- Associated Press - Sunday, March 12, 2017

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - On Des Moines’ south side, peppers grow as freely as turf grass. Italian-Americans here eat them like candy. They can and freeze them. They put them in sauce, on pizza or in eggs, fry them up with olive oil and potatoes, or even spread them on bread as an alternative to peanut butter.

Among all the pepper love, a really good one stands out.

An immigrant couple had it shipped over from their family in Italy in the early 1900s. Five generations since have had a hand in growing it.

Now, the pepper is internationally important. Its seeds were shipped to Norway to be saved in a seed vault forever, or for at least as long as the planet is around.

The Ausilio Thin Skin Italian pepper seeds arrived in late February at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a depository buried in the ice, cold enough to ensure a power outage won’t ruin the seeds and far enough from anywhere that nuclear war won’t destroy them. The seed bank ensures the genetic diversity of the world’s food will survive, saving heirloom seeds at a time when hybrids dominate our food supply, The Des Moines Register (https://dmreg.co/2mJaNCx ) reported.

It’s not a pepper that will save the world from starvation. But it might save some Italians. It’s that good.

“Try that,” said Chad Ogle-Riccelli, a fourth-generation Italian-American and guardian of the seed.

He hands over a spoon of pepper-inspired sauce, bubbling from the stovetop in his south-side Des Moines home. It’s robust. Then he offers peppers splayed upon a thick slice of bread. Zesty but not burning hot. Onward he tromps, from kitchen to dining room, with a pepper and sardine baked roll and a jar of pepper ground from cores.

He stands below the photograph that is in every one of his extended families’ kitchens: His great-grandmother Rachel Ausilio, who with husband Giovanni “John” Ausilio, first put the seed in American soil. Obviously, great-grandma Rachel is hunched over a bowl of peppers on the stove.

“Some days, I look at it and I can smell the peppers,” said Theresa Grace Ausilio Riccelli, 91, who is Rachel’s daughter and Chad’s grandmother.

The pepper is in the family DNA. While Chad is busy cooking, his three children punch seeds into starter trays because it’s the time of year to get the plants going indoors.

“It’s like a fingerprint. Every seed represents a different part of human evolution,” said John Torgrimson, executive director of Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah. “Every seed in our collection has a story to tell.”

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Information from: The Des Moines Register, https://www.desmoinesregister.com

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