What is a field pea?

What Are Field Peas: Growing Different Types Of Field Peas

Black-eyed peas are just one of the more common field pea varieties but by no means are they the only variety. How many different types of field peas are there? Well, before that question is answered, it’s best to understand what field peas are. Read on to find out about growing field peas and information on field pea varieties.

What are Field Peas?

Field peas, also referred to as southern peas or cowpeas, are grown on over 25 million acres throughout the world. They are sold as a dry, shelled product and used for either human consumption or livestock food.

Closely related to the garden pea, field peas are annual plants. They may have a vining habit to an erect habit. All stages are edible, from the blossoms to the immature pods, called snaps, to the mature pods full of peas and the overly mature pods full of dried peas.

Field Pea Information

Originating in India, field peas were exported to Africa and then brought to the United States in early Colonial times during the slave trade where they became a staple in the southeastern states. Generations of southerners grew field peas in rice and corn fields to add nitrogen back into the soil. They thrived in the hot, dry soil and became valuable subsistence food sources for many poor people and their livestock.

Different Types of Field Peas

There are five seed types of field pea:

  • Crowder
  • Black eye
  • Semi-crowder
  • Non-crowder
  • Creamer

Within this grouping there are dozens of field pea varieties. Of course, most of us have heard of black-eyed peas, but how about Big Red Zipper, Rucker, Turkey Craw, Whippoorwill, Hercules or Rattlesnake?

Yes, these are all names for field peas, each name as unique as each pea is in its own way. Mississippi Silver, Colossus, Cow, Clemson Purple, Pinkeye Purple Hull, Texas Cream, Queen Anne, and Dixie Lee are all familiar southern pea names.

If you want to try growing field peas, perhaps the biggest challenge is picking a variety. Once that task has been accomplished, growing field peas is fairly simple provided your region has warm enough temperatures. Field peas thrive in areas with soil temperatures of at least 60 F. (16 C.) and no danger of frost for the entirety of its growing period. They are very tolerant of different soil conditions and drought.

Most field peas will be ready to harvest between 90-100 days from planting.

A Field Guide to Field Peas

Big Red Ripper, Zipper, Rucker, Stick Up, Old Timer, Turkey Craw, Whippoorwill, Purple Hull, Pinkeye, Crowder, Wash Day, Rattlesnake, Iron Clay, Bird, Cow, Colossus, Hercules, Mississippi Silver, Shanty, Polecat: they may sound like aliases in a rouges gallery, but these are just some of the names for various field peas, the most Southern of legumes. Field peas have flourished in the South for over three hundred years and summertime Southern farmers’ markets are brimming with them, and yet fresh seasonal field peas are all too rare on contemporary Southern tables and practically unheard of elsewhere. Folks might not know what they’re missing.

The term field pea reveals its original role in the South, where for generations field peas were grown in the rice and corn fields to add valuable nitrogen back into the soil. Field peas were so common and plentiful that there was no need to tend them in a kitchen garden. The plants are undaunted by hot, dry, poor soil that would wither many other crops. Given their critical role as subsistence food for many poor people and livestock, some culinary historians say that field peas once thrived on poverty. Similar to ramps, the humble peas that were once relegated to the poor worked their way up to standard home cooking and are now featured on many a fine-dining menu. Field peas: one part tenacity, one part tasty.

Enslaved Africans brought field peas from their homeland. Given those fraught origins, it’s hard to imagine how or why eating field peas came to be associated with good luck on New Year’s Day, but they are said to represent coins, just as leafy greens represent folding money. It is even more of a mystery why ubiquitous black-eyed peas, mostly canned at that, are the only type of field pea that many people know. Jeff Ross, head gardener at the legendary Blackberry Farm in eastern Tennessee, describes black-eyed peas as the red delicious apple of the pea world: the most popular is not the same as the best.

Southern Pea Soothsayers

Photo by Jennifer Hitchcock

Jeff, along with his colleague John Coykendall, knows field peas. Each year Jeff and John plant about a dozen varieties in the manicured rows of the Blackberry Farm garden, but they are curators of hundreds more heirloom varieties that were nearly lost to the ages. A single germinated pea can bring an imperiled variety back from the brink. Heirloom peas are open pollinators, which means that when a plant survives, its seeds can be saved and planted the next year, resulting in even more viable seeds to perpetuate that variety. Moreover, pea plants are selving, so multiple varieties can be planted close together and the strains will stay true to type. Field peas don’t lie.

