Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Theresa Altieri Taplin

Philadelphia Pepper Pot

Philadelphia pepper pot, a spicy stew-like dish comprised of tripe, other inexpensive cuts of meat, vegetables, and an abundance of spices and hot peppers, is related to the pepper pot soup of the Caribbean region. By the early nineteenth century, the dish had developed characteristics making it uniquely Philadelphian. Philadelphia pepper pot became popular throughout the country before declining in the early twenty-first century. Although it disappeared from most store shelves and menus, pepper pot could still be found in select restaurants in the Philadelphia area.

Pepper pot (also known as “pepperpot” or “pepper-pot”) came to the Philadelphia area in the mid-eighteenth century from the West Indies region of the Caribbean, at that time connected with the city through trade. A hybrid of Spanish and West African food traditions, pepper pot originated in two versions, one based in cassareep, a sweet and sour syrup derived from the bitter and poisonous cassava, and the other using callaloo, a dish made from greens that originated in West Africa. Edward “Ned” Ward (1667-1731), an English satirist who visited Jamaica in the late seventeenth century, wrote that after eating just a few spoonfuls, all he wanted was “a drop of water to cool [his] tongue.”

Most likely, enslaved Africans brought an indigenous version of pepper pot based on callaloo to Philadelphia in the mid-eighteenth century. Like many Native American, African, and Europe an dishes, especially among the poorer classes, pepper pot was a communal dish. Dishes of this type had no specific recipe, only general guidelines to follow—meat, vegetables, and other available ingredients slowly cooked in one pot and typically eaten with bread. According to tradition the remnants from one day’s meal became the basis for the next, resulting in a dish that could last for decades or even a century.

“West-India Pepper Pot”

By the late eighteenth century, pepper pot had become well known in the American colonies. A recipe for “A West-India Pepper Pot,” clearly indicating the popular belief about the dish’s origins, appeared in the first cookbook produced in America for an American audience, The New Art of Cookery, published in Philadelphia in 1792. The recipe called for a variety of meat, including veal, mutton, ham, and beef; vegetables including onions, carrots, celery, leeks, turnips, and greens; simple dumplings made of flour and water; and spices including all-spice, cloves, and mace. One of the last steps was to “season it very hot with Cayan pepper and salt,” emphasizing the heat associated with the dish.

[caption id="attachment_35186" align="alignright" width="300"]Booklet describing the street cries of Philadelphia. This 1810 booklet describes the street cries of Philadelphia, named after the calls made by street vendors hawking their wares in the city’s market stalls. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Pepper pot became more prominent and characteristic of Philadelphia by the early nineteenth century. The Cries of Philadelphia, published in 1810, included a wood-cut illustration titled “Pepper Pot, smoking hot,” and described the “numerous black women” who sold a “pleasant feast” of pepper pot “made chiefly of tripe, ox-feet, and other cheap animal substances, with a great portion of spice” in markets and on street corners. In 1811, a similar scene titled Pepper-Pot was exhibited at the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts by John Lewis Krimmel (1786-1821), an early American genre painter. The painting shows an African American woman selling pepper pot to a diverse group of customers. Created during a period when Philadelphia had one of the largest free black populations in the country, these images documented black women’s work as entrepreneurial street vendors, an alternative to domestic work when options for employment were limited.

Philadelphia pepper pot became well known throughout the country. By the late nineteenth century, advertisements for restaurants serving “Philadelphia” pepper pot as well as recipes appeared throughout Pennsylvania, the Midwest, New Orleans, and Hawaii.  One recipe noted that the cook could add “any other herb or vegetable your taste demands,” much like earlier versions. An account written in 1894 by a New Yorker visiting Philadelphia described pepper pot as a regional dish unique to Philadelphia, much like scrapple, and commented that anyone asking for it in other cities “would be looked upon as a candidate for an asylum.” In 1901, the Clover Club in Philadelphia advertised that pepper pot would be served on its Thanksgiving menu. A later article in San Francisco poked fun at the menu, noting “surely such a combination would never pass muster outside of Pennsylvania.”

