The Midwest Mango-Green Pepper Mystery

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If you grew up in the Midwest, you are familiar with the weird phenom of green bell peppers being called ‘mangoes’.    Finely chopped mango was that special addition to my mother’s holiday cheeseball, that took it up a notch – it balanced the sweetness of the grated pineapple folded into the cream cheese.   I had always heard them referred to as mangoes at home and knew no better until college when introduced to the international cuisine around the university.  

This was like the breakfast dish I knew of as a ‘dippy egg’, was actually called an ‘egg-over-easy’ by the rest of the civilized world.   My parents coined the term ‘dippy egg’ when we were kids.  You ‘dipped’ your toast in the soft yolk to soak it up, and it made sense to our childhood brains.  

But green peppers and mangos are vegetable and fruit.   They taste completely different, so there’s no chance they’d be mistaken.   A mango is dense, sweet and tangy, and a green pepper is crunchy, vegetal and hollow.     So how were these two foods mistaken for each other?     Did some local German grocer look up the English word for the green peppers he had and mistook them for mangoes?

Many old local recipes call for ‘mangoes’ when really meaning green peppers.   In Cincinnati, in the Forest Hills School district in the 1960s and 70s, the term ‘stuffed mangoes’ was used on the school menu.  There are many Amish cookbooks that also use the term ‘stuffed mangos.’   And, in the supermarket, up until probably only a few decades ago, retailers labelled green peppers mangos in the Midwest.    Most of us now know the difference, but older folks in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri still call green bell peppers mangoes.       Some seem to think that this originated with coal miners in eastern Pennsylvania in the 1870s.   The Pennsylvania Board of Agriculture referred to them as mango peppers in 1879, and the Ohio Board of Agriculture referred to them the same in their 1896 annual report.

Imagine my surprise when Lifesavers came out with a mango flavored candy in the 80s, that tasted sweet like a fruit, not spicy like a vegetable.   They really missed that mark.

But an article in the New York Times claimed the real reason had to do with food preservation in colonial times.   When mangoes were first imported to the American colonies in the 1600s, they had to be pickled, because of lack of refrigeration.   Other fruits also had to be pickled, and came to be known as ‘mangoes’, especially green peppers.      People mistook the term mango as the process, rather than the fruit they were getting.   In 1699, an early American cookbook refers to a “mango of cucumbers” and a “mango of walnuts.”   By the early 1700s, almost anything that could be pickled – apples, peaches, apricots, plums – was called a ‘mango.’     One of the most popular of these ‘mangoes’ was a bell pepper stuffed with spiced cabbage and pickled.  

It’s maybe an example of Midwestern provinciality, that the term mango for green pepper existed for over 300 years and has only recently been corrected.   Thankfully, we now know the difference between fruit mangos and mango peppers.  

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