green-pepper-mango-mystery
( The Packer )

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!" 

Over a Christmas visit to my grandparents' I sat down with my grandpa to get the tale of the green pepper mango mystery straight from the horses' mouth.

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.'"

Case closed.

Now excuse me while I go eat the cucumbers I mangoed last summer.

 
Comments
Submitted by Noel freidline on Mon, 01/15/2018 - 22:14

I was probably in fifth or sixth grade before I realized that green bell peppers were not mangoes. This should not be too surprising though, since Mr. Freidline is my father! I was also in middle school before I figured out there was no “r” in the words “wash” or the name “Washington”!

Submitted by Kathy Rogers on Mon, 05/28/2018 - 15:25

My Grandmother was from Oswego KS and she always called them mango peppers. I’d be curious to know how the usage of the word travelled to SE Kansas.

Submitted by John on Sun, 06/17/2018 - 22:50

I’m originally from western PA and moved to Ohio for college in 1969. After graduation I stayed in Ohio. Back in PA we had Bell Peppers in numerous colors; but, mostly green; however, here in Ohio the natives have always called them Mangos which until this column, seemed to defy explanation. Good to know there’s a real reason

Submitted by MAC on Mon, 08/20/2018 - 14:22

I work at a historic site where we make pickles with mango melons (a muskmelon variety), green peppers and green tomatoes. Mangoing is the process of stuffing the fruit with chopped seasoned vegetables, sewing the opening shut then covering them with vinegar. These pickles added variety to the winter and spring diet of people living off what they could store in their root cellar. Check out Buckeye Cookery & Practical Housekeeping for historic recipes.

Submitted by Kathy on Mon, 11/05/2018 - 17:45

I once instructed my aunt to add a Mango to her Chili for more taste. She exclaimed, "WHAT, Fruit in chili?" I said no, being from KY, we always called green peppers, Mangos, it's just what we grew up knowing! She thought I was nuts. She was from Dayton, OH, a mere 54 minutes away, and had never heard of such a thing. Just as I had never known there was a different Mango!! We laughed. 😊😊😊 I have since seen and tasted a mango, but I had to get to 50 years of age, to realize there was such a thing! Incredible!

Submitted by Martha bishop on Wed, 11/07/2018 - 20:01

I found this article because I'm reading an old cookbook with a Thanksgiving menu that calls for "pepper mangoes". I have never heard of them, so I looked it up and found this. Thanks!!