edibleDallas & Ft. Worth
Summer Issue 2014
by Sarah Junek
"To see things in the seed, that is genius."
— Lao Tzu, Chinese philosopher
Before making the arduous voyage to America in 1912, Dominic Antonio Defino, like so many other immigrants, tucked away seeds from his family’s garden. He would plant them in a new garden in Iowa, and the sweet, red peppers that grew there would forever remind him of his Italian roots.
Like a treasured photo album or a passed-down letter, heirloom seeds carry the stories of bygone times and faraway places. If we’re lucky enough to have them, they connect us to the unique flavors of fruits, vegetables and herbs savored by past generations. One hundred years after Defino’s arrival, his pepper plants still flourish in the gardens of his descendents, both in Iowa, and in Texas, where his great grandson, farmer Brad Stufflebeam, is carefully preserving this botanical link to his heritage.
“It’s a bell-shaped pepper like a chile ancho,” says Stufflebeam, whose Home Sweet Farm is located near Brenham. “It matures to red—a little thicker than an Italian frying pepper, but it’s super sweet.” Stufflebeam isn’t sure how to classify it; it’s so unlike any variety he’s ever grown.
The more he’s learned about his great grandfather, the more he’s realized the source of his own green thumb. The Defino family lived on the south side of Des Moines, known as Little Italy. Everybody had a garden, but his great grandfather, Big Papa, had one that filled an entire city lot and spilled into another. In the 1920s, Big Papa began planting on the city property beside the river. “He was down there farming two acres just because he loved to grow things,” says Stufflebeam.
Big Papa died when Stufflebeam was only nine, but his seeds and story were passed down to the Texas farmer by his 89-year old great Uncle Armond, who’s been growing the pepper for over 35 years. Stufflebeam has shared the seeds with his father John Stufflebeam, owner of Sunny Side Up Farms in Weston, and his friend Mike Loggins, a landscape architect in Tyler. Loggins has incorporated the pepper into his designs, and, according to Stufflebeam, there are 20 or 30 families in Central and East Texas growing his ancestral plant. “Looking at other peppers, I can’t find anything similar to this. I feel like I’ve got something unique.” Stufflebeam hopes to submit his heirloom seeds to the Seed Savers Exchange in the fall.