When I first wrote this column nearly four years ago, I thought it would just be a quirky story about my grandpa's funny name for green peppers. In the intervening years, however, it's become a consistent favorite on thepacker.com among people who aren't even in the produce industry. Turns out my grandpa wasn't the only one who called peppers mangoes, as people from around the Midwest and other parts of the country commented or e-mailed saying "I always wondered why my mom/dad/grandma/grandpa called green peppers mangoes — mystery solved!"
My grandparents were born in 1935 — the same year as Julie Andrews and Elvis — and grew up in a small town in southeast Kansas.
My grandpa has a lot of great stories and anecdotes to tell, and I first heard what's now one of my favorites when we were cruising down the streets of their childhood hometown in his pickup truck.
"When I was growing up, we used to call green peppers ‘mangoes,'" Grandpa said as we drove by a corner grocery store his family used to frequent.
"I didn't even know they were called green peppers until I was in the Navy."
Grandpa worked on a submarine tender in San Diego and helped stock the subs' food supplies.
When he referred to green bell peppers as mangoes at work one day, his native Californian crewmate looked askance.
"He said, ‘Those aren't mangoes. Those are green peppers,'" Grandpa said. "'Mangoes are a fruit.' Well, I'd never seen a mango before."
When I asked him why they called green peppers mangoes in the first place, Grandpa said, "I don't know, that's just what everyone called them."
I thought the origin of Grandpa's "mangoes" would remain a mystery until a few weeks ago when I was flipping through a cookbook of my mom's.
She grew up in the south-central Kansas town of Hutchinson, where the state fair is held. No state fair experience was complete without a visit to the Our Lady of Guadalupe cafe for some authentic Mexican food.
I was browsing through the recipes from the cafe's cookbook when something caught my eye — an ingredient list that included "mango (green bell) peppers."
"Hey Mom!" I called. "This cookbook calls green peppers mangoes like Grandpa does."
While most of the recipes calling for green bell peppers referred to them as such, there were quite a few that called them mango peppers.
And it made sense to me.
As green bells ripen they often sport red-gold splotches, and mango varieties such as keitts or tommy atkins can have a similar appearance. I thought maybe someone in southern Kansas once upon a time saw a mango and made the connection to ripening bell peppers.
Mystery solved? Not quite.
A recent Wall Street Journal article sent me on a mango rabbit trail, which lead me to Wikipedia and this illuminating factoid:
"When mangoes were first imported to the American colonies in the 17th century, they had to be pickled due to lack of refrigeration. Other fruits were also pickled and came to be called ‘mangoes," especially bell peppers, and by the 18th century, the word 'mango' became a verb meaning 'to pickle.'"
Now excuse me while I go eat the cucumbers I mangoed last summer.