Peppers: Vegetable and Spice Capsicums

Peppers: Vegetable and Spice Capsicums
Paul W. Bosland and Eric J. Votava
New York: CABI Publishing
Publication Date: 

paper, 204 p., $45

This thorough survey of Capsicums covers genetics, taxonomy, cultivation and more with the masterful touch of Paul Bosland (whose pickup truck's license plate reads Chileman) and colleague Eric Votava of New Mexico State University. This book provides a current overview of a plant that revolutionized the world's cuisine within a few years of its discovery by Columbus in 1492. The authors summarize very nearly everything one needs to know about this fascinating genus, and the book's extensive references point the reader to state-of-the-art information on all aspects of Capsicums.

Columbus realized immediately that he had discovered not the expensive black pepper of the spice trade monopoly but a culinary star, which spread rapidly around the globe, enriching the cuisine of every continent. For details of the tasty consequences of Columbus' find, the reader will be led by the references herein and natural curiosity to the rich and more consumer-oriented literature of the subject.

A good place to start further exploration is in the two works written by Mr. Bosland with Dave DeWitt. The Pepper Garden (Berkeley, Calif.: Ten Speed Press, 1993) is mostly about growing peppers, and Peppers of the World (Berkeley, Calif.: Ten Speed Press, 1996) specializes in identifying the outstanding cultivars of the five cultivated species. Thus fortified with the pluses and pitfalls of pepper planting, the reader will certainly want to befriend Jean Andrews, The Pepper Lady™, who has written with authority and charm about these plants, especially the spicy ones called chiles, for which she prefers the early Spanish rendering chillis. Ms. Andrews burst upon the chile scene with her 1984 classic Peppers: The Domesticated Capsicums (Austin: University of Texas Press), revised in 1995. After visually feasting on her gorgeous paintings of prominent peppers, the reader will get a good grounding not in the science of these plants but the course of their world travels, with recipes. Her 1998 The Pepper Lady's Pocket Pepper Primer (Austin: University of Texas Press) does justice to its title and features her skilled photographs. There is much more on the culinary scene, especially the works of the chef Mark Miller including The Great Chile Book(Berkeley, Calif.: Ten Speed Press, 1991), The Great Salsa Book (Berkeley, Calif.: Ten Speed Press, 1994) and his ubiquitous pepper pictorial posters.

Dave DeWitt's The Chile Pepper Encyclopedia (New York: William Morrow, 1999) has already found an enthusiastic audience, also with a world tour of pepper lore and cuisine. For a passionate personal pepper peregrination, nothing surpasses Amal Naj's Peppers: A Story of Hot Pursuits (New York: Knopf, 1992). The author begins with childhood reminiscences of India and takes us through interviews with scientists and medical specialists. For many, the highlight of this book is his trek with botanist Hardy Eshbaugh through the Andes in search of the ancestral pepper.

Children now have their own pepper books, such as Elizabeth King's Chile Fever: A Celebration of Peppers(New York: Dutton's Children's Books, 1995), centered on the families who produce peppers in New Mexico. Medical science is also active, not only with dozens of technical papers annually but also with pharmaceuticals such as those used for treating intractable pain.

The world has been enriched by this genus of plants that Columbus first brought to the world's attention. The explorer, not uniquely, never benefited from this and other culinary discoveries and died in ignominy. Today the least we can do to thank this benefactor of world cuisine is to recognize the blessings he has bestowed on the diets of billions.

- John Swenson, Plant Collector and Master Gardener at the Chicago Botanic Garden.