2000s Archive

Pepper Pilgrimage

Originally Published January 2005
Time was, a craving for pimientos de Padrón could be satisfied only in Spain. Then along came a gardener from New Jersey

Agustin Picado had been there all along. While I was lamenting the tragic impossibility of finding pimientos de Padrón outside of Galicia, the province of Spain that lies just above Portugal, Agustin Picado was busy growing the little wonders in his backyard in North Arlington, New Jersey, not half an hour away from where I live. Unaware of his presence, I’d complained enough about my pimientos de Padrón deprivation to provoke the occasional suggestion that I just move to Spain and be done with it. Ordinarily, I respond to suggestions about living anywhere other than lower Manhattan by paraphrasing what Ed Koch, then the mayor of New York, once said when asked if he planned to run for governor: There aren’t any decent Chinese restaurants in Albany. In this case, though, I’d sometimes start thinking about the food that actually is available in Galicia-not only pimientos de Padrón but caldo gallego and those Galician empanadas that are more like savory pies and a dizzying array of shellfish-and begin wondering what a modest dwelling, convenient to the market in Santiago de Compostela, would set someone back these days. How complicated could the logistics of sending over a Chinese food fix from Mott Street every so often really be?

The last time I was in Galicia, I attended the pimiento de Padrón festival, held in the heart of the pimiento patch, not far from Santiago (Gourmet, November 1999)—a truly splendid event, marred for me only by the haunting thought that this would probably be my last go at pimientos de Padrón for a good long while. Otherwise, I would have been a thoroughly happy man as I downed plates of pimientos de Padrón-digit-size green peppers that had been tossed in hot oil and then sprinkled with coarse salt-accompanied by broa, the heavy cornmeal bread that Galicia shares with Portugal, and, of course, the octopus, or pulpo, that certifies any event in Galicia as a serious celebration.

That day, ironically, I even conjured up the vision of a pepper grower who, at least geographically, had something in common with Agustin Picado. I fantasized meeting an entrepreneur who was quite aware that the peppers Gallegos began cultivating in the 18th century at a monastery near the town of Padrón had been brought from the New World in the first place. He figured that there was no reason why they couldn’t be grown more or less back where they came from—say, New Jersey—and sold to Manhattan restaurants, including one or two quite convenient to my house. As backup to this daydream, I had secured in my luggage several packs of seeds to send to Alice Waters, who, both at Chez Panisse in Berkeley and in her efforts nationally for sustainable agriculture, has an interest in any promising new ingredient. As much as I would like to believe that fantasies can come true, it made me feel more secure to be carrying some seeds that I could be certain were actually going to get put in the ground.

It might surprise you to know that there is a fairly large Galician community in and around the Newark, New Jersey, area,” said a letter I received a year or so—a pepperless year or so—after I’d returned from the pimientos de Padrón festival. “There, you will find many a garden where the tiny pimientos de Padrón are the gardener’s most cherished crop. There are many very good Spanish restaurants in Newark, but I don’t know of any that serve these pimientos.” The letter was from a woman named Juanita Martinez, who lives in Massachusetts. Just after dashing my hopes with the grim news that even the Spanish restaurants in a city with a large Galician population did not serve the objects of my desire, she informed me, a couple of paragraphs later, that one of the backyard pepper cultivators happened to be her cousin, Agustin Picado, and that he produced enough peppers to ship shoeboxes full of them to his relatives in other cities. The Picados, she said, would be happy to have me over for a pepper feast after the harvest. For the first time, I thought I could appreciate what it must have felt like for a socially ambitious resident of late-19th-century New York to receive an invitation for tea from Mrs. Astor.

Then there was a misunderstanding—the equivalent of being so excited by Mrs. Astor’s invitation that you show up on the wrong afternoon. Somehow, I got the impression later in the letter that pimientos de Padrón are harvested in North Arlington at about the same time they’re harvested around Padrón—in late July and early August, when, as it happens, I’m always out of the country—and therefore that fate had robbed me once again of being able to gobble up the peppers that I believed to be rightfully mine. It turned out, though, that in the New World—at least in the New Jersey portion of the New World—pimientos de Padrón tend to be harvested throughout the month of August, and this year, because of inclement weather, the season stretched a couple of weeks past Labor Day. Which is why I was making my way toward Agustin Picado’s house one sunny Sunday in the middle of September. In the car with me was Alice Waters, who had indeed passed on the seeds from Galicia to one of the farmers she works with, and had actually acquired enough peppers to put them on the menu at Chez Panisse for a few days—but not any of the days, as it turned out, that I was in California. She’d assured me, though, that sooner or later there would be enough peppers to have a pimientos de Padrón festival on Shattuck Avenue, in front of Chez Panisse. I had enough faith in her to invite her to the Picados’ feast—risking the possibility that, given a peculiarly wet growing season, the crop might be so small that any addition to the party could mean fewer peppers for me.

