Hot Peppers: The Story of Cajuns and Capsicum


Smitten by a love of hot peppers, journalist Richard Schweid traveled to the capital of the U.S. hot sauce industry, New Iberia, Louisiana. This is Cajun country, and capsicum (as hot peppers are known botanically) thrive in the region's salty, oil-rich soil like nowhere else. At once an entertaining exploration of the history and folklore that surround hot peppers and a fascinating look at the industry built around the fiery crop, Schweid's book also offers a sympathetic portrait of a culture and a people in the...

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Smitten by a love of hot peppers, journalist Richard Schweid traveled to the capital of the U.S. hot sauce industry, New Iberia, Louisiana. This is Cajun country, and capsicum (as hot peppers are known botanically) thrive in the region's salty, oil-rich soil like nowhere else. At once an entertaining exploration of the history and folklore that surround hot peppers and a fascinating look at the industry built around the fiery crop, Schweid's book also offers a sympathetic portrait of a culture and a people in the midst of economic and social change.

This edition of Hot Peppers has been thoroughly updated and includes some twenty-five recipes for such deliciously spicy dishes as crawfish etouffee, jambalaya, and okra shrimp gumbo.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

A publishing event to celebrate.

The Southern Register

There is an ease and charm to Schweid's reporting, rather like that of Calvin Trillin of the New Yorker.


[An] informal, eminently readable book.

Los Angeles Times Book Review

Entertaining and informative.

Library Journal

It no doubt contains more information about the culture, processing and use of red peppers than any other single source.

New Orleans Times-Picayune

From the Publisher
A publishing event to celebrate.

The Southern Register

There is an ease and charm to Schweid's reporting, rather like that of Calvin Trillin of the New Yorker.


[An] informal, eminently readable book.

Los Angeles Times Book Review

Entertaining and informative.

Library Journal

It no doubt contains more information about the culture, processing and use of red peppers than any other single source.

New Orleans Times-Picayune

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807848265
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 11/8/1999
  • Series: Chapel Hill Books Series
  • Edition description: Revised Edition
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 184
  • Product dimensions: 5.57 (w) x 9.26 (h) x 0.48 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard Schweid is a journalist and author who lives in Barcelona, Spain. His other books include Catfish and the Delta: Confederate Fish Farming in the Mississippi Delta, Barcelona: Jews, Transvestites, and an Olympic Season, and The Cockroach Papers.

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Read an Excerpt

Hot Peppers

The Story of Cajuns and Capsicum
By Richard Schweid

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 1999 University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8078-4826-5

Chapter One

To New Iberia

A seeming paradox of the human condition is that pleasure and pain are parts of the same sensory spectrum, and that there is no clear division between them. Physical passion, a plunge into icy water, the heat of a steam bath, and the bite of a hot pepper are examples of things that can be experienced as either pain or pleasure, depending on the circumstances and tastes of a given individual. All of them produce sudden, sharp sensations that stimulate briefly and can be relied on to pass rapidly.

Hot peppers are used the world over to enhance almost every imaginable diet, from rice and a handful of vegetables to elaborate dishes. Their use is limited by neither race nor social class. Among the people who take pleasure from their piquancy are commoners and kings, capitalists and communists, gourmets and hobos. Archaeological evidence proves that peppers were eaten in Mexico nine thousand years ago, and they are the American continent's most popular contribution to the world's kitchen.

Despite the fact that hot peppers are indigenous to the Americas, and that certain varieties will grow well as far north as the Canadian border, there are sizable regions of the United States where their use is practically unknown. The house of my Tennessee childhood, for instance, was a meat-and-potatoes kingdom. Meals were generally seasoned with salt, pepper, and tomato catsup.

I was nineteen before I tasted hotter food. It was during a summer trip to Mexico, in search of more exciting adventures than I was finding at college. On my first morning across the border, I was sitting at a cafe in Nuevo Laredo with an order of eggs in front of me, wondering how to ask for catsup in Spanish. There was a bowl on the table that contained some sort of red sauce with seeds in it. I put a catsup-sized portion on top of my eggs. It took five minutes for the tears to stop streaming from my eyes, and another five to convince me that I had done no permanent damage to the inside of my mouth. Years passed before I tried hot sauce on my eggs again.

