Colonial Chocolate Spices: Chili Pepper
Visitors to Captain Jackson’s Historic Chocolate Shop are often surprised to discover that our colonial drinking chocolate is seasoned with eight different spices. American Heritage Historic Chocolate is flavored with cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg, chili pepper, anise, orange zest, salt, and annatto, as well as a small amount of sugar. We will be taking a closer look at each of these spices to explore their origins and uses in colonial American cooking.
Chili pepper gives our colonial drinking chocolate just the right amount of heat. The spicy flavor of chili peppers is one humans just can’t resist and is one of the world’s oldest and most popular seasonings. Chili peppers are most commonly the fruits of the Capsicum annuum plant, although several other species of Capsicum produce popular chili peppers as well. These small, shrub-like plants are members of the nightshade family, which also includes potatoes, tomatoes, and tobacco. Many varieties of the Capsicum annuum plant are cultivated to produce peppers with varying degrees of spicyness, from sweet bell peppers to hot cayenne peppers. The flesh and the seeds of the fruit are both consumed and are used fresh, cooked, or dried.
Chili peppers originated in central South America, but spread throughout South America and up through Mexico as early as 8000 years ago. Evidence indicates that people were farming chili peppers as early as 5000 BCE, making them one of the oldest human cultivated crops. Christopher Columbus gave chili peppers their name after mistakenly assuming they were related to black pepper, which they are not. He brought the seeds back to Europe, where they were initially grown as ornamental plants because Europeans were not accustomed to their spicy flavor. The Portuguese spread chili pepper plants along their trade routes to India and Africa, and the plants were soon grown throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia. Today they are grown around the world in both tropical and temperate climates.
Chili peppers were cultivated early in the American colonies, and both sweet and spicy varieties were used in colonial recipes. Sweet bell peppers were used primarily to make pickles from their thick, mild flesh and were grown at Thomas Jefferson’s estate likely for this purpose. Spicy cayenne peppers were used to season sauces, meat, and seafood dishes. In the winter of 1779, Lieutenant Thomas Anburey, an English prisoner of war, wrote that “many officers, to comfort themselves, put red peppers into water, to drink by way of a cordial.” It was also noted in the colonial period that chili pepper plants were an attractive and showy addition to a garden, especially relative to the amount of space they take up, so they could be used as both an ornamental and edible crop. Chili pepper was used to season chocolate long before the beverage was first introduced to Europe, with the Aztecs adding a lot of chili to their chocolate to create a very spicy drink. It continued to be used as a chocolate flavoring in Europe, although Europeans enjoyed their chocolate considerably less spicy than the Aztecs did. In the American colonies, chocolate was made using recipes similar to those used in England, which often included just enough chili pepper to give the beverage a bit of heat.