When we arrived at Agustin Picado’s house in North Arlington—a solid brick structure in a street of small, carefully mowed lawns and numerous American flags—my first glimpse of the yard made me think that the pepper supply could indeed be limited. When I’d read about shoeboxes full of peppers, I had envisioned a backyard totally under cultivation, without enough unplanted space for so much as a lawn chair. But most of the Picados’ backyard had been covered in concrete to create a patio. There was a narrow strip of garden along one side—it was thick with the plants I recognized as pimientos de Padrón—and another strip along the back that seemed to be devoted to vegetables like onions and tomatoes and broccoli and cabbage. A dozen or so people were standing on the patio, around a table covered with food. They were quite amiable in greeting us, but I’m afraid I saw them as competitors for a finite number of pimientos de Padrón.

I needn’t have worried. Alice later explained to me one of the underlying truths she tries to get across in talking to people about growing fresh food: When it comes to gardens, small is mighty. A modest vegetable garden in the backyard is capable of producing more vegetables than most families are able to eat. In the patch of dirt Agustin Picado devotes to his principal crop, he can squeeze in 37 plants. Each of those, he estimates, produces about 150 peppers. I didn’t have a pocket calculator available to do the math precisely—it comes out, I later discovered, to 5,550 peppers—but just a rough estimate made me feel a lot more secure. Any doubts I had about the abundance issue evaporated when Agustin’s wife, Esperanza, appeared, wearing an apron with the recipe for pulpo a la gallega on it, and placed a huge bowl of pimientos de Padrón on the table. The first pepper I ate transported me back to the pimientos de Padrón festival, and not simply because of the exquisite taste: I’d been nervous about getting my fair share in Padrón, too.

The people on the patio turned out to be the Picados’ extended family—a daughter and son-in-law, grandchildren, some cousins (including Juanita Martinez and her husband and their daughter), some close friends. They were not limiting themselves to pimientos de Padrón. North Arlington is within striking distance of the Ironbound, the Newark district that has evolved into a great center of Portuguese and Spanish and Brazilian and Central American food. Fish stores in the Ironbound get a shipment of fresh sardines from Portugal every Thursday, and Juanita’s husband was grilling some of those in the corner of the yard. The table also held olives and roasted red peppers and fried squid and a couple of kinds of cheese and Spanish chorizo—much of it purchased at a wholesale importer called Olé Olé Foods, which opens its warehouse in nearby Belleville to retail shoppers on the second Saturday of every month.

We all used the same method for eating peppers. We picked them up by the stem, bit off the pepper, and, encouraged by Agustin, threw the stem into the garden—a mulch operation, in a manner of speaking. But just about everybody on the patio had a different method of eating sardines, plus a persuasive rap about why it was the best method available. Everyone began by peeling off the skin, in quick strokes meant to avoid burnt fingers, and everyone put the sardine on a piece of coarse white bread. Then came the division in tactics: Should you just put the sardine on the bread and eat around the bone, flipping the bread over halfway through the sardine to allow the dark sardine residue to soak into both sides equally? Should you remove the bone, put the sardine on the bread in lumps, and add roasted peppers on top? Or how about pimientos de Padrón on top instead of roasted peppers? Eager to be a good guest, I tried every method at least once. Then I said quietly to Alice that a family that has serious discussions about how best to consume sardines is my sort of family.

Agustin Picado himself turned out to be a competent-looking man of 70, who, like a lot of people who grew up in Galicia—in his case, in the town of Betanzos—took advantage of the Atlantic Ocean’s proximity to leave early for the New World. (Many Gallegos fetched up in Cuba, and so many got to Argentina that Argentines often use the words gallegos and españoles interchangeably.) Like a lot of Galicians, Agustin has a long story to tell about his travels, and he’s teased a lot by his family for a tendency to tell it without leaving anything out. The last part of the story is, for a Galician, pretty sedentary. Until his retirement a few years ago, Agustin spent more than 35 years operating heavy equipment at the Port of Newark. Since his retirement, he has had more time to baby along his peppers, giving them the sort of care ordinarily associated with the agronomy of controlled substances.

As I threw the stem of my 30th or 40th pepper into the garden and tried to decide whether I had room for one more sardine as a completion to a marvelous feast, Esperanza Picado astonished me by informing the assembled that supper was ready inside. There, in a recreation room whose decorations included an aerial picture of Betanzos and a team picture of the R. C. Deportivo de La Coruña soccer team of 1994-95, we tucked into yet another feast—shrimp, octopus, chicken, empanadas of pork and of squid, and, of course, vegetables from Agustin’s other garden. When we finished, I felt as if I’d come within a bite or two of breaking the wise rule of nutrition set out by Miss Piggy: Never eat more than you can lift.

On the way back to Manhattan, Alice couldn’t quit talking about the sardines—a fish, she said, that is ordinarily underappreciated in this country. Given her enthusiasm about a simply grilled fresh sardine, it wouldn’t surprise me to see a sardine festival on Shattuck Avenue one of these days. I couldn’t quit talking about the peppers. Agustin had given me half a shopping bag full to take home, and I was thinking of who, among the people I know, deserved to share them—assuming, of course, that I didn’t decide to lock the doors and windows, pull down the shades, turn off the telephone, and eat them all myself. I was also thinking that, whatever Agustin’s family says, those are good stories he tells about visiting his brothers in Uruguay and Brazil and working for a while among his cousins in Cuba and finding work here on the lower span of the George Washington Bridge and putting in all those years at the Port of Newark. I’d be happy to listen to Agustin’s stories anytime, particularly anytime in early September.

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