Dr. Jean Andrews

While there are many, many reasons why hot peppers have come into their own and have blossomed into objects of public interest and enjoyment, one of those reasons can be directly attributed to Dr. Jean Andrews, aka "The Pepper Lady," a title she has, in fact, trademarked. A diminutive, outspoken, and endlessly energetic octogenarian, Andrews leads a life of travel, writing, research, painting, and philanthropy.

As a native of Texas and a longtime cook and gardener, she had been growing, preserving, and developing recipes for peppers for many years. When finishing up a doctorate in art at the University of North Texas (begun at age 50, three years before), she was casting about for a dissertation subject, she learned that the pepper genus, Capsicum, had never been illustrated. In fact, as she explored the subject, she learned that the pepper genus was not even defined until the Fifties, and that there was very little literature published on the topic. While she ultimately chose a different area for her doctoral research, her interest in painting peppers was irrevocably piqued, and in her spare time, while teaching art, she bought textbooks and began to teach herself botany to properly prepare for the task.

Although a debilitating eye injury slowed her down for a few years, Dr. Andrews remained committed to her botanical illustration project, and as she recovered, she began the work. "Because my vision was impaired and I had to work so slowly, it took me five years to complete the paintings, at a rate of 5 or 6 per year," she told me. "I only worked from live specimens, so at times I was growing as many as 81 varieties of peppers. Although I was not formally botanically trained, once the experts -- botanists and scholars at UT and other places -- understood what I was doing, they were very helpful to me and supportive of my work; I was accomplishing something that hadn't been done before." The results of this labor of love, scholarship, and ultimate dedication were the 34 gorgeous botanical paintings of pepper varieties that appear in Peppers: The Domesticated Capsicums, along with her comprehensive and erudite text that includes pepper history, science, cultivation, and culinary and medicinal uses.

The consequence of this Herculean endeavor was that Dr. Andrews is recognized as a world authority on the subject of peppers, and she became a Visiting Scholar in Botany at the University of Texas and a staff member at the Herbarium there. In 1983, she endowed two visiting professorships at UT -- one in Human Nutrition and one in Economic Botany.  After writing some smaller works on pepper subjects (along with several books on two other abiding interests, Gulf Coast shells and wildflowers), in 1999 Dr. Andrews published a companion volume to Peppers, titled The Pepper Trail: History and Recipes From Around the World. This is an anthropological and sociological study of the early spice trade, and about the global progress of peppers through various cultures and cuisines. The book contains a panoply of pepper recipes contributed by an impressive assortment of nationally known chefs. In 2000, it won the IACP Jane Grigson Award for Distinguished Scholarship. Together, the two volumes are commonly recognized as the ultimate source for pepper information. 

Andrews was named to the Hall of Honor of the College of Natural Science at the University of Texas at Austin, was honored as a 1991 Distinguished Alumni of University of North Texas at Denton, Texas and a 1997 Distinguished Alumni at University of Texas at Austin.