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A parade for picky pepper people

Fiery food has to start somewhere, long before it gets into the chili pot or hot sauce bottle. And Tricia Pursley is getting to the root of it, in fact the whole pepper plant.

Pursley and sister Linda Leckey, second generation of the nursery family that put prerooted plugs of turf in lawns across Florida, have given hot peppers a new pride of place in the family's garden center and will salute them with a Fall Pepper Parade on Saturday.

There will be dozens of chiliheads who play with fire in the garden and the kitchen, including entrepreneurs who make everything pepper and amateurs with home-cooked hot stuff. The real stars will be exotic specimen pepper plants in a rainbow of colors and a menagerie of shapes, from Christmas ornaments to pawpaws.

Not just jalapenos, tabascos, Hungarian wax and banana peppers, or your everyday set-the-house-afire habaneros and Scotch bonnets, the deceptively cute little guys from the Caribbean and Mexico.

How about Hanoi Reds, which look like cartoon tomatoes; Makusares, shaped like tiny Japanese lanterns; yellow Turks' caps; little wormlike Aribibi Gusano; and teeny orange Inca Surprises? Or the Caribbean Red, which some chiliheads say may be the next red-hot pepper, topping the Red Savina, considered the hottest of 1996.

These and many more have been gathered by specialty grower Bob Grant from the wide world of peppers and are now cultivated at Exoticus II in Archer, outside Gainesville.

The parade, including lectures, demonstrations, cooking classes and sales of pepper plants and products, will be from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Pursley Gardens Galeria (4154 Haines Road, at its intersection with 16th Street N, St. Petersburg; 527-6497).

Sure, it's a commercial venture, although the fun is free and you can take home a new source of fire for $6 to $12, but that's what impresses the Nibbler. It's a perfect marriage of two hot trends, fiery food and gardening, and a growing variety of pepper seeds and plants are showing up in catalogs and other garden stores.

"I think more and more people want to grow their own food," Pursley says. If they're not up to urban farming, they can at least grow their own seasonings to put some fire into store-bought vittles.

Florida's more humid than the desert Southwest, but many peppers do fine here, especially in containers that you can move around when we get a freeze.

By the way, if you think you recognize Pursley, it's not the heat of the peppers. Pursley was Devon on All My Children back in the '70s and '80s.

Stars in the stew

Foodies will find plenty of cooking celebrities in our pot during the next month.

Mollie Katzen, whose Moosewood cookbooks taught the whole-earth generation the joy of cooking more than sprouts, went on to write more cookbooks and star in public television cooking shows. She'll sign copies of her newest, Vegetable Heaven, from 6 to 7 p.m. Nov. 13 at Waldenbooks & More (13101 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa; 264-6021).

Emeril Lagasse, the Cajun chef who put the Bam! in his restaurant in New Orleans and in various shows on the TV Food Network, will be in town at Mise en Place Market (2616 MacDill Ave. S, Tampa; 839-3939) Nov. 23. He will sign and sell books at 7:45 p.m.

Patricia Wells, who knows her way around the restaurant kitchens, produce markets and butcher shops of France better than most other Americans, brings her savvy to the March of Dimes Gourmet Chef's Auction on Tuesday. The event includes a sampling of food from 35 restaurants and caterers and begins at 6:30 p.m. in the Hyatt Regency-Downtown Tampa (Two Tampa City Center). Tickets are $25.

The March of Dimes will host a similar event in Pinellas the next week with 20 Pinellas restaurants. Gourmet treats and dinners will be up for auction beginning at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 18 at Ruth Eckerd Hall (1111 McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater). Tickets are $25.

Call 287-2600 for ticket information for both events.