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The 11th Annual Pepper Festival brings the spice back to Chapel Hill

Pepper Festival
Chapel Hill's 11th annual Pepper Festival will be on Sunday Sept. 23. Photo courtesy of Tami Schwerin.

The 11th annual Pepper Festival will include live music, aerial ropes routines and, most importantly, 500 pounds of locally grown peppers

This Sunday, the sustainability nonprofit Abundance North Carolina will be hosting an outdoor festival at Briar Chapel’s Great Meadow Park. According to its website, the Pepper Festival “is a celebration of sustainable agriculture, farmers and the creativity of the Piedmont’s top chefs, brewers and artisans.” 

This year’s festival is expected to draw over 2,200 people from the Triangle area and beyond, making it one of the largest festivals of its kind in the area. Its roots, however, were much more modest. Tami Schwerin, Abundance’s executive director said the first festival was a gathering of about 40 people in a backyard participating in blind taste tests of different varieties of peppers. 

The next year saw the addition of live music, local chefs and around 200 more people. From there, the festival has continued its steady growth each year. Schwerin says that this is directly linked with the growing popularity of the peppers themselves, particularly locally grown ones.

“Peppers are a super food and they provide more vitamin C than an orange," Schwerin said. "And we can grow them locally no problem. We grow them really well in the Piedmont and in the past 11 years our pepper production has gone up tremendously."  

This increase in pepper production has led to experimentation with new dishes from local chefs. This will be on full display at the festival, with 50 chefs vending everything from pimento cheese to pepper jelly. Adventurous drinkers can also try the festival’s bar, where pepper-infused microbrews will be sold.

Chef Jay Pierce from Mozelle’s Fresh Southern Bistro, one of the restaurants participating in this year’s festival, says that this diversity of dishes is a big part of what makes the festival special.

“For me, there’s a story behind every dish," Pierce said. "I’m more interested in flavor and context than I am in firepower. The Pepper Festival does a really good job of showcasing sweet chilis, hot chilis, ridiculous chilis — chili whatever. Its this broad, broad palate of local food and I think it’s amazing.”

Both the organizers of the festival and the chefs participating said the purpose of the festival is not only to broaden people’s palettes, but also show that they can do so while eating locally sourced, sustainable food. As the festival has grown rapidly in the past decade, this has remained one of its guiding principles.

“One of their big goals is to introduce local food sources to local restaurants, and they’ve done a great job with that,” said Dieter Gualtieri, general manager at local restaurant and festival vendor La Residence. “When you see that more restaurants are getting involved it makes you think that more people are doing it for the right reasons and doing it because it’s a good event. They do the right thing and they do it well.”

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