The Cullman Tribune is celebrating the Alabama Bicentennial (1819-2019) with statewide field reporting by Alabama Master Gardener/Botanical Artist Ben Johnson South. This year-long feature, “The 67-County Alabama Garden Party,” will spotlight different counties each week. Each county will get its own “quilt block,” along with a historical profile, and we’ll share a recipe specific to the area. At the end of the year, all 67 counties will be put in a book to commemorate the Bicentennial.
“We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout. We been talkin’ bout Jackson, ever since the fire went out.” Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash could have been talkin’ bout Jackson County, Alabama. This is a hot, hot, hot place to celebrate how PEOPLE + PEPPERS and other plants have come together across our state the last 200 years.
Jackson County is the puzzle piece of Alabama in the upper right corner that connects Georgia and Tennessee. Even though it was established in 1819, this remote, hilly county wasn’t much known outside the state until the Great Depression when a federally-funded community farming experiment called Skyline Farms raised it to the nation’s attention.
Skyline Farms had these hard-working and hard-playing Alabamians, plowing and plucking produce during the work week, then, plucking fiddles and buck dancing come Saturday night. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and her hubby hosted the Skyline Farms String Band at a garden party on the White House lawn and Mrs. R shared a recipe for one of her favorite “budget-stretching” dishes—Stuffed Peppers.
The Tennessee Valley region of Alabama is ideal for growing a variety of peppers on the chile heat index which is called the Scoville scale. The most popularly grown are milder bell peppers and banana peppers, but here are other iterations of the genus Piperaceae for innovative gardeners, like those at Jackson County’s Graham Farm, and creative cooks to explore:
*HABANERO- These are super-spicy with a bit of a sweet, fruity taste; the intensity can stand up to grilled meats. These peppers came to Alabama with the early Spanish explorers. They are native to the Amazon River region of South America and then spread to Mexico.
*PIQUILLO- Mild like bell peppers, these pointed reds are often found roasted or pickled on tapas menus; try them stuffed with ground meats or cheeses. They have little heat but much flavor and can be grown easily in containers.
*SCOTCH BONNET- Similar to habaneros though slightly sweeter, these peppers add that distinctive kick to Caribbean jerk chicken; the name comes from the resemblance to Scottish tam o’ shanter hats; these are ideal flavoring for beans and rice dishes and ceviche.
*BELL PEPPERS- Most popular among Jackson County growers, the green ones are enjoyed for their slightly bitter taste while yellow, orange and red are sweeter; cooking releases a sweetness for stews and pizzas.
*POBLANO- These mild, heart-shaped peppers have a thick skin and are ideal for stuffing; different fruits from the same plant may vary greatly in heat intensity, like playing Mexican pepper roulette.
*SHISHITO- Wrinkled, sweet and a bit delicate, these native Japanese peppers are best roasted in a hot pan and served with a bit of lemon juice and sea salt; they are delicious in salads, and because of the sweet flavor East Asians call them “ground cherries.”
*JALAPENOS- Hot sauce is a common, longstanding condiment in Alabama kitchens and this pepper is a major reason why. It’s also used in salsas. To really notch up the heat, sriracha is made from red jalapenos; for less heat, remove the seeds and pith.
*SERRANO- Slightly hotter than jalapenos, these slim, green peppers deliver an extra kick.
Jackson County peppers could be a key to living a longer life. In a recent study of 16,000 adults done over a 12-year period, those who ate chili peppers at least one time each month were 13% less likely to die than those who eschewed the spicy fruit. One reason may be that the hot chilies aid proper blood flow and protect against obesity.
Here are some other positive, pleasurable ways PLANTS + PEOPLE come together in this tip top, northeast corner of Alabama, including a recipe for JACKSON COUNTY PEPPER MEDLEY NACHOS:
*JACKSON COUNTY FARMERS’ MARKET- 218 Bob Jones Road, Scottsboro, AL 35768; Tues.-Sat., May-November, 6 a.m.-12
*SECTION FARMERS’ MARKET- 73 Dutton Road at City Park, Section, AL 35771; Fridays 2-5 p.m., June-October
*JACKSON COUNTY FARMSTANDS- Joseph and Brenda Holladay Farms (Dutton); Robert Deutscher (Fackler); Thompson Farms (Dutton)
*JACKSON COUNTY U-PICK FARMS- Bill Beard (Pisgah) blackberries, blueberries, muscadines; Sheerlark Farms, 367 County Road 327, Flat Rock, AL 35966
*GRAHAM FARM AND NATURE CENTER- 420 County Road 27, Estillfork, AL 35745; a wonderful example of big-hearted, Alabama generosity, this 491-acre farm was donated to the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (via the Jackson County office) by the family who farmed it for decades. This popular preserve was developed to teach people of all ages about natural resources, ecology, historic preservation and animal science. Graham Farm is interested in heritage farming of the past but also the future of agriculture in this part of the U.S. If you have ideas to explore, contact Mike Sims, Jackson County coordinator, Alabama Cooperative Extension System, 27115 John T. Reid Parkway, Suite 2, Scottsboro, AL 35768, 256-574-2143.