To cajole a pea into production, Jeff and John cradle the germinated seed in a small cup of potting mix. They shuttle it in and out of their garden shed, making sure the burgeoning plant gets sufficient light and water. John has been spotted taking the most delicate plants home at night, although no one can confirm whether he sleeps with one eye open. As the plant grows, they promote it to progressively larger pots until it can take a stand in the garden.

The comfortable, eclectic Blackberry Farm garden shed sits at the base of the garden. It is part laboratory, part archive, part classroom, and part clubhouse. Bowls and jars and crates of seeds, pods, and cobs line the shelves and dot the workbench. Strings of drying bean and pea pods dangle from the ceiling like stalactites. A mound of pea hay might be raked up in one corner and winter squashes shaped like fat jugs loll around another. Hoes, froes, rakes, and other old-school tools sprout from a barrel. Open windows do any cooling in the summer and a stoked woodstove radiates any heat in the winter. Nothing is random, yet nothing is self-conscious. The effect suggests that masterful gardening happens in this temperate Eden, and it does.

Jeff and John have been ardently working in field pea search and rescue for years. They look for obscure varieties in their travels, and other growers and seed savers sometimes send them a few precious, often unidentified, peas that they discovered in jars on dusty shelves, in the deep folds of old coat pockets, in faded seed envelopes, and even more peculiar places. For example, they have a pea they came to call Turkey Craw. A hunter found a few whole peas in the craw of a wild turkey. When the peas germinated and then needed a name, the gardeners considered the source. Likewise, when they came across an unknown pea that grew best on a steep slope in their Tennessee foothills, it seemed fitting to call it a Siddlin’ Ground pea. One of the favorites grown at Blackberry Farm is the Calico Crowder, a buff-colored pea with vibrant maroon splashes. Many lucky guests have left with a souvenir envelope of Calico Crowder seeds labeled in John’s distinctive script.

Peas in Different Pods

Photo by Jennifer Hitchcock

A single pea plant is its own family tree. During its four- to six-month life span, all stages of the peas’ lifecycle grow together at the same time, producing by the bushel. Various parts of the plant host blooms, immature pods called snaps, mature pods full of peas, and aging pods full of dried peas. The peas are edible at each stage. Snaps can be eaten raw, macerated in vinaigrette, or gently cooked, similar to haricots vert. Freshly shelled beans from mature pods should be cooked and can also be frozen for storage to good effect. Dried beans keep for months and rebound quickly when soaked. The outlier of the field pea world is the yard bean, sometimes called yard-long beans. Although they don’t really grow a full yard long, they do grow to a startling length. Unlike other field peas, they don’t fill out and are grown only for their tasty pods.

The peas and their pods can be lovely. Some peas are as smooth and round as pebbles. Others are chunky with flattened sides from crowding themselves into the pod. Some are like little ears. They can be solid, speckled, striped, and variegated. A few are so florid that they look a child’s craft project from summer camp. It’s too bad that almost no field pea looks as lovely after it is cooked!

Not everyone has the temperament to sit and shell field peas for hours on end. The pods are tough and resistant. Some varieties have a sturdy string running down the side that acts as a rip cord that releases the peas. Others seem to demand the skills of a safecracker. A mess of peas will wear out the side of a thumb, so many people turn to mechanical shellers, a godsend for busy cooks and farmers who know that shelled peas will be welcomed in the marketplace. The machines quickly crank out peas like a Gatling gun, shooting peas into a bucket and flinging spent shells out the back.

The Holy Land of Legumes

Photo by Jennifer Hitchcock

Communities, family farms, and farmers’ markets across the South often lay claim to their favorite peas, those best suited to both local growing conditions and treasured recipes. In some places, discussing the relative merits of different ways to grow and cook peas is a point of civic pride, tantamount to debating barbecue. Each person who voices an earnest, heartfelt opinion is equally correct. Or not.

Dozens, if not hundreds, of different field pea varieties grow across the South each summer, peaking in production during the hot and steamy shank of the season. A stroll through a farmers’ market or stop at a roadside stand proves that field peas are inexpensive to buy. A few minutes on the stove prove that fresh peas are easy to cook and even easier to eat. Freshly cooked peas are as superior to their canned cohorts as any other vegetable.

