The Pepper Lady keeps it spicy
Everywhere Jean Andrews travels around the globe, she is asked the same question: "Are you The Pepper Lady?"
Andrews has carved a reputation for herself as an international expert on peppers. She's a perfect match for her spicy moniker -- from her red 1985 Mercedes 380SL with the "Pequin" license plate (a type of pepper, of course) to the adventurous spirit that took her around the world in search of pepper seeds.
Andrews, 81, has survived the death of a teenage daughter, divorce and a debilitating eye injury that robbed her of her sight in her right eye. The Austin resident has emerged as a celebrated illustrator, author, cook and collector of folk art, textiles and ethnic clothing.
She has followed the spice trails of ancient explorers, taken cooking classes in Thailand and India and talked with scientists worldwide. Her books include not only her detailed botanical drawings of peppers in all stages of life, but her self-tested recipes and a history of peppers as well.
"I can't mess with anything that I don't know all about," Andrews says.
Though she has also written books about wildflowers and sea shells, she is perhaps best known for her pepper books, including Peppers: The Domesticated Capsicums and The Pepper Trail: History and Recipes From Around the World. This summer, University of North Texas Press published another of Andrews' books, The Peppers Cookbook: 200 Recipes from The Pepper Lady's Kitchen.
Andrews' relationship with peppers started when she was a young girl growing up in Kingsville, Texas. At her mother's request, she gathered chiltepins -- hot little wild peppers spread by birds.
"Every meal, nearly, I had to go out and get her damn peppers," says Andrews, a petite 4-foot, 10-inch woman who often wears her white hair pulled into a tidy bun. "They're bloody hot. They're just impossible."
Andrews never ate them herself, but her mother liked the taste of chiltepins mashed in her food. Andrews used to hide the tiny peppers in the chocolate-covered cherries she received for Christmas, just to keep her younger brother from eating her candy. One bite did the trick.
As a child, she made dresses for her dolls and dreamed of one day becoming a dress designer. She attended the University of Texas at Austin and earned a bachelor's degree in home economics, where the fashion design program was housed, in 1944. She went on to receive a master's degree in education at Texas A&I University (now Texas A&M-Kingsville) and taught art in public secondary schools in Corpus Christi.
After 25 years in an unhappy marriage, when her last living child was grown, she divorced.
"I was 45 years old," she says. "That's when I was born."
Seeking a challenge, she decided to pursue a doctoral degree in art. She was 50 when she came to North Texas State University, now the University of North Texas, as a self-proclaimed LOLIT -- Little Old Lady in Tennis Shoes.
Andrews had given up painting years earlier, after her 14-year-old daughter, a budding artist named Jinxy, was killed in a car accident. But after reaching a turning point in her grief, she picked up a paintbrush for the first time since Jinxy's accident while she was studying at North Texas.
"I was just pretty desperate," she says. "I came up with the idea, ‘I can go on like that, or I can do something.' I decided I would use my life in a way that would fulfill her potential. I call that the Jinxy principle."
She also became even more interested in peppers after discovering that they were the most used spice and condiment in the world, but little was known about them.
Andrews received her doctoral degree from North Texas in 1976, but not without a struggle. A few weeks before graduation, Andrews suffered a retinal occlusion. The condition took away her sight in her right eye, which had been considered the stronger of the two. Her left eye, affected by acute astigmatism since early childhood, already had poor vision. She walked across the stage at her graduation seeing only lightness and darkness.
While still struggling to regain her vision, she began her first book on peppers. She trotted around the globe, searching South America, Africa, India and beyond for pepper seeds to grow in her garden.
At home, she spent at least 40 hours on each painting of pepper plants.The painting helped strengthen the vision in her left eye, while a series of surgeries returned some of the sight in her right eye.
"I only paint from the living plant material ," Andrews says. "The time constraint is great on that. Some of them would collapse and I'd have to wait for another season before they grew again."
Years later, Andrews donated her original pepper paintings to the UNT School of Visual Arts. Proceeds from the sales fund a scholarship she established for art students in honor of her children.
Andrews once grew 81 different kinds of peppers at her home and at a friend's farm, but now she grows only the ones she uses in cooking. She has jalapeños, serranos and a big sweet pepper -- cubanelle.
In 2001, the International Association of Culinary Professionals presented her with the Jane Grigson Award, recognizing distinguished scholarship in food books.
Despite the accolades, Andrews is still amazed by her worldwide reputation.After the publication of her first book, her phone began ringing with people from around the world seeking her advice.
"They'd ask, ‘Are you The Pepper Lady?' and they'd go on for hours," she says.
She registered the nickname as a trademark, thinking she might use it if she made and marketed pepper relishes one day.
She hasn't. But at 81, Andrews has traveled to more than 100 countries on all seven continents -- yes, even Antarctica. And she recently returned from a textile-gathering expedition in Croatia.
So there's no telling what The Pepper Lady will do next.