Larry Hussli never met his grandfather, Joe. But, every summer, he pays homage to his memory by planting up to 400 pepper plants in his garden and sharing their fruits with anyone who is interested in tasting them.
"He died the year before I was born. I never got to talk with him," Hussli says. "He was German Hungarian; he came from Germany originally and then went to Hungary. The First World War was starting to come up. My grandfather was in the army, and he worked under a general who told him that war was imminent."
And that's when Joe Hussli came to the United States. Among his valuables, he brought with him seeds from a Hungarian pepper plant that had been eaten by his family for generations. When he settled in Beaver Dam, Joe started sharing the seeds with his neighbors – Beaver Dam Pepper took its name from Beaver Dam.
"The seeds are something that we've always saved," Hussli recalls. "My uncle says the seeds all came from his dad, and he shared them with some of the others in Beaver Dam. I have traced back the pepper's roots to the 1700s in Apatin, Hungary."
Although he didn't know him personally, Hussli followed in his grandfather's footsteps, assisting his father with the cultivation of the peppers, which they sold by the dozen to area families and farmers.
"I didn't always love the work, but I did love the peppers," Hussli recalls. "And I was fortunate that I learned to raise them myself."
Hussli, now 71, says he cans about 60 pints of the peppers during a good growing year, but he loves the peppers best when they're eaten raw. He regularly slides them into sandwiches, accompanied by liver sausage or a fried egg.
Due to the peppers' larger size, he also reports that they're good for stuffing. Hussli has eaten them stuffed with soft Wisconsin cheese and even peanut butter.
"I'm very experimental," he says. "I've tried them all kinds of ways."
But, despite its delicious flavor, the once popular Beaver Dam Pepper eventually fell out of favor with large-scale farmers, who found it more labor intensive to cultivate than hybrid varietals, and the pepper was threatened with extinction. Fortunately, it was rediscovered by Slow Food and included in the Ark of Taste, a list of precious heirloom varieties that are at risk of extinction.
Lee Greene, owner of The Scrumptious Pantry, a gourmet food manufacturer in northern Illinois, read about the Beaver Dam Pepper on the Slow Food Ark of Taste when researching Wisconsin heirloom varietals to use in her Midwestern line of heirloom pickles. She was particularly interested in the pepper due to its rich history and distinctive flavor profile.
"Many of the fruits and vegetables we are used to finding widely available are not native to the U.S. They were brought by the immigrants, the settlers," Greene explains. "They came with their hopes and dreams in their bundles – and some seeds tucked in their garments.
"Not only do they have historical value, they are delicious. Those are varietals that are untouched by lab experiments and breeding. Those are the flavors and textures fruits and vegetables are supposed to have. That diversity in tastes is what makes heirloom varieties so valuable."
After months of networking, Greene found two small farms in Wisconsin – Stone Circle Farm and Good Earth Farm – that had some experience growing the pepper.
"I love peppers, and so I decided to trial a number of unique varietals," says John Hendrickson of Stone Circle Farm in Reeseville, in Dodge County.
"The Beaver Dam immediately caught my eye in the Seed Savers catalog because I used to live in Beaver Dam and our farm is located about 20 miles south of there. During this trial year I was unable to find a reliable market for the Beaver Dam peppers and so did not continue growing them. In 2010, I decided to try growing them again.
"That year, out of the blue, I was contacted by Lee, who was looking for the Beaver Dam pepper. It was synchronicity. Since then, we have expanded from growing just two dozen plants to thousands and producing well over two tons of the peppers."
Greene worked with both farms to grow experimental quantities in 2011, putting up around 2,000 jars of pickled Beaver Dam Peppers. In 2012 the production quadrupled and, due to the peppers popularity among customers, Greene is currently looking for two more farms to add to the The Scrumptious Pantry network of growers in 2013.
In an effort to mark the 100th anniversary of the Beaver Dam Pepper being hand-carried from Hungary to Beaver Dam, The Scrumptious Pantry has teamed up with Slow Food Wisconsin Southeast to present a series of events celebrating the rare heirloom pepper. The Beaver Dam Pepper Centennial Celebration, which will take place this weekend, Sept. 28-30, will offer curious consumers the opportunity to sample this mildly spicy pepper at participating restaurants and in-store tastings.
"Preserving heirloom varieties and traditional foods is an integral part of creating a food system that makes fair, clean and good food," said Slow Food Wisconsin Southeast's Biodiversity Chair Jennifer Casey. "Biodiversity in our food system has dramatically decreased over the past several decades due to an industry preference for standardization and mono-cropping. Rare produce varieties, heritage breeds, singular culinary techniques – from all over the world – have been lost by the thousands.
"Small farmers, chefs, gardeners, conservationists, non-profits and eaters are working together to revive diversity through efforts like Slow Food's Ark of Taste and Renewing America's Food Traditions and through everyday efforts like patronizing small markets and restaurants and home growing, cooking and preserving."
At the heart of the Beaver Dam Pepper Centennial Celebration is the Tour de Menu. Local chefs, including Dave Swanson from Braise, Dan van Rite and Paul Funk from Hinterland and Matt Kerley from The Rumpus Room, will feature the Beaver Dam Pepper in menu specials from Sept. 28-30. G. Groppi, Glorioso's and Sendik's food markets will also host demonstrations and in-store tastings.
"I hope that many people will learn about the pepper, fall in love with its taste and want to grow it in their gardens," Greene says. "I hope that they will go to their local farmers and ask them to grow the peppers next year, and that they'll ask their favorite chefs to use them, so they will ask their farmers to grow it for them. We need to eat it to save it!"
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.