Anyone who thinks that black-eyed peas are the only option just isn’t looking. Anyone who thinks that bland, beige, and mushy canned black-eyed peas tell the whole story lacks inspiration. Anyone who settles for one obligatory bite of subpar peas on only the first day of the year lacks gumption.

We Southerners live in the land of fresh field peas. Lucky is as lucky does.

Know Your Food: Southern Peas

Field peas, cow peas or Southern peas. Whatever you call them, this variety of vegetables are not actually peas, despite their name. Southern pea is the common name for a a group of legumes that includes black-eyed, crowder and cream peas. Black-eyed peas are well-known due to the Southern tradition of serving them with greens on New Year’s Day for luck and prosperity. But, other varieties such as white acre peas, zipper peas or scarlet runner beans can also be found in an abundance in Southern farmers’ markets throughout the summer and fall.

Despite their name and regional fame, Southern peas are not native to America. Originating in India and slowly making their way throughout Africa during the pre-colonial era, the peas were brought over to the American South as a result of the international slave trade. Peas adapted well to the South’s environment and were commonly grown because of their ability to add nitrogen to the soil, thus replenishing the nutrient-deficient cotton fields. Not only were they excellent soil-building crops, but Southern peas were also inexpensive and easy to grow, weathering droughts and other harsh conditions. After the economic collapse of the Civil War, Southern peas no longer simply rebuilt the soil, but became a staple in the region’s cuisine.

A great addition to home gardens, Southern peas should be planted four weeks after the last frost or when the soil reaches a consistent temperature of 60 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. When planting, make sure to place no more than four to six seeds per foot of row and plant them 3/4 to 1-1/2 inches deep. No need to worry about planting different types of peas too close together. Southern peas are “selving” plants and each strain will stay true to itself. Avoid planting Southern peas in heavy, wet soils, as this will produce weak and diseased plants.

Southern peas only need about an inch of water a week and generally take 60 to 90 days to mature, depending on the strain planted and the environment. They are ready to be harvested and eaten fresh when the seeds have begun to swell and the pod can be easily shelled, but before the pod begins to lighten in color. Feel free to harvest the pods before they are fully matured. At this stage, they are called snaps and can be eaten raw or gently cooked. Southern peas are known for having multiple stages simultaneously, from blooms to snaps to mature pods all on the same plant. This lengthens the harvest time, making them easy to enjoy for several weeks.

A Guide to the Different Types of Field Peas

Field peas are the South’s most varied legume, but many cooks never venture past black-eyed peas and might not realize there are other choices. We should, however. Although black-eyed peas are good, they are the Red Delicious apples of the field pea universe: the most well-known and widespread but a bit generic and not necessarily the tastiest or most interesting.

So what are field peas? They are technically beans and have little in common with green English peas. Field peas are cowpeas, so named because they were grown as a rotational crop in the fields instead of in kitchen gardens. Dozens of different types—what we now call heirloom selections—were grown in Southern communities that valued them for their flavor and ability to flourish in local conditions. Families and neighbors often saved the seeds and passed them down through the generations. We still have heirloom types in the South with charming, descriptive names such as Whippoorwill, Dimpled Brown Crowder, Turkey Craw, Washday, Red Ripper, and Old Timer.

Freshly harvested peas often stick close to home, unlike dried black-eyed peas that are shipped far and wide. The best sources for them are farmers’ markets, family gardens, and hometown grocery stores. A single shopping trip can reveal the tastiest treasures. As with summer tomatoes, locally grown, peak-of-season peas are hard to beat. The good news is that they freeze and keep well, so we can preserve the harvest.

Some markets sell field peas still in their colorful pods, but most do the shelling for us. Fresh peas cook quickly compared to dried peas and beans that must be soaked. Their flavor and texture range from delicate and vegetal to earthy and meaty, but they are usually lighter and less murky than dried black-eyed peas. (When dried is the only option, we can turn to one of the excellent Southern types, such as the iconic Sea Island red pea, the original used in hoppin’ John.)

Many of us eat field peas for luck on January 1, but to limit them to a single winter day (or use only the ubiquitous black-eyed kind) is to miss out on their delightful versatility. All sorts of field peas are easy to find and love in the South. Lucky us.

Each kind has its own qualities, but if you can’t find a specific pea mentioned in a recipe, enjoy what you can find locally. Most types of field peasare interchangeable. Here are a few of our favorite field peas.

Read how this lowly little pea got associated with good luck and try a new recipe using them this New Year.

