia ago in central Bolivia, have traveled the earth, from the Americas to Europe, Africa and Asia.

As an authority on Latin-American cuisines, Presilla naturally stays focused on her sphere of expertise, which is formidable.

Her recipes are pretty fabulous, too.

From simple peppers in vinegar (which show up all over the Americas) to salsas, pickles, ceviches, paellas, omelets, stews, soups, moles, tamales and so on, peppers bring smoke, spice, heat and mystery to food.

Among the more beguiling recipes here: Slab Bacon in Hibiscus Hot Pepper Adobo with Chocolate; Chile Rajas with Epazote, Milk, and Cheese; and simple spikes of fresh fruit with Guatemalan Chile Coban and Cacao Condiment.

If this woman can grow more than 500 kinds of peppers at her Northeastern home, imagine what you, reader, can do in the long growing season of the American South?

Presilla’s account of her early, pre-capsicum gardening efforts – which resulted in “my own little shop of horrors, an aromatic menace with mint, lemon balm and epazote dominating every inch of my yard” – reminds me of my own gardening hazards.

And her pursuit of pepper inspires me: to grow more types of capsicums, and to preserve and cook with them. Like Betty Fussell’s “The Story of Corn,” Presilla’s work is essential to our understanding of an ingredient that’s native to the Americas. It’s also absorbing and just plain fun: a hot summertime read for pepper people everywhere.

Wendell Brock is an Atlanta food and culture writer, frequent AJC contributor and winner of a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award for journalism. Follow him on Twitter (@MrBrock) and Instagram (@WendellDavidBrock).

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