It wasn’t something I thought of much when I was on Guam. They were wild, they had been there at least since the Spanish arrived in the Marianas, they were spread.. how? A common theory is as they are pequin type peppers (e.g. bird peppers), that birds spread them from island to island.

There is however a comment on the Wikipedia that the common Guam/Saipan boonie is some kind of Thai ornamental pepper. The reasoning behind this is that the peppers point upwards on both plants.  However, there are some problems with this thesis. For one the Guam boonie isn’t classified as the same species as the Thai ornamental. I verified this by emailing New Mexico State University’s Chili Pepper Institute, who replied:

…we have the Guam Boonie as a Capsicum frutescens, it is not the same thing as a Thai. Hope this helps, thanks for writing

The second is that they’re hardly the same size. While the Guam boonie reaches well over 3 feet in height, the Thai ornamental is a plant that gets to 12-18 inches high.

I wrote my bachelor’s alma mater, the University of Guam, and got a couple interesting comments out of that. From a comment from Phoebe Wall to a member of the alumni group at UOG I get this:

The “boonie pepper” is definitely Capsicum frutescens. There is a lot [of] variation in types. I imagine [Food Near Snellville] is probably referring to the donne’ sali (the small one that is really pika).

and from Professor Mari Marutani (she’s the resident UOG expert on the Guam boonie)  I received this reply:

Hi [Food Near Snellville],
Two hot pepper plants are known in Guam. One is “donne’sali” (C. frutescens) that is characterized to have small, bright red, and very pungent fruits. The other is “donne’ ti’au” (C. annuum), a long, red and pungent pepper. “Donne’sali” has long been harvested from the wild and “donne’ ti’au” is mainly grown in the backyard garden. Selections of each were documented once as ‘Guam Super Hot’ donne’sali, (C. frutescens), and ‘Guam Regular Hot’ possibly a selection of donne’ti’au C. annuum. ‘Guam Super Hot’ is very pungent having Scoville heat unit of 4000-4250, while ‘Guam Regular Hot’ was reported to have an average of 3450 (Lee, C. T. 1987. ‘Guam Super Hot’ chili pepper. HortScience 22:1341). However, unfortunately original specimens of both ‘Guam Super Hot’ and ‘Guam Regular Hot’ have been lost and we will not be able to examine them.

Occasionally, some farmers sell their own selected lines and wild hot peppers (‘boonie’ peppers) to the roadside vendors and local supermarkets. Since there is a great possibility of cross pollination (often by bees), this self-pollinated plant often has a genetic variations in natural environment. People of Guam know there are variation of Donne sali. For example, Mr. Cruz has one kind and Mrs. Santos has slightly different one, hotter or very PIKA.

Mari

In short, the boonie is not the Thai pepper. And what you get may vary considerably, due to genetics.

There was exactly one sweet my mother insisted I know how to cook, and to be sure I could make it, she trusted in me her cocoa stained copy of “Our Fair Lady”. This cookbook was a collection of 792 recipes put together by the Associated Women for Christian Education, a group affiliated with the Fort Worth Christian School and College. And in this book, on page 189, there is a recipe for a Sheath Cocoa Cake (actually 4 recipes).

sheath cocoa cake recipes

sheath cocoa cake recipes

I don’t think I made it immediately – I had to graduate to having an apartment and a decent oven first, but I’ve made them off and on over the years, with and without icing and it’s a totally decadent thing, rich in flavor and strikingly easy to make.

“Our Fair Lady” isn’t dated, though with Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson a featured contributor, it probably dates to the early to mid 1960s. Even by then, the recipe is known and even well known. Two sites, in two posts each, offer more insight into the development and heritage of the cake. On the site Practically Edible (a kind of food encyclopedia, worth perusing) they mention the phrase ‘sheath cake‘ dates to the late 1950s, and that the most common use of it is equivalent to the Texas sheet cake. On Barry Popik’s site, he notes the use of the phrase ‘sheath cake‘ as early as 1950, and gives examples of the phrase ‘sheet cake‘  as old as 1936. Barry’s sheath cake article shows that by October 1960, a Texas sheet cake is being presented in essentially the modern form. As noted in an article Barry quotes, the sheet cake is a very close cousin of the German chocolate cake, but requires much fewer steps, much less cleanup and can be completed in an hour. That made it ideal for parties, for cook outs, for a quick and easy dessert to take to the Sunday after-church meal.

Now as the blog Slightly Cheaper than Therapy notes, not many Texans know that this cake is called a Texas sheet cake. My cousin Lynn (Plano, TX) knows it as Aunt Velma’s Chocolate Cake. Others knew it as the Mexican Chocolate cake (that is, if it contained cinnamon). The site Texas Cooking calls it a Chocolate-Cinnamon sheath cake with Chocolate Frosting. Jillian Downer called it ‘the little black dress of chocolate cakes’, for its ease of preparation and its versatility. And many people, too many to name, call it the best chocolate cake ever.

Blogs:

The Blog The Daily Dish offers a sheath cake recipe, and insists you must use butter and not use margarine. The blogger Planet Pooks in her article “Retro Food that will kill you”  favors the traditional ‘oleo’ version and thinks putting butter into such a dish is a very bad idea. The Blogger My Wooden Spoon offers a sheath cake recipe and also has some beautiful pictures to accompany her text. The blogger Bean Town Baker is another who learned the recipe through family and otherwise can’t tell you where it came from. The blogger Wasabigelatine presents the cake, once again handed down through the generations, a family recipe. The Blogger Pioneer Woman presents a version under the title “The Best Chocolate Cake Ever”. And in this result from Google Book Search, a recipe is presented by the Heritage Society of Austin.

Variants:

The blogger Day Recipe presents a White Texas sheet cake (no cocoa at all, that I can see). The Blogger Lisa Lundy presents a gluten and dairy free version of the Texas sheet cake.