There are all sorts of superstitions surrounding the start of a New Year—many surround which foods to eat to “guarantee” that the coming year is a good one. The only food my family “has” to eat each New Year is pickled herring thanks to my mom’s Lithuanian heritage. She always checks whether I’ve eaten my herring each New Year, and reminds me that her aunt failed to eat herring one New Year’s Eve and she got in a car accident on New Year’s Day. So there’s your proof the herring is necessary!

A New Year’s tradition that never made it to our house is eating black-eyed peas. This tradition is largely considered to be one belonging to the Southern U.S. Some people feel very strongly that this is a Southern tradition.

Pink-eye purple hull peas, a variation on black-eyed peas.

When I wrote an article many years ago about black eyed peas, a man wrote to me from a Southern state to inform me I had no business as a “Northerner” writing about black-eyed peas. He stopped short of calling me a “damn Yankee, ” but he was not happy.

Though the South claims black-eyed peas as their New Year’s tradition, reportedly the Jews have records in the Talmud of eating black-eyed peas on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year as far back as about 500 CE. It’s thought that Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews brought black-eyed peas to the Southern states, and many in these groups were prominent slave owners of the time.

It didn’t take long for black-eyed-peas to become a popular crop in the South. They are extremely heat and drought tolerant, and have few pests and diseases. Add in the fact that they are also a highly nutritious food, and you have about as close to a perfect crop as anyone could hope for.

But why link black-eyed peas with prosperity in the New Year?

  • Some point out that dried black-eyed peas look like coins, and they plump up when they are cooked in water, symbolizing prosperity and wealth. And many people associate having a lucky or prosperous year with having lots of money.
  • Black-eyed-peas are an inexpensive food. Some sources link their association with luck in the New Year with the saying “Eat poor on New Year’s, eat fat the rest of the year.”
  • Other explanations on why black-eyed peas are such a deep-seated New Year’s tradition in the South hinge on events during the Civil War era. When the Union army marched through the South, they destroyed Confederate food sources. Reportedly they left the salted pork and black-eyed peas alone because they thought they were only food for animals. Southerners survived the winter because these foods were spared, and they considered themselves very lucky. So black-eyed peas cooked with pork became a symbol of that luck.
  • Other New Year’s traditions link black-eyed-peas to the freeing of African-American slaves since the Emancipation Proclamation made their freedom official on New Year’s day.

There are many ways to cook black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day.

The traditional preparation is to cook them with pork and serve turnip, collard or mustard greens alongside. Some also include cornbread in the meal to ensure more good luck in the New Year. Symbolically, the peas represent copper or coins; the greens are dollars, and the cornbread is gold. Since pigs scoot forward while foraging for food, the pork is said to represent positive motion or progress in the New Year.

There are many variations to the black-eyed pea tradition. Some believe it’s essential to eat 365 black-eyed peas to guarantee good luck on each day of the coming year. Some cooks add a dime to their pot of peas, and the person who finds it will have extra good luck in the New Year.

Another traditional black-eyed pea dish is Hoppin’ John, a mixture of peas, rice, meat, and tomato sauce. Linda Stradley, author of I’ll Have What They’re Having—Legendary Local Cuisine states that food historians believe Hoppin’ John has African/French/Caribbean roots. There are many legends about how the name came about, some involving a man named John, some saying that the dish made people come “a-hoppin’” to the table.

Consider growing your own black-eyed peas this year!

Pink-eye purple hull peas after harvest, ready to be shelled.

Black-eyed peas are a subspecies of cowpeas, and also called crowder peas or southern peas. The black spot or eye on each pea is not always black. It may be purple, pink, red, brown or green. A favorite variation on the black-eyed-pea is the purple hull pea, which as the name suggests has a bright purple hull and the peas inside have a pink or purple eye. People are so fond of this pea there is even a Purple Hull Pea Festival in Emerson, Arkansas.

For a successful crop of black-eyed peas, plant them only after the soil has warmed to over 60°F. Although they can survive extremely dry conditions, they need well-drained fertile soil rather than heavy wet soil. They will improve soil conditions, as they are legumes, and so have root nodules containing bacteria that fix nitrogen or convert nitrogen in the air into a form plants can use. Over time this improves the nutrient profile of the soil.