*CROW MOUNTAIN ORCHARD- 6236 County Road 39, Fackler, AL 35746; 150 acres of apples, peaches, nectarines, pears, berries and cherries (this part of Alabama is far enough north to grow ‘em). Starting each September, they press apple cider. This is nearly a 24/7, 365 farming operation, but to check on fruit that’s freshly available call 256-437-9254; Crow Mountain Orchard also sells at farmers’ markets in Jackson, Marshall and DeKalb counties.
*UNCLAIMED BAGGAGE CENTER- 509 West Willow St., Scottsboro, AL 35768; “YOU FOUND WHAT?!!” 95% of baggage from airlines in the U.S. is claimed in the airports, but about 5% is lost. The airlines try for three months to find the rightful owners, then much of the remaining unclaimed baggage ends up here with this unique, award-winning, national retailer. You never know what you’ll find here and that’s part of why it’s such a popular destination. As for plant-centric unclaimed finds there have been walking canes, an ancient Egyptian burial mask made of reeds, and, always mountains of cotton and linen clothes; www.unclaimedbaggage.com.
*WALLS OF JERICHO- It is 25,376 acres of grass coves and riparian (riverbank) forests protected by the cooperation of The Nature Conservancy and by Alabama Forestry. Enjoy hiking, horseback riding and wildlife observation in this “Grand Canyon of the South.”
*1,500 CAVES- Filled with botanicals like fungi, mosses and algae in their cool, moist ecology; Jackson County has more charted caves than any county in the nation.
*HOLLYWOOD- Named for the evergreen-blessed forested hills, Hollywood is a real town incorporated in this part of Alabama in 1897, years before that fake place in California.
*PAYNE’S SODA FOUNTAIN- 101 East Laurel St., downtown Scottsboro on the Square, 35768. This is not a repurposed anything; it’s authentic, classic, must-do delish; get the fresh Jackson County Egg Salad or the Sand Mountain BLT. Just trust me on this: you’ll also want to get a Mr. Potato Head Sundae. Now hush, just order one and Payne’s will make a believer out of you.
*McCUTCHEN’S MAGNOLIA HOUSE- 303 East Willow St., Scottsboro, AL 35768. This is superb, Southern comfort food which tastes like owner Gene McCutchen plucked it from his grandmama’s garden, fresh this mornin’. This part of Alabama gets awards for historic preservation and Magnolia House is a great example. The house was built in 1890 by Mayor Snodgrass, who was the town’s mayor for 40 years, and his wife, Miz Hattie. The meat entrees (great chicken salad) are tasty, but a vegetable plate is quite satisfying with heapin’ helpins of okra, squash, fried green tomatoes and Jackson County peppers.
*MEEK’S GRAIN AND GIN- 2259 County Road 58, Pisgah, AL 35765- This cotton gin and warehouse built in 1947 and operated until 1975 by Lloyd and Ruby Meeks has been repurposed by the Meeks family as a popular event venue overlooking Little Bryant Creek. It can accommodate 350 guests.
*PLANTING AN IDEA- Espelette peppers are “cult favorites” among upscale chefs who appreciate the complexity of the dried and ground spice called “piment d’Espelette.” Until recently, espelettes were grown only in the hilly, Basque region of France, which shares some geographic similarities to Jackson County, Alabama. These mild, smoky-but-sweet peppers want hot days and cool nights. The only large-scale producer in the U.S. is Signal Ridge Farm in northern California. Signal Ridge Farm only started with 50 piment d’Espelette pepper plants in 2010 and now grows 50,000 annually with a yield of approximately 5,000 pounds of spice. Some enterprising grower in Jackson County could heat up the competition. This could be an agricultural jobs-producing idea Mike Sims and the future-thinking folks at Graham Farm would welcome exploring.
Y’ALL COME to Jackson County on your 67-County Alabama Garden Party tour. Even if it’s midwinter in these snow-capped hills, you’ll be warmly welcomed and served something piping, peppery hot.
Many thanks to Mike Sims and his staff at the Jackson County office of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System for sharing the many PLANTS + PEOPLE recommendations. Also, thank you to “super cooks” Laurie Johnson and Wren Manners for the delicious, multi-pepper recipe they created.
Jackson County – Pepper Medley Nachos
- 1/2 lb. ground beef, turkey or chicken
- 1 small chopped onion
- 1/2 cup chunky salsa
- 1/4 cup diced tomatoes with green chilies (such as RO-TEL)
- 1/3 cup rinsed and drained black beans
- 1/3 cup roasted corn
- 2 tbsp. taco seasoning (such as chili powder, cumin, red pepper flakes, salt and black pepper)
- 26 mini sweet peppers – multi-colored
- 1 cup shredded Mexican cheese
- 1 avocado, diced
- 1/4 cup diced green onions
- 1/2 cup diced tomato
- 1 jalapeno pepper – sliced very thin
- Cilantro for garnish
- In a skillet, brown the beef and onion; drain off the grease and return to the skillet.
- Add the salsa, RO-TEL, black beans, corn and taco seasoning and simmer 5 minutes.
- While the meat is simmering, cut the peppers in half and take out the seeds.
- Preheat the oven to 400F.
- Lay the peppers, cut side up, on a baking sheet. (You can char the peppers on a grill for a couple of minutes before filling and baking.)
- Fill each pepper with the beef mixture and top with a sprinkle of cheese.
- Bake for 5 to 7 minutes, until filling and cheese are bubbly.
- Garnish with jalapeno slices, green onions, tomato, cilantro and avocado.
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