A decade later, many of my friends had begun to spend a good deal of time talking about what they ate. Macrobiotic diets, health foods, and vitamins had become common topics of conversation. These same friends deplored my addiction to catsup. No sooner would I reach for a bottle than someone would begin haranguing me with awful tales of insect wings and sugar content in my daily dose.

I started looking for something to take catsup's place on my table, and I brought home a bottle of Tabasco Sauce. It was a small bottle, but it took me just short of six months to go through it. I began with caution: a few drops on my eggs, or in a bowl of chili, or on French fries. I found myself growing accustomed to the taste and gradually my usage increased. I began putting it on stews, sauces, soups, beans, peas, and seafood. My second bottle lasted three months. After a year, I was using a bottle every three weeks. My catsup craving was gone and I had acquired a hot pepper habit. I did not know it then, but about three-quarters of the world's population shared it with me, including millions of Americans.

I was living in Portland, Oregon, at the time, and I soon learned that even in the cold, wet Northwest, far from tropical skies, hot sauce could be obtained almost everywhere food was sold. I found it in convenience stores, supermarkets, hamburger heavens, barbeque joints, chop suey houses, and the finest continental restaurants. It seemed to be as indispensable to a bar as liquor or glasses.

I discovered that one of my neighborhood grocers was exceptionally fond of hot food. His shelves held a veritable peck of pepper products: red and green hot sauces, mild hot sauces and hot ones, hot sauces with preservatives and without, hot catsup, hot taco sauces, whole peppers, diced peppers, roasted and peeled peppers, and pickled peppers.

I brought the hot sauces home, one after another, and after reading their labels, put them to the taste test. I found that each brand varied in flavor and heat. Some of the labels listed half a dozen or more ingredients, often including such items as tomatoes, dehydrated onions, and sodium benzoate, but each of the brands I came to prefer contained only red peppers, vinegar, and salt. My three favorites were Tabasco Sauce, Mexi-Pep, and Louisiana Hot Sauce. Each was manufactured by a different company, but according to the labels all three companies were located in the same place: New Iberia, Louisiana.

New Iberia is in southern Louisiana, about halfway between Mississippi and Texas, close to the Gulf of Mexico. I had scanty but colorful ideas about the region: Cajuns, bayous, swamps, gumbo, zydeco music, and the French language. I imagined the area held an ethnic group of fifth- and sixth-generation Americans who were still resisting assimilation into the national culture, a self-sufficient people, maintaining a distinct and peculiar way of life, far removed from the mainstream. I had, in short, suspected the existence of a foreign country there, within the borders of the United States. I was not surprised that the best hot sauces I could find were all made in New Iberia.

I had driven through New Orleans on a number of cross-country journeys, but had never taken the time to explore southern Louisiana. I knew it would not be enough simply to cruise through and see the sights. I wanted to stay long enough to get a feeling for how life was being lived. It is not considered good form to lounge around small southern towns and conspicuously do nothing for a couple of months, unless one is old enough to be retired. Why not take up the trail of the hot pepper and see where it led? I equipped my Toyota for the trip with four new tires and a tune-up, and set out for New Orleans in the autumn of 1978.

At that time, the road from New Orleans to New Iberia, state highway 90W, passed through two urban centers: Houma and Morgan City. The forty-mile ride between them lived up to my expectations of bayou country. A highway in name only, the chuck-holed two lanes snaked along a narrow corridor. A wall of sugar cane, ten feet high, was on the left and Bayou Black flowed slowly on the right.

At the water's edge were ramshackle wooden cabins, mounted on cement blocks by way of foundations. Beside almost every house rested a small, overturned flat-bottomed wooden boat. Occasionally, one of them lay abandoned, pulled up halfway on the bank, its stern filling with water as the bayou slowly claimed it. Huge live oaks grew along the banks. Their thick, gnarled branches, beribboned with Spanish moss, stretched out over the muddy water.

This feeling of backwater isolation ended abruptly at Morgan City, forty-five miles east of New Iberia. Here, in the seat of Saint Mary's Parish (in Louisiana, counties are called parishes), a different aspect of life in southern Louisiana presented itself. Morgan City is connected by the Atchafalaya (pronounced a-chaff-a-lie-a) River to the Gulf of Mexico, and at that time it was a thriving center of the petroleum industry. Highway 90 had been expanded to four lanes and was lined with industrial satellites: shipyards, dry docks, tool companies, equipment companies, big trucks, and construction machinery. Traffic was heavy and dust hung thick in the air.