Shelling peas with an electric sheller

Harvest the peas when they have swelled in the pod and can be shelled, or removed from the pod easily, but before they start to dry naturally on the plant. I learned about picking purple hull peas and shelling them by helping my friend Sonny out in his garden in Decatur, IL. My family never grew purple hull peas before, but Sonny had grown them all his life. They were a staple in his garden just as much as tomatoes and green beans were in mine.

I loved learning about the purple hull peas; my favorite part was putting them through Sonny’s electric sheller. Shelled peas can be eaten fresh or dried for storage. Fresh peas may also be canned or frozen. The green peas that most of us are more familiar with will not work in an electric sheller; they would turn to mush. The purple hull peas are much harder, and they have to be cooked differently as well.

I remember when I asked Sonny about cooking purple hull peas and he looked at me like I was nuts. He asked, “What’s a white girl want to know about soul food for?” While it sounds pretty blunt, he was just being honest. A dish so familiar in his family was completely foreign to mine. He sent me home that day with a bag of shelled peas and instructions on how to simmer them with a smoked ham hock or bacon. My peas were not nearly as good as anything Sonny cooks up; this white girl has a lot to learn about proper cooking of soul food! But I sure do love growing gardens and how the food produced there connects us all, whether we know about soul food or not.

Have I replaced the pickled herring with black-eyed peas? Not yet. But I am going to incorporate black-eyed peas in our New Year’s menu in this unique twist on hummus:

Black-eyed Pea Hummus

3 Garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 Cup Lemon juice (or juice from 2 lemons)
1/3 Cup Tahini (sesame-seed paste)– I found it near the olive oil at our grocery store
2 Tablespoons Olive oil
1 teaspoon Ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon Salt
3/4 teaspoon Paprika
2 (15.8-ounce) Cans black-eyed peas, drained
14 (6-inch) Pitas, quartered or raw vegetables to dip

Combine all ingredients. Use a food processor or blender to process until smooth. Serve with pita wedges or raw vegetables. Refrigerate leftovers.

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Purple Hull Peas?

I’m going to show my Southern roots here a bit. My mom grew up in Southern Arkansas where butter beans and purple hull peas are a typical summer dish, always accompanied by cornbread. Even though they aren’t as commonly grown or eaten as they used to be, there is still a following of green-shelled lovers.

My mom and I frequently grow and sell Purple Hull Peas and Butter Beans (which are green limas). Some people know exactly what they are, and are happy to find them. Shelling peas or beans can be very relaxing and stress relieving. There are some that buy the peas for their older parents to sit and shell, as it can be a source of reminisce, opening the door for discussions and tales from long ago. It is also a chore that kids seem to enjoy, maybe it is something about getting to open each one of them up just like a present.

Purple Hull Peas are sometimes mistaken for some sort of green bean at the market. They do look a little like a purple pole bean. I had someone tell me the other day that they tried to snap them like green beans and had unfavorable results. Another issue is that they get confused with the spring peas, which are really an altogether different kind of pea.

Purple Hull Peas are cowpeas. They should be picked as soon as the pod just turns purple (immature pods are green). Once they turn purple they start drying out and soon become a dried pea similar to black-eyed peas. Shelling them while they are green and undried (green-shelled) gives them an altogether different flavor.

My mom remembers how her mom cooked purple hull peas. She would shell the peas, adding some snapped immature (still green) peas. Cook, simmered in a pan of water with some salt pork and a few pods of okra for at least a couple of hours. It can be cooked longer, and the okra can be removed before serving. Three pounds of peas makes a good portion with four ounces of salt pork (or another cured pork product, or even butter). This is so good served over a piece of cornbread with some cooked greens.

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So, give them a try sometime, and let me know what you think!

About Crowder Peas

Highlights

  • Blackeye peas, crowder peas, field peas, and Lady Cream peas are varieties of the same species commonly called “cowpeas” or “Southern peas”
  • Like blackeye peas, crowder and field peas are ideal for soul food dishes
  • Field peas, crowders, and Lady Creams are delicious when cooked with Camellia Brand’s Dry Herb Blend

Scientific Name: Vigna Unguiculata

The Crowder Pea Story

Field peas, crowder peas, cream peas (along with blackeye peas) are all part of a larger species of beans commonly called “cowpeas” or “Southern peas.” Despite their names, none of these varieties is actually a pea. These beans were brought to the New World from Africa and became part of the Southern diet beginning in the 1600s. Cowpeas are commonly grown in the South since they are adaptable, heat-tolerant, and drought-resistant.

