LOGAN SQUARE — A little-known, nearly extinct hot pepper will be popping up on menus around town starting Thursday, thanks to the efforts of one woman set on reversing its fate.
The Beaver Dam pepper will be featured in dishes through Sunday at Big Jones in Andersonville, Billy Sunday in Logan Square and Green Zebra in West Town, among other restaurants. Whole Foods stores and shops, including City Olive, the Dill Pickle Co-Op and Green Grocer will do pepper tastings. And it will star in a community potluck Sunday at Scrumptious Pantry, 3230 W. Fullerton Ave., a purveyor of artisanal and heirloom foods from small farms.
The goal for Scrumptious Pantry founder Lee Greene, who organized the events: "to get people excited about the concept of heirlooms and trying something new, so we can eat it to save it."
It has been a long while since anyone's made a fuss over the pleasantly spicy Beaver Dam pepper.
A Hungarian immigrant named Joe Hussli brought the pepper to Beaver Dam, Wis., in 1912. It isn't easy to grow — it needs space and trellises. Over time, farmers and gardeners gave up on it, until it resurfaced on the nonprofit Slow Food USA's Ark of Taste, a catalog of more than 200 "distinctive and meaningful foods" on the verge of extinction.
Greene learned of the pepper in 2010 while looking through the Ark of Taste, which she likens to "going to a rescue shelter for dogs and cats — you want to take them all home."
The Beaver Dam pepper "has such a unique taste, it looks absolutely stunning, and people don't grow it anymore," Greene said. "It's the best example of the fate all these heirlooms face."
She asked around to see who grew it. Farmers pointed her to John Hendrickson of Stone Circle Farm in Reeseville, Wis.
"I called him and said, 'I hear you grow the pepper. He laughed and said, 'I have two plants in my front yard.'"
Hendrickson started growing peppers for Greene in 2011. Last year, she partnered with a second Wisconsin farm, Good Earth Farm. Pickled Beaver Dams are part of Scrumptious Pantry's product line.
The two farms supplied peppers to the Chicago restaurants using them this week.
Home cooks interested in bringing a dish to the Sunday potluck at Scrumptious Pantry can find the peppers at the Montalbano Farms, Majestic Nursery and Radical Root stands at Green City Market on Wednesday, and the Logan Square Farmers Market on Sunday. Cost of the peppers wil range from 50 cents to $1 apiece, depending on the size.
Alison Parker, who owns Radical Root Farm in north surburban Grayslake with her husband, said the Beaver Dam is more challenging to grow and not as bountiful as other pepper plants, but they're "really worth the trouble."
"It has different layers of flavor," she said. "It's not just a one-dimensional pepper."
Backyard gardeners who want to try their hand at the Beaver Dam can find seed packets online for about $3.
Greene's next pet project, or rather, fruit: the pawpaw, which is indigenous to the United States and tastes like a cross between a mango and banana. She is planning similar events for the holidays as well as a line of fruit curds.
Click here for more details on Scrumptious Pantry's Beaver Dam Pepper Celebration.