The rest of the nation was in an economic slump, with increasing inflation and rapidly rising interest rates, but southern Louisiana was in the middle of an unprecedented boom. Oil was selling at upwards of $40 a barrel, and the prosperity generated by the petroleum industry was touching the lives of almost everyone in the state. When the oil patch was booming, there was work for anyone willing and able to do it, and many people were packing up and heading to Louisiana in search of jobs.

Commercials on the radio in Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Youngstown, and Detroit were announcing that such-and-such a company in Morgan City, Louisiana needed shipfitters, welders, pipefitters, or electricians. The commercials described the subtropical climate, touted the area's hunting and fishing, and enumerated the eight to thirteen dollars an hour plus company benefits that went along with the jobs. Such advertisements touched the quick of young workers in northern industrial cities who were trying to cope with periodic unemployment, bitter winters, and rising prices.

World demand for oil had transformed the economy and the people in Morgan City and New Iberia as dramatically as in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait. As the oil had been pumped out, the twentieth century had come pouring in, with all its pleasures, pollutants, and paranoias. Large numbers of unemployed strangers suddenly descended on the area. Nobody knew where they came from, or what they had done there, or why they had wanted to leave. Some, at least, were from neighboring southern states, but large numbers came from outside of Dixie. Southern Louisiana had always had its share of transient workers, but they were agricultural laborers and their residency was seasonal. The oil industry, however, always needed a pair of hands to push, pull, wind, shove, and haul. Men who filled these positions were called roustabouts, and there were never enough of them. The pay was good and there was always plenty of overtime.

On any stretch of Highway 90, in those days, there were usually a few solitary hitchhikers, roustabouts who either were on their way to board a ship and head out to an oil platform or had just come back on land and were thumbing their way to wherever they called home. On the western edge of Morgan City, I picked up a stocky, middle-aged man of medium height, dressed in work boots, a clean white shirt, and pressed slacks. He was carrying a small flight bag. He noticed my Oregon license plates and asked, in a slow southern drawl, where I was going.

I explained that I had come to do research on hot peppers. He gave me a sidelong glance, as if to find out whether his leg was being pulled. "Hot peppers? Well, ah'll be damned. Seems like a right far piece to travel jist to find out about 'em. They shore use a lot of 'em around here. Man, they do love that hot food."

He was from Mississippi. "We eat a right smart amount of hot food over there, but nothin' like these Cajuns. You can drop me in Jeanerette. Ah lef' mah car with mah brother when ah went offshore. He lives in Jeanerette. Tha's how ah come to be here. Mah brother wrote and said come on over, there's plenty of work. He was right about that.

"Ah jist got in from the Gulf. Been out fourteen days. Could have stayed out another seven, but what the hell? Ah already cleared over five hunnerd dollars for the las' two weeks. Anybody with two arms and two legs can find work here. They're beggin' for people, but in mah part of Mississippi there ain't nothin' happenin'. Hell, ah had to come over the firs' time on a bus, and now ah got me a '73 Pontiac, a damn nice car. Ah ain't cleared less'n a thousand a month since ah been here, and some months it's been more."

I dropped him at his brother's trailer home on the outskirts of Jeanerette (pronounced gin-erette). He pointed proudly to the big car parked there, waiting for him. "Not too good on gas, but she'll go lak a bat outta hell. 'Preciate the ride. Good luck with your hot peppers," he added dubiously.

The nineteen miles of road between Jeanerette and New Iberia ran through land that was under extensive cultivation, but there was not a hot pepper in sight. Every field was planted in sugar cane, narrow row after narrow row of ten-foot stalks, which stretched away across the flat ground toward the horizon. Sugar cane has been the economic backbone of Iberia Parish for most of this century. In 1978, more acres of cane were still being grown in the parish than all other agricultural crops combined, but sugar cane ranked second, behind the petroleum industry, as a revenue producer for the fifth year in a row.

