A Life of Spice

September 2, 2014
Susan Welsand looks for ripe peppers July 18 in one of her pepper beds outside her Bloomington home. She was gathering her harvest for the next day’s Bloomington Community Farmers’ Market where she is a stalwart vendor.
Susan Welsand looks for ripe peppers July 18 in one of her pepper beds outside her Bloomington home. She was gathering her harvest for the next day’s Bloomington Community Farmers’ Market where she is a stalwart vendor.

A Life of Spice

The smells coming out of homes in Susan Welsand’s childhood neighborhood were unreal.

“Everyone had a different ethnic food on our street,” she remembers. “The smells from all the houses were so different, the taste of the food [was] all so different.” All of these were a departure from the meat and potatoes household she grew up in.

“My chances to get that kind of food were somewhat limited because we certainly weren’t eating it at home.” It was there, on Belfour Street. in Detroit, that Susan says she found her life’s passion, though she wouldn’t realize it for many years.

Susan grew up with an interest in gardening (learned by working her grandparents’ huge victory garden, a holdover from WWII) and in food, but she chose to focus on art history and journalism in college. It was here, though, that she was able to really explore her interest in peppers.

“It really wasn’t until I went away to college and had my own kitchen that I started cooking with them,” Susan recalls.

After finishing school, Susan said she began really thinking about what she wanted to do with her life and came to an important realization.

“There’s a point where you think, ‘Why am I working this hard for somebody else?’” It was then that she decided to take her love of growing and of hot peppers and make something out of it. Fastforward 22 years and Susan is running an incredibly successful pepper farm and has one of the largest chile pepper seed collections in North America (Susan estimates that she has around 2,000 of the roughly 3,000 known varieties represented in her seed bank).

When she bought her home and farm, she was sold on several factors, the primary one being a big greenhouse. She was so excited about it, in fact, that she ended up growing far too many plants. On the recommendation of friends, she took her starters to the Bloomington Farmers’ Market, which was the beginning of her business.
Things started slowly. In a time before lightening fast, international e-commerce, Susan relied on visitors to the Market to spread the word about her operation. From this, requests to ship nationally began to roll in and word started to spread that Susan had peppers that were tough to find in the U.S. However, with this growing interest, Susan says the chile industry was still very small.

“That was at a time when peppers were not very popular, not anything like it is today,” she explains.

When the internet began to gain speed Susan saw an opportunity.

“I figured this is a way to reach chile heads around the country,” Susan says of the internet. She started reaching out to the greater chile community through online forums and saw her business expand rapidly.

The chile business is one that lives on trends. Susan says she knows the moment an exotic chile gets national attention, she can expect requests almost immediately and so she constantly has to keep her ear to the ground to ensure she is prepared.

“Rick Balis won Top Chef Masters on TV one year with a Oaxacan mole and the next day my telephone rings, ‘Do you have Chihuacle Negro?’” she recall.
There is one trend in peppers she is not so fond of, however: super-hots. Susan admits that she grows them and sells them, though with a bit of hesitation. She loves chiles for their beautiful flavors, and to her, super-hots focus less on flavor and can actually run the risk of turning people off to eating all peppers. One bad experience can ruin someone for life, a risk Susan does not think is worth taking.

Despite her recognition nationally as the go-to for exotic, hard-to-find chiles, Susan still runs things small, doing most of the work herself. Getting ready for Market, she catalogs and organizes her plant starts one at a time and moves from plant to plant in her two large pepper beds checking each one for ripe, vibrantly-colored fruit. She is also constantly drying peppers. She says her dehydrator is always running and throughout the year Susan uses these peppers, grinding them into chile powder and stringing chile ristras. This kind of one-woman show is how Susan wants her business to stay.

“I feel like I can manage what I am doing right now,” Susan says. She knows once she grows beyond what she can do herself, she will have to hire on help and assume a managerial role, effectively removing herself from the fun parts of her business.

Susan Welsand pulls a tray of peppers from the oven Aug. 8 in her home in Bloomington. She was roasting the peppers to remove their skins. Susan says she often does this in batches to freeze.

“I want to do the part that I like.”

While one of Susan’s primary goals is to save and preserve seeds, she said she gleans satisfaction from selling at Market, too.

“There’s a lot of nice aspects of selling the fresh peppers with Bloomington being such a diverse town,” Susan says. “A few years ago there was a Brazilian woman that came up, and she started to talk about this chile her mom grew,” Susan recalls. “They lost the seed from it and she could never find the seed any more. It was her favorite chile in the world …

As she was talking she was looking and she saw that I had a whole basket of them,” Susan remembers. “She started crying.”

This is not an uncommon story. Susan says she takes great joy in helping people find a home-away-from-home in food.

While many of her customers are home cooks or gardeners that find her at the Market, she also deals to chefs across the country.

“I have a lot of chef customers, and I have a lot of them that have been with me for a really long time,” Susan explains. She says that many have stuck with her because she provided them with rare peppers at times when chiles were less popular and less available. The highlights of her professional customers are impressive and include Maricel Presilla of

Cucharamama in Hoboken NJ, Ed Lee of 610 Magnolia in Louisville, and Christine Tully of Autre Monde Café in Chicago.

Ultimately, Susan’s goals are simple: she wants to make more chiles accessible to more people as well create a diverse and active chile pepper seed bank. Her seed bank, a tall refrigerator filled to the gills with seeds, painstakingly organized in alphabetical order, is full of varieties from the familiar jalapeño to those known only to a select few. Despite having such an impressive collection as is, she would like to gather more wild chile varieties. She explains that these chiles are often very small and can have only one seed inside, which makes them incredibly difficult to build a stock of.

Even with such booming business, peppers are still a very personal thing for Susan. Much like the days in her childhood on Belfour Street, Susan is still excited by even the smell of peppers. Their aromas fill her with warm memories. The aroma of roasting peppers their warm toasted scent filling her kitchen (which is appropriately peppered with dried chiles and chile décor of all kinds) transports Susan to cool autumn days. Even after a long harvest in the field, the spicy, fresh perfume makes her hungry for them.

“The smell coming out of the buckets is amazing, and you come in the house and it smells like it. You really do get a craving for [them],” Susan says. These intense connections have been with her since before she can remember and it is not likely that the Chile Woman will lose them any time soon.

Photos and story by Isaac Smith