A taste of Africa: Museum garden highlights slavery-era plants | News

AUSABLE CHASM – Fish pepper made Jim Cayea more than a little epicurious about how to grow heritage edibles.

“The more I learned the more I wanted know,” said the Cornell Cooperative Extension master gardener and Morrisonville resident.

“I tend to like unique and different types of varieties of crops. That’s why I got into Wabanaki and Black American cuisine and gardening.

Coached by Jolene Wallace, extension horticulture program educator, Cayea put plants grown by the descendants of enslaved Africans into a raised-bed garden on the ground of the North Star Underground Railroad Museum at Ausable Chasm. The museum is closed due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, but visitors can view Cayea’s epicurean journey outside.


“For years and years, I have been interested in what is called the fish pepper,” he said.

“The fish pepper is mottled colored. It was used by Black Americans. The group I’m really dealing with were people who were enslaved and then freed. This particular pepper was used around the Chesapeake Bay area, from roughly like Washington D.C., Alexandria, Va. up to Philadelphia. It was used to cook in fish dishes.

Every fish pepper seed stems from Horace Pippin, a black folk painter. “This gentleman served in World War I with the 369th Infantry (Regiment) called the Harlem Hellfighters,” Cayea said.

“He lost the use of his right arm after being shot by a sniper. This left him with a severe arthritic pain. In research for some relief, he resorted to an old folk remedy that was called bee stings.” Pippin began giving different seeds to beekeeper, H. Ralph Weaver. “Horace’s seeds came from some of far-flung old-time gardening friends who sent him some really nice varieties,” Cayea said.

“Weaver saved the seeds in his private collection where it remained until 1995 when his grandson, William Woys Weaver, released it to the public, so every fish pepper seed that is sold today comes from Horace Pippin.”


Cayea did a project on African crops for his fellow master gardeners.

“The healthy cooking style of the American Blacks originated in West Africa, basically, and in Angola,” he said.

“Angola is the second highest region for slaves genetically. In particular, most of them went to Brazil because Portugal owned both of them. I learned a lot of interesting things like where the kola nut came from. It’s what we make our colas our of, coke and that type of thing. It came from Africa.”

Watermelons were a portable water source on the continent.

“If you go out and water was hard to find, you would bring a watermelon with you so you that you could have some water,” Cayea said.

“If you’re going on a caravan thing you obviously have to carry water.

Tennis ball lettuce is another crop in the garden.

“This is a crop that was grown by (Thomas) Jefferson’s slaves,” Cayea said.

“What I found kind of interesting when I was reading this stuff, not all slave owners did this, but

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