In the midst of the region's petro prosperity sugar cane farmers were suffering. Three of the area's thirty-one sugar cane mills had closed and others were expected to follow suit. More and more farmers were planting their cane fields in soybeans or rice. Inflation was increasing the overhead for both growers and mills, and the oil patch was draining available labor. Competition in the world sugar market had become increasingly devastating. Cane farmers were insisting that it cost them sixteen cents to grow a pound of cane, but Congress had refused to set price supports above fourteen and a half cents. Despite all of that, there were over forty thousand acres of cane planted in Iberia Parish in 1977, worth about $17 million.

By 1986, less than a decade later, New Iberia's economy had gone through a 180-degree change. The petroleum boom had gone bust, but in the midst of 20 percent unemployment and southern Louisiana's worst economy since the Depression, cane farmers were doing well, thanks to the Reagan administration's price supports of eighteen cents a pound. In 1985, revenue from the cane crop in Iberia Parish was worth $39 million, and by 1997 it was worth almost $43.5 million.

I did not know anything about the economics of sugar cane as I was driving into New Iberia for the first time, but it was plain enough that hot peppers were not the sun around which the area's agricultural life revolved. As I drove by acre after acre of towering cane, I was disappointed not to see peppers growing in every field as I had expected to, but I knew that many a journey had begun with a mistaken expectation and proceeded to uncover wonders far greater than could have been imagined. It was, in fact, just such a mistaken expectation by Christopher Columbus that introduced hot peppers to the Old World.

When he returned to Spain from the West Indies in 1493, Columbus brought the first hot peppers ever seen in Europe. There is no mention of them in Chinese, Sanskrit, Egyptian, Greek, Arabic, or Latin. Moreover, there is no record of them in any European accounts of Asia, Arabia, or Africa before the sixteenth century. It is assumed they grew exclusively in the Americas.

The first recorded mention of hot peppers is in Columbus's journal of his first voyage. The original manuscript has been destroyed, but Bartolomeo de Las Casas's abstract, which has survived, is believed to be a close copy. The entry for Wednesday, January 2, 1493, reads: "The spicery that they eat, says the Admiral [Columbus], is abundant and more valuable than black pepper or grains of paradise [pepper from Portuguese Guinea]. He left a recommendation to those whom he wished to leave there, that they should get as much as they could."

The voyage of Admiral Columbus and his three ships cost a tremendous amount of money to prepare and provision. Spain's sovereigns, Ferdinand and Isabella, expected a substantial return on their investment. Their greatest hope was for gold. Columbus found a small amount, but it was in the form of ornaments belonging to individuals. He received reports of places where gold was abundant, but had neither time nor money to verify them. He returned to Spain with only a few pieces of jewelry and the unproved certainty that great riches awaited discovery.

Second only to the precious metal, Ferdinand and Isabella hoped for black pepper. When Marco Polo had returned from the Orient in 1295, he brought black pepper with him. By 1492, it commanded a high price on the spice-hungry markets of Europe. Black pepper belongs to the genus Piper. Hot and sweet peppers both belong to the genus Capsicum, a name that is thought to have come from the Greek verb kapto, meaning "I bite" (literally, "I gulp down"), or, as others consider more likely, from the Latin word capsa, which means capsule or pod. Black pepper is completely unrelated to hot peppers.

Since Columbus did not turn up so much as one grain of black pepper, he was eager to promote the commercial possibilities of the hot peppers that he had found growing in such profusion. He wrote enthusiastically of them in his journal entry for January 15, 1493: "The land was found to produce much aji, which is the pepper of the inhabitants, and more valuable than the common sort; they deem it very wholesome and eat nothing without it. Fifty caravels [large ships] might be loaded every year with this commodity."

The glowing expectations that Columbus held for the future of hot peppers were quickly justified, but it was too late for the admiral. He died in 1506, aging, bitter, and unrewarded. Shortly before his death, Columbus wrote to his son Diego: "I have received nothing of the revenue due me, but live by borrowing. Little have I profited by twenty years of toils and perils, since at present I do not own a roof in Spain. I have no resort but an inn, and, for the most times, have not wherewithal to pay my bill."


Excerpted from Hot Peppers by Richard Schweid Copyright © 1999 by University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

1. To New Iberia
2. In the Teche Hotel
3. Acadiana
4. Hot Sauce
5. Weighing and Paying
6. Picking Peppers
7. Boom and Bust
8. Money and Medicine
9. Custom
10. Killing the Pig
11. The Salt Mines
12. Genetics
13. Working the Atchafalaya
14. Adieu

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