Southern Field Peas

Ark of taste
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There are hundreds of varieties, sometimes subdivided into four main groups: field peas, crowder peas, cream peas and black-eyed peas. These are distinguished from each other in somewhat arbitrary, probably accidental phenotypical, ways. They became a staple food across the Southeastern United States; a food crop for both poor blacks and, somewhat later, poor whites. They eaten both as fresh shelled beans and dried, on the vine, for winter eating. Their horticultural requirements reflect their traditional habitats: warm soil, more than 90 frost-free days. They are drought tolerant and can handle soils ranging from sandy to heavy clay. This translates to May planting and Aug/Sept. harvest. As befits poor people’s food, they can grow under fairly harsh conditions. One old tradition is to plant cowpeas next to corn; the peas will fix nitrogen for the corn and the corn will return the favor by supplying support for vining. Most of the old varieties that have survived, and are available, offer distinctive tastes and characteristics. They are certainly better tasting than the modern hybrids and it is hard to think of any advantages the newer varieties have. Cowpeas, or Southern peas, are what northerners would call beans. Cowpeas have been in the New World since colonial times, brought over from Africa. Indeed, the genetic origins of Vigna unguiculata are in the Niger River basin of West Africa. Cowpeas were cultivated in Egypt by 2500 BC. (One can find in the seed catalogs a recent cowpeas import from Botswana.) Varieties have tended to be intensely localized, often with families saving seed from generation to generation. This is a small selection of traditional varieties:Calico Crowder (an antebellum variety), white with maroon splotches. Pole Cat Pink Eye purple hull, cream-colored with maroon eyes. Pods turn purple at maturity. Running conch (antebellum) Mississippi Silver Hull Rouge et Noir (Cajun, of course) Kreutzer, beige and brown with darker-brown specks Washday, tan-yellow, a good soup bean. (antebellum, so named because they cooked up fast on busy washdays.)

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StateUnited States

Southeastern US

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