Everywhere she travels around the globe, she is asked the same question: "Are you The Pepper Lady?"
Jean Andrews ('76 Ph.D.) 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 detailed botanical drawings of peppers in all stages of life, but 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, UNT Press published another of Andrews' books, The Peppers Cookbook: 200 Recipes From The Pepper Lady's Kitchen.
Life at 45
Andrews' relationship with peppers started when she was a young girl in the South Texas town of Kingsville. 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 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."
The Jinxy principle
Seeking a challenge, she decided to pursue a doctoral degree in art. She was 50 when she came to 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."
A few weeks before Andrews was to receive her diploma at North Texas, she had a retinal occlusion, taking 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.
Searching the globe
While still struggling to regain her vision, she set to work on a book about peppers. The idea came from her time at North Texas, when she discovered that peppers were the most used spice and condiment in the world but little was known about them.
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 (a series of surgeries returned some of the sight in her right eye).
"I only paint from the living plant material," she 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."
She 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.
While living in Austin, she still retains close ties with North Texas. 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. Another sale in November in Austin will benefit the school.
She was named a Distinguished Alumna by UNT in 1991. 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
Creamy Chile Dip
A delightfully different dip for raw or parboiled vegetables, or tostadas; also used as a stuffing for celery, banana peppers or cherry tomatoes when served as appetizers. Makes 1 cup.
6 long green/red chiles, peeled, seeds removed, chopped; or 1 (4-ounce) can, drained, chopped
1 8-ounce package cream cheese
2 tablespoons milk
3 tablespoons green onion (scallion), finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, pressed
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper or to taste
Combine all ingredients; beat until creamy. Add more milk if necessary. Allow to sit for at least one hour at room temperature before serving.
— From The Peppers Cookbook: 200 Recipes
From The Pepper Lady’s Kitchen by Jean Andrews (UNT Press, 2005)