Field peas are similar in flavor and texture to blackeye peas and are ideal for soul food dishes. The crowder pea variety gets its name from the way its peas crowd themselves in the pod. It has a rich, hearty flavor and creates a dark pot liquor when cooked. Lady Creams are a type of cowpea that has no color and, when cooked, they yield a clear pot liquor. They have a sweet flavor and creamy texture and are featured in Southern dishes. These cowpea varieties are delicious when cooked with smoked pork (such as tasso), onions, and garlic sauteed in butter, and dried garden herbs or Camellia Brand’s Dry Herb Blend.

Our favorite Crowder Pea links:
Cowpea, or Crowder Pea, Information from Alternative Field Crops Manual
A Pea is a Pea, or Is It?
How to Cook Beans and Peas
How to Soak Your Beans
Crowder Pea Recipes
Camellia Brand Crowder Peas

Field peas: A summertime classic throughout the South

Purple-hull field peas, now appearing in some Washington area farmers markets, are related to the better-known black-eyed pea. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
Inside their more-colorful hull, the peas are a soft green hue. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

During the years I lived in the mid-Atlantic, when I responded to the region’s summer heat with inexhaustible strings of choice words, it helped to remember that my most beloved summer crop, a little legume called the pinkeye purple-hull pea, was thriving in it.

In fact, Southern field peas — of which the purple-hull variety is one and the better-known black-eyed variety another — are the masochists of the vegetable kingdom. They like it relentlessly hot and humid; they weather droughts without blinking; they grow in soil few other plants would survive in. In the mid-Atlantic, they do just fine.

Around mid-July most years, they begin trickling into farmers markets, plump pods heaped high, the pinkeyes distinctive for their inky hulls and maroon eyes, the shelled black-eyeds still bearing a tint of green. In a heavy pot over a medium flame, they’ll cook quickly to tender-yet-firm, their delicate flavor tasting of good soil and a hot sun.

These are the peas hoppin’ John was made for.

Yet those two varieties, the most popular in Washington-area markets, are among dozens that exist, with flavors as varied as their markings. There are little black peas, tawny tan peas speckled with confetti, peas dressed like a Holstein cow. There are red peas; fat, square-shouldered crowder peas; and dainty peas in creamy beige, like the White Acre (one of the best, some say, for company or special occasions).

Ira Wallace, one of the worker-owners of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and the author of the “Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast,” is well versed in Southern pea culture and cultivation. “I don’t think I’ve met a pea I don’t like,” she said. But everyone has favorites.

Wallace cites the pretty calico crowders, splotched with burgundy; the little tan washday peas, whose quick cooking time fits busy schedules; and the Peking Black Crowders, which she appreciates for a sly bait-and-switch: “I can cook them up and make a refried bean that I can foist off on young and old alike as Mexican food.”

Deep in the Southern states, field peas are as classic as pecan pie, and a dozen varieties might appear at one market in a single day. Their zany names — Red Ripper, Big Boy, Stick-up, Pole Cat and Dixielee — are a map of micro-regional preferences, in which gardeners and farmers selected for varieties that suited their particular climates and tastes. They are a reflection of how deeply entrenched peas are in the South’s culinary history, originally as a food of slaves, then as a survival raft for generations of the Southern poor, black and white alike, who ate them only because they didn’t have much choice.

“Those who had a little more money, they ate something else,” Wallace said.

Time heals some wounds. Like many native Southerners today, I await field pea season with a mix of sentimentality and salivation. Enjoying them is as much about the familiar process of shelling them into a bucket and working blisters into my thumbs as sitting down at a table with a mess of them in a pot in front of me.

These days it’s common to find pre-shelled peas, packed in coolers to protect their delicate constitution. But most of those have been released from their hulls with mechanical shellers. The peas will come out less blemished if you take on the task yourself. With a glass of iced tea (or a cold beer) within reach, and an open porch, it is a chore with charms, and social potential. Some growers shell their peas by hand, and their care is unmistakable. If you don’t have a penchant for pea shelling, those are worth the little extra money.

Field peas can be cooked by themselves, but a few pods of okra in the mix lend a grassy flavor that balances the earthiness of the peas. See the recipe for Basic Field Peas at washingtonpost.com/recipes. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Cooking peas is a quick process that’s as much about the cooking liquid, or pot liquor (likker, if you will), that accompanies them as it is about the peas themselves. Most cooks use a piece of pig — a ham hock, a chunk of ham, a few strips of bacon, a bit of salt pork — for a richer, full-flavored broth. My grandmother always topped her peas with a handful of okra pods, and so do I. They act as a thickener, but they also contribute their own grassy flavor, balancing the earthiness of the pot.