Canned Soup

The first canned version of Philadelphia pepper pot appeared in the early twentieth century as one of the original soup offerings sold for 12 cents a can by Camden-based Campbell Soup Company. By 1927, Campbell’s advertised it as the same version “served at the favorite club of Philadelphia’s early Colonial aristocracy,” despite the dish’s origin as a street food. 

[caption id="attachment_35185" align="alignright" width="194"]Campbell Soup advertisement for their pepper pot cans. The Campbell Soup Company began selling the first canned version of pepper pot in 1927. This 1934 advertisement draws upon the historical roots of pepper pot within colonial Philadelphia to entice customers. (Internet Archive)[/caption]

Throughout the early twentieth century, Philadelphia pepper pot remained nationally popular. Restaurants advertised it as a special offering, newspapers published recipes, and cookbooks featured a variety of recipes, many including the traditional tripe. Although the dish dipped in popularity by the mid-twentieth century, it resurged around the United States’ bicentennial celebration in 1976 because of a supposed connection between pepper pot and the Revolutionary War. Legend had it, incorrectly, that pepper pot had been invented to nourish the troops at Valley Forge after their defeat by the British at the Battle of Germantown.

By the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Philadelphia pepper pot fell out of favor, although it continued to be made by home cooks. Many institutions that had served it as a staple dish, such as the Four Seasons Hotel and the Union League of Philadelphia, removed it from their menus.  Campbell’s and Old Original Bookbinder’s, a food division created by a restaurant of the same name in Philadelphia to sell packaged versions of their soups, condiments, and sauces, also stopped selling canned pepper pot by 2018.  Although Philadelphia pepper pot sometimes appeared as a special at restaurants, it could be found consistently in just a few locations, such as the colonial-themed, reconstructed City Tavern, which advertised it as West Indies Pepperpot Soup, “a spicy colonial classic,” and the specialty store Rieker’s Prime Meats

Philadelphia pepper pot originated in the West Indies and migrated to Philadelphia with enslaved Africans, providing them and their free descendants with an inexpensive meal and a ware to sell in markets. For more than a century, Philadelphia pepper pot was a both a popular street food and a specialty dish at high-end restaurants.

Theresa Altieri Taplin earned an M.A. in history from Villanova University. She is a Certified Archivist and museum professional in Philadelphia.

Root Beer

Root beer, a popular beverage in the United States since the late eighteenth century, began as a medicinal beverage produced at home. In the nineteenth century, carbonated root beer grew in popularity, particularly after Philadelphia pharmacist Charles Elmer Hires (1851-1937) presented his version of root beer at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition. Although the popularity of root beer decreased in the latter half of the twentieth century, Philadelphia continued to play a role in its resurgence.

Root beer, and similar beverages such as spruce and ginger beer, originated from “root tea,” a general name for beverages popular in European and Native American cultures served hot and brewed from roots, barks, and berries. By the eighteenth century, “root beer,” which added yeast and later soda water for carbonation, had become a popular drink in the United States. To make these non-alcoholic beers, roots, barks, flowers, herbs, and other plants were boiled, the resulting liquid strained and reduced, and yeast, sweetener, and water added. As early as 1842, various manufacturers advertised root beer in Philadelphia newspapers as a health beverage, blood purifier, and cure for the “summer complaint,” cholera. Many of these companies, such as Dr. J. A. Brown in Philadelphia, distributed their finished products throughout the northeast. Others, such as Aschenbach & Miller, also located in Philadelphia, sold root beer extract to store owners, who produced their own.

