A Passion for Purple Hull Peas
A Yank like me didn't know much 'bout fresh field peas growing up; many years would pass until I even felt a pod in my hand, zipped it open on its seam and smelled its earthiness.
In fact, as a kid, I hardly ate beans at all, with the exception of the occasional can of chickpeas that my father would include on his antipasto platter of cured meats and cheese. (I can see that plate in my mind's eye, iceberg lettuce as a liner, salami and provolone cheese rolled up, toothpicks at the ready.)
It seems that as an adult, I'm making up for lost time because now I can't get enough of beans. I can't imagine my life without them -- dried, canned, fresh, black, white, speckled -- they're all good in my book.
Not until I became a cook did I have the experience of shelling fresh beans and then cooking them up, learning of their tender and quick-cooking nature. There are more varieties of beans (known as 'peas' in the Caribbean and the American south) than there are days in a year, but today's spotlight is on the cowpea (aka Southern Field pea), which encompasses the crowder pea and the well-known black-eyed pea. This summer, I had the great fortune of being at the farmers' market at the right time, when one farmer was selling bags of shelled "purple hull peas." They looked like black eyes in shape and size, but differed in color -- kind of lavender with a little pistachio green mixed in, even a wee bit of pink around the eye.
I took them home and boiled them for about 15 minutes, maybe a bit longer, drained them, saved the "pot licker" and threw the peas into a skillet with oil and butter, softened onions, garlic, a chopped up chile and some fresh thyme leaves.
Over lowish heat, I let them cook for about 10 minutes, so that everybody in the pan could talk to another and cozy up their flavors. Salt to taste, then this dish was good to go.
As I was slurping up my bowl, I nearly kicked myself for not thinking to take a picture for this here blog space, so my fellow Yanks could see what I was talking about. Weeks went by, and I felt badly about the missed photo op (not to mention I was craving more of those peas). But just last week, I got a dose of good bean karma, when I spotted purple hull peas at the Clarendon farm market, still in their pretty green-purplish pods (which I'm told, can be eaten when still young).
While watching dumb TV last night, I shelled a pound of peas, and while my coffee was brewing this morning, I cooked peas for breakfast, a wonderful way to start the day.
By the way, cowpeas were transported on slave ships from Africa to North America, and figured largely into the diet of slaves on southern plantations. The pea's association with "cow" comes from white landowners thinking that beans were fit only for cows, but ironically, the slaves were eating more nutritious, high-protein fare than the heavy salt-pork diet of their masters.
The love for the cowpea lives on in Emerson, Ark., where a purple hull festival is held every June. I may have to mark my calendar for next year's festivities. The cowpea, however, is listed on the Slow Food's Ark of Taste, a list designed to create awareness of foods that represent agricultural and cultural diversity and that are in danger of disappearing from the food chain.
Got a cowpea tale or recipe to share? Do so in the comments area below.
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