Hampden Couple Is Ready To Bring The Heat To Fair

August 27, 2009|By SUSAN REIMER

Joe Schweiger's relationship with hot peppers hasn't always been so hot.

At the age of 5, he cried until his father let him taste one, and then cried when he did.

But today, the Hampden resident and his wife, Alison, grow award-winning varieties in a backyard garden plot that's not much bigger than a desktop.

They will enter the best of the bunch in this weekend's Maryland State Fair, hoping to add to the fistful of ribbons - more than a dozen - they've won since 1995, when they visited the fair and decided the winning peppers didn't look nearly as good as the ones they were growing at home.

"We're just city folks," said Schweiger.

This is truly a David vs. Goliath story. The Schweigers' backyard is the width and length of a bowling lane - not a bowling alley, a bowling lane. Alison loves flowers, herbs, Concord grapes and greens, too, so there isn't much room for peppers.

Each year, Schweiger puts his peppers up against working farmers who have dozens of plants from which to harvest the 10 perfect and identical specimens required for each entry. Alison plants only a half-dozen varieties each year - and only one plant of each. There isn't much margin for error.

This year, they will enter in six or seven categories. The hottest: a habanero called "Chocolate Trinidad." The smallest: "Purple Coffee Trinidad," which ripens from purple to lavender to orange to red.

Alison is the gardener while Joe is the cook. He puts his peppers - using rubber gloves to handle them - in everything from coleslaw to chocolate chip cookies. He stuffs them and sautes them and gives them away to friends.

"Last year was a bad year for peppers," said Schweiger. "Everybody said so."

His peppers failed to win a ribbon for the first time since he began entering them, but one of his photographs did. "The streak stayed alive," he said, laughing

This year is a good year for peppers, he said, despite the somewhat cooler weather. "Peppers need killer nights. We haven't had them, and we'd know. We don't have air conditioning."

But then, the Schweigers don't mind heat.

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