[caption id="attachment_23655" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph of a Hires Root Beer stand, situated along the side of a road. The stand is oblong, shaped like a capsule, with one large window in the center for serving customers. Above the stand a sign runs along top and reads "Hires". A clerk stands at the window. By 1926, when this photograph was taken, roadside stands were popular locations to buy soft drinks, especially as the automobile grew in popularity and affordability. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

Charles Elmer Hires revolutionized the manufacture and distribution of root beer in the early 1870s, when he developed a powder to allow easier home production. Each packet of powder cost 25 cents and yielded five gallons. At the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, Hires served free glasses of root beer and sold the packets, a significant success that led to rapid growth for his business, including a factory at 117-119 Arch Street. In 1890, the business incorporated as The Charles E. Hires Company. In 1904, with the decline of home brewing and increasing popularity of soda fountains, the Hires Company developed root beer syrup and began to distribute it. At its height, the Hires Company had offices throughout the United States and internationally in countries including Australia, Denmark, and England, a subsidiary company in Canada, and a sugar plantation in Cuba.

Hires Understood Advertising

Much of Hires’ success was due to innovative advertising. Understanding the importance of building a strong brand, Hires became the first major advertiser and mass marketer in the beverage industry. Beginning in the 1880s, full-page Hires ads, unheard of at the time, appeared in newspapers and magazines across the country, as far away as Hawaii. The Hires Company produced trading cards featuring healthy, rosy-cheeked children consuming frothy mugs of root beer with information about health benefits and the company’s commitment to pure, natural ingredients on the reverse. The company placed the Hires Root Beer logo on booklets for children, trays, pocket mirrors, lamps, mugs, and other novelties. The story of how Charles E. Hires invented root beer became a feature in the company’s ads. Like the popular rags-to-riches stories by Horatio Alger Jr. (1832-99) in the same era, the ads portrayed Hires as a small-town boy who built an empire through his own ingenuity and determination, while maintaining his commitment to an authentic, honest product.

[caption id="attachment_23657" align="alignright" width="195"]Photograph of Charles E. Hires, shown from the waist up, profile view with head turned slightly toward the camera. He appears to be in his 50s, wears a suit, and smiles slightly. After opening his own pharmacy in his early adult years, Hires created a version of “root tea” that was popular among Native American tribes and some Europeans. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

By the 1950s, the Hires Company was struggling as it faced increased competition from other root beer manufacturers such as Barq’s in New Orleans, Louisiana (1898); A&W in Lodi, California (1919); Independent Breweries Company in St. Louis, Missouri (1919); Dad’s Old-Fashioned in Chicago, Illinois (1937); and Mug in San Francisco, California (1947). The root beer industry also competed with more popular sodas and other confectionery, such as noncarbonated drinks, candy, gum, and ice cream. Despite steady and sometimes rising sales, the increased cost of materials and labor caused a decline in profit. The Hires family sold its majority share in the company in 1960 to Chicago-based Consolidated Foods Corp. (CFC). Later that year, Hires was liquidated and became the Charles E. Hires Division of CFC. Operations continued under local management, with a general office at 206 S. Twenty-Fourth Street and a bottling plant at 326 S. Twenty-Fifth Street in Philadelphia, and an additional seven plants and four hundred franchised bottlers in the United States and abroad.

In 1962, Crush International Ltd. purchased CFC’s Hires Division and moved its headquarters to Evanston, Illinois. After several more sales of the brand, in 1989 the Hires brand was acquired by Cadbury Schweppes. In 2008, the beverage portion of Cadbury Schweppes separated to form the Dr Pepper Snapple Group, located in Plano, Texas, the current owner of the Hires Brand. By this time, the Dr Pepper Snapple Group had phased out Hires Root Beer to focus on promoting only one root beer, the more popular A&W brand. By 2016, Hires Root Beer was still listed on the Dr Pepper Snapple Group website as a current product, but it had become rare and difficult to find except online.

Philadelphia played an immense role in the growth in popularity of root beer. Although the sale of root beer lagged behind colas and other sodas after the 1950s, it resurged among small, artisan brewers in the twenty-first century. With craft brewers such as Yards Brewing Company, Hank’s Gourmet Beverages, and Olde Philadelphia Soda Company, Philadelphia continued to play an integral role in root beer production.

Theresa Altieri Taplin earned an M.A. in history from Villanova University. She is a Certified Archivist and museum professional in Philadelphia.

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