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Philly history is served in one pot

Chefs and culinary historians reclaim the city’s pepper pot soup

Chef Ashbell McElveen presents Pepper pot soup at Jansen in Philadelphia. "There's as many varieties of pepper pot as there are poor people," McElveen said. "Because it's a subsistence meal."
Chef Ashbell McElveen presents Pepper pot soup at Jansen in Philadelphia. "There's as many varieties of pepper pot as there are poor people," McElveen said. "Because it's a subsistence meal."Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

The memories might seem distant, but they’re there.

Joan Pacella remembers tasting pepper pot soup — a spicy stew served in umpteen iterations of meat and vegetables — seated beside her mother at the lunch counter in Strawbridge’s and losing her mind over it. That was almost 60 years ago.

Tonya Hopkins almost forgot how her grandmother prized the soup. Her mother reminded her, and it all came back. Hopkins’ late grandmother, Loretta Primas-Hopkins, a from-scratch cook, would make an exception for the canned Campbell’s version, then “doctor it up.”

Hopkins, a culinary historian born in Camden and now lives in Brooklyn, has recorded a podcast episode on pepper pot for the Philadelphia Citizen. She developed her pepper pot recipe as a reimagining of colonial Philadelphia pepper pots, served the way her grandmother would have wanted.

Hopkins is reviving her grandmother’s favorite soup in her own kitchen, she said, “to carry on that tradition that she and I had of me kind of turning a family recipe that I’ve learned from her into my own thing" and "to reclaim it like, yes, this is our soup.”

Last week, she made the soup with her cousin Tamara Davis, in Davis’ kitchen in Voorhees. Hopkins had come to South Jersey following the death of their beloved aunt. Together, the cousins riffed as they cooked — Davis adding more sweet potatoes and peppers, Hopkins pouring in a splash of cabernet sauvignon.

“I saw it as a blessing and an honor to come back home, pay my respects, make a soup in a very communal, collective way with one of my favorite people,” she explained as the soup sat resting on the stove. She was reflecting on her childhood, when she could expect to see generations of her kinfolk together. "That doesn’t happen as much anymore. Time goes on, people move. Soup brings it all together. Soup brings people together.”

Philadelphia pepper pot was, for centuries, more than a dish, but an emblem. It was popular all around town, sold on the streets and in taverns. It was the stew that, according to widely shared myth, helped George Washington and his troops survive a brutal winter’s deep freeze and eventually win the Revolutionary War. It was a dish to try if you were an out-of-towner. It was a hangover cure. Diners treated the soup sort of how we treat cheesesteaks these days.

The soup progressed in the mid-to-late 20th century from classic staple to symbolic rarity.

Campbell Soup sold pepper pot soup from 1899 to 2010, discontinuing the product “due to changing consumer tastes," a representative said. City Tavern continues to serve its brand of the soup, but Philadelphians are hard pressed to find it on restaurant menus elsewhere. In 1991, the Daily News reported that pepper pot was “teeter[ing] on the brink of culinary extinction.” Today, along with elders who voice their nostalgia, there’s a coterie of chefs and culinary historians across the U.S. who are working to to revive the dish.

The concept of simmering a medley of well-spiced proteins and veggies in a stew is cross-cultural, and again, myriad soups, from Poland to the Carolinas are called pepper pot. Many versions include dumplings. One person might say pepper pot has a clear broth. Another might say it’s creamy. Another might say it tastes like beef gravy mixed with collard greens’ potlikker. Experts say the traditional versions that people associate with Philadelphia, a soup that might call for a variety of peppers, spices, root vegetables, beef tripe, herbs, and leafy greens, came from Africans and Caribbeans in the city.

“Food is usually a vehicle or a pathway to learning your history and culture,” said Kurt Evans, a chef who taught a cooking class on the soup last year at the Free Library. Evans, who grew up in Southwest Philadelphia, founded the End Mass Incarceration Dinner Series and cofounded Cooking for the Culture, a pop-up series that features black chefs.

“It followed the path of the slave trade to the West Indies to the Atlantic Coast of North America,” Evans said of the soup.

Some chefs point out that it’s like gumbo, without the okra. Pepper pot and gumbo, explained Jessica B. Harris, a renowned scholar on black diasporic cuisines, likely share the same food "ancestors,” like Senegalese soupe kandia and Beninese sauce feuille.

William Woys Weaver, a noted historian of Philadelphia-area foodways, said that early versions were served in the 1600s in Philly, sometimes called “olios” after the Spanish medieval stew olla podrida. Black women would make stock, then cook turtles, fish, veal, collards, cassava, plantains, and spices together, often served with West African fufu or moussa dumplings. Thanks to the presence of black people from Cuba and Hispaniola, Philadelphia pepper pots, Weaver said, began to mimic mondongo turning honeycomb tripe into a key ingredient. The pedestrians that passed through Philadelphia could gather around a one-pot dish that reflected both the cultures that moved through the New World and black sensibilities. Fritz Blank, the late chef and culinary historian, pointed to the pot as a sign that Philadelphia had been a Creole city. That’s a label not often applied to Philly, but, experts say, it fits.

“Pepper pot women,” who were among the earliest street vendors in Philadelphia, were figures who largely went unnamed in historical record, yet still were known for the spicy soups they served from cauldrons, and how they served them, using song or “street cries” to entice customers. Harris sees “a direct line” from pepper women to the vendors you might see on the subway today.

Over time, the soup lost its green vegetables, according to Weaver, and a more meat-and-potatoes version became most typical. Some diehards insist that without tripe, it stops being a Philadelphia pepper pot. At the same time, when asked why the soup fell out of popularity, some scholars, chefs and home cooks say the tripe is likely to blame.

David Jansen, chef at Mount Airy’s Jansen Restaurant, prepared pepper pot earlier in his career when he worked at the Four Seasons. He thinks tripe, once an easily accessible cheap cut, just isn’t as familiar to folks these days.

“I think as people got more refined,” he measured, “they lost a lot of the comfort food that was important to people of the day.”

Omar Tate, the chef behind Honeysuckle, a pop-up that focuses on black heritage cooking, started making pepper pot over the last year. Tate, a Germantown native, said that when he’s making it, he has a responsibility.

“I have a little anxiety about it because I just wanted to do right by those who were voiceless in their own agency and claiming it, you know what I mean? And there’s really no one but myself and history books for me to consider the validation of it,” Tate said. “So, it feels good to be producing it, but there’s a bit of an emptiness in that I can’t go back to anyone and say, ‘Hey, taste this, does this taste like soup you used to make?”

When chefs and culinary historians like Tate, Evans, Hopkins and James Hemings Society founder Ashbell McElveen speak about the soup’s legacy or cook a pot for themselves or others, it’s not just trying to keep the dish alive. There’s a recognition of the history of Philadelphia pepper pot as a black Philadelphian tradition that isn’t always told.

“As African Americans, we have to tell our own stories and scratch back what history was, which didn’t include us,” said McElveen.

For Hopkins, the connection is healing.

“Food is so ephemeral. It’s like here and now,” Hopkins said, adding, “There’s a spirituality to food and how it sustains us, and our unique relationship with it in this country. It’s a very important medium through which to re-remind ourselves of who we are in the best ways, in ways that are good for us.”