PITTSBORO — On September 20, Abundance NC will host a restyled iteration of Pittsboro’s annual PepperFest in compliance with pandemic restrictions and high standards of responsible event …
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PITTSBORO — On September 20, Abundance NC will host a restyled iteration of Pittsboro’s annual PepperFest in compliance with pandemic restrictions and high standards of responsible event sponsorship, according to founder Tami Schwerin.
The festival, which began in 2008 as a blind pepper tasting with 40 attendees, grew to a 3,000-person extravaganza in 2019, taking over downtown Pittsboro and featuring more than 100 vendors, chefs, local businesses and entertainers. This year, PepperFest will return to The Plant, the 17-acre business complex that includes Abundance NC and the Chatham Beverage District.
“It’s exciting that it’s back at The Plant,” said Kristen Bulpitt, owner of The Plant’s onsite farm, Copeland Springs Farm and Kitchen. “It’s sort of like a homecoming.”
Bulpitt is one of an estimated 17 local farmers who will be represented at PepperFest 2020.
“We’re having, as part of the event, a farmers’ market,” Schwerin said, “so we’ll have about 10 farmers selling their wares there. Supplying the peppers will probably be about another seven farms.”
Few, if any, of N.C.’s farmers deal exclusively in peppers. But most farmers in the piedmont region include peppers among their crops; they are just too easy to grow, Bulpitt says.
“Anybody can grow peppers,” she said. “They grow really well here. I don’t know of a farmer who doesn’t grow peppers.”
Bulpitt’s pepper yield for this season includes bell peppers, lunchbox peppers, corno di toros, jalapenos, poblanos, Hungarian paprika peppers, cayenne peppers, pepperoncinis and more. While PepperFest visitors will find some hotter peppers among the selection, they are a rarity.
“The specialty peppers, they’re quite a novelty,” Bulpitt said, “like the death peppers and the scorpion peppers and all those super-hot ones. They’re kind of fun and exciting, but they don’t sell well at markets, so not many farmers grow a lot of the crazy ones.”
“Peppers,” as a general term, describes a category of plant with dozens of subspecies and a spectrum of flavors and nutrients. The healthiest varieties, though, (and the most profitable for farmers) come from the sweet pepper family.
“The sweet pepper is a superfood,” Schwerin said. “It’s defined that way because of all the nutrients and vitamins and antioxidants. I don’t know what else would be up there with the pepper.”
Emphasizing the value of peppers in a well-rounded diet was one of Schwerin’s two objectives when she first conceived of PepperFest; the other was to spotlight local farmers and demonstrate their value within the community. To her dismay, the latter function was marginalized as the festival grew in breadth over the years, Schwerin says.
“The big goal for us as a nonprofit,” Schwerin said, “was initially to educate the consumer and restaurants on why it was so important to buy from local farms — for the economy, health and the health of the environment. We wanted to encourage people to learn more about sustainable farming and local food, to educate the chefs in restaurants about why it’s so much better to buy from the locals. But that had kind of gotten lost a little bit over the years; it had just become this huge party.”
This year’s festival promises to rediscover its roots. PepperFest 2020 dispenses with the party elements of years past. Coronavirus restrictions and The Plant’s commitment to hosting responsible events prohibit a mass gathering. Instead, attendance at PepperFest 2020 will be capped at roughly 200. Tickets are now sold out.
“We’re really scaling back so that we can have a responsible, spread out, socially distanced event,” Schwerin said. “People really want to get together, obviously. People are missing events, and we feel like we can model how to hold a safe, well-thought-out event.”
Tickets can be purchased online at tinyurl.com/2020PepperFest. One ticket covers admission for two adults and accompanying children. It also includes a picnic basket filled with pepper-themed dishes, recipes, a PepperFest mask and other local foodstuffs. Schwerin estimates fewer than 15 tickets remain. For more information, go to pepperfestnc.org.