Pepper plant

Gardening American History

            I planted the peppers in front of the American History Museum on the mall of our nation’s Capitol.  Chiles are a plant of the Americas, unknown by Europeans until the Columbus voyage, when the globe’s grand food exchange began.  When I first began chile planting, the other gardeners disapproved.  “Vegetables?” they asked, through ornamental cabbages have been popular for years.  They didn’t know the variety I could find to work with.  They could not know, too, that by season’s end the chef at the White House would ask for some harvest.  I helped him, the thinnest cook I’d ever seen—as thin as President Obama himself.  I directed him to the essence of each of my plantings, then watched him walk away in his white chef jacket, “White House” and “Robert” sewn above the left pocket.
            Robert is probably in the kitchen now.  He is going to use all the peppers in one meal, down-home and American.  Diversity appetizer, he is thinking to himself as he stuffs one of my variegated, serrated peppers—white and green, almost striped—with a mixture of wild rice and sun-dried tomato, infused with balsamic vinegar and layered with smoked American cheddar.  He will slice it into thin rounds.  The Obama Presidency, Robert thinks as he dices a black pepper, mild, into the low fat buttermilk cornbread batter he will turn into an iron skillet.  Fiery Hope, he thinks, as he cuts the cayenne, ancho and golden wax banana peppers into the buffalo chunks to make his chili.  And then the sorbet, which he’ll no doubt call American Surprise.  He’ll roast the white peppers, skin and seed them, add cream, sugar, and ricotta cheese, and the dessert will look so sweet and bland that the bite of pepper will shock the diner as much as electing a black president surprised a nation, and then turn as sweet.  Robert will serve this meal himself, he alone in the great dining room with Obama, family and selected guests.  He will watch them poke, prod, and finally taste the pepper-based meal of the American history.  He will have the curiosity, the questions and the compliments.  Were I there, he might mention the gardener on the mall with the interest in chiles.  But I’m not, so he won’t.  That’s fine.  I can take satisfaction in making it all possible.
            So when I saw Robert a week later, in his civilian clothes, hurrying past just as I was loading up my garden cart, I waved.  “How did it go?” I asked.
            He looked up briefly, then away, then shook his head.  “I forgot,” he said.  “Just found the peppers today, in the bottom drawer of the spare fridge. Had to throw them away.  Sorry.”  And on he went.
            I imagined him at his destination, a bar maybe, ordering a cocktail.  He would drink away his regret at a lost opportunity.  Or he wouldn’t.  I would never know.







Seed packet

Hand rake

Garden knee pads


Flash of red paint

Pepper plant


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