Jimmy Nardello: Interesting Man, Interesting Pepper

Local Slow Food Portland Chapter Member Cristin Couzens recently discovered the Jimmy Nardello Pepper from Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste. In this guest post, she recounts her chile history, along with the chile’s own story. For more of her vegetable musings, you can visit her blog: theweeklyveggie.com

The first time I ate a fajita was at Chili’s.  It was 1989 and I was on a date.  I had big hair and braces, and might have been wearing overalls.  But I hope not.

Before Chili’s opened on Route 9 in Framingham, Massachusetts, our American teen version of Mecca, we called it Chiji’s.  I mean really, if “Chili’s” hadn’t been pounded into your brain by countless hours of mass-marketing, when you first saw the neon sign glistening along the “golden mile” of retail nirvana, wouldn’t you call it Chijis?

Anyway, Chili’s had red pepper lights strung up across the bar.  At the time, it never occurred to me that these pepper lights actually reflected pepper reality.  Or that a pepper could be so loved that its seeds would be carried from a remote region of Italy across the ocean by boat to Connecticut, grown anew with each generation, to end up in an Oregon farmers’ market 120 years later.

But that’s exactly what happened to the Jimmy Nardello pepper.

Jimmy was of the first Nardello generation born in America. The fourth of 11 kids, he was the only one to inherit his mother’s love of peppers.  In Naugatuck, he built terraces like they did in the hillsides of Southern Italy.  He nourished his peppers and dried them so they could be enjoyed in winter.  For more on Jimmy Nardello and his pepper passion, click here.

Before Jimmy died in 1983, he donated his pepper seeds to Seed Savers Exchange, where they’ve been stewards of the pepper for nearly thirty years.  The Jimmy Nardello Sweet Italian Frying Pepper, now its official name, is listed in the US Ark of Taste at Slow Food, the vegetable version of the endangered species list.

Like my family, who first immigrated to the US then emigrated to all points West, the Nardellos didn’t all stay in Connecticut.  A distant relative of Jimmy, now living in Pennsylvania, commented on a recent Jimmy Nardello Pepper blog post :

“We also string and dry these so-called Nardello peppers and use them every Christmas Eve, served with fried smelts and baccala. This is one of our traditions. They’re delicious; they taste like a peppery pop-corn. Of course, they’re fried, after they’ve been dried.” –C.Sabia Smith

How cool is that? A piece of Nardello family tradition to go along with the pepper courtesy of Al Gore’s invention, the internet.

At New Season’s Market Day in Raleigh Hills, I picked up a collection of Jimmy Nardello and other sweet peppers in various states of maturity from Lilly’s Blooming Acres .   They were perfect for “Flank Steak Fajitas with Interesting Peppers” from the Farm to Table Cookbook.  They held their shape, crunch, and sweetness after frying, perfectly complementing the medium-rare flank steak.  I can only imagine how good the peppery popcorn taste of the fried dried version is.

Gathering Together Farm had a bunch of mature Nardello’s last week – in perfect drying and frying condition.  You’re supposed to choose the ones that look like a pig’s ear.


Not having pigs, I had to look up what a pig’s ear actually looks like.


I think the one right there in the front kinda looks like a pig’s ear.

If there are more at the market this week, I’ll try stringing some up to dry (which you do by running a needle and thread through the stem, not the pepper.)  I can hang them across my kitchen bar while listening to the Footloose soundtrack and wearing overalls.  It’ll be like 1989 all over again, minus the perm. But this time, instead of supporting mass-produced American bar food, I’ll be saving a piece of pepper history.

Thanks for sharing

  1. Annelise Kelly
    Annelise Kelly11-27-2009

    It’s a pleasure to learn the history of a variety–one that I doubt I’ve encountered yet. And including a picture of a pig’s ear–now that’s above and beyond the call of duty. Thanks!