Part of the appeal of fresh peas is that they cook quickly and, like fresh shell beans, require no soaking. They will cook to just tender within 20 to 30 minutes at a simmer, but longer and slower cooking — an hour or two — gives the broth a chance to develop richer body and flavor.

Traditionally, field peas stand on their own. If you never serve them any other way, you won’t go wrong; much field pea affection has come out of a plate of vegetables with a pile of peas at its heart and a piece of cornbread on its arm.

Peas and Greens With Tomato, Scallions and Dill takes advantage of the fact that field peas of all types make good partners for leafy greens. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
Potato Salad With Field Peas, Celery and Cherry is substantial enough to serve as a main course. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Karen Williams, whose prolifically vining black-eyed peas tower in her plot at the Briggs Chaney Community Garden in Silver Spring, attached years ago to a simple preparation her parents grew fond of while living in north Florida. “Black-eyed peas were a big thing in our family . . . served over rice with cut onions and hot sauce,” she said.

Still, given the tidy way field peas hold their shape and their easy way with other flavors, it’s hard not to toss them into dishes where you might ordinarily use beans or lentils: pasta e fagioli, for instance, or a main-dish potato salad. The red types and the crowders create rich broths that beg for gravymaking. It would be ungrateful (and unwise) to say no.

In the same community garden as Williams, Lucy Wiggins also plants black-eyed peas, which climb the okra sharing their row. She puts up a few quarts in the freezer each season, then thaws them in the cooler months for dishes like turkey chili and, this past spring, asparagus risotto. “They’re a great way to put a vegetable protein in the freezer for winter,” she said.

For gardeners, making room for field peas offers numerous perks, not least of which is the sheer variety of seed available. Growing your own also offers an element of whole-plant economy. The leaves, for instance, rarely show up at markets, but many gardeners pluck them young for salads and stir-fries.

Though field peas are most commonly eaten shelled, they can be harvested at all stages. Pods can be left on the vine to mature until they are papery and the seeds dry, or picked young and fern-colored, before the peas inside have had a chance to fully form. The latter, swept up unintentionally in commercial harvests, are the source of the “snaps” that sometimes accompany pots of shelled peas. From the perspective of cooks who treasure them, they are another reason to shell your own.

In Field-Pea Fried Rice With Eggplant and Peppers, the nuttiness of brown rice works well with the sweetness of the peas and eggplant. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Meredith Sheperd, who grows black-eyed peas for some of her clients through her District-based company Love & Carrots, prefers to cook them this way, young and in the pod. “They’re great in stir-fries, with corn and okra; you can steam them. They cook just like green beans,” she said.

And though peas can command space in the garden — Williams added three extra feet of fence height after hers climbed past the five she started them on — they pull their weight. They fix nitrogen in the soil, resist pests and lure beneficial insects.

“They’re good for the garden’s ecosystem,” said Sheperd.

Depending on the variety, they are kind to the harvester, too, producing abundant beans within easy reach. “I love how the fruit sits on the plant sticking up, like, ‘Here, take me!’ ” Sheperd said.

In the summer swelter, it’s hard not to admire their enthusiasm. It’s almost contagious.

Horton is a freelance writer living in Seattle. She will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon at live.washingtonpost.com.

Southern Field Peas and Snaps

Southern Field Peas and Snaps – Field peas cooked with green beans and served here with grilled smoked andouille sausage and cornbread.It can be a little bit confusing when a Southerner talks about field peas, because kinda like with butter beans or what we mean when we say “Coke,” they might be referring to any one of literally hundreds of Southern field peas.
Field peas, or cowpeas as we also know them, aren’t really peas at all. They are beans that grow very well in the South because they are heat and drought tolerant and grow in just about any soil. They’re categorized generally in four groups – crowder, cream, black-eyed and field peas, and there are many varieties to be found in each of those categories.

What I’m cooking up here is a tiny, tender brown field pea and what is often marketed in the frozen, dried and canned food sections of your grocery store simply as a generic field peas. These are somewhat similar in appearance to black-eyed peas, but more reddish in color like a crowder, and much smaller and more firm than black-eyes.

Y’all already know my favorite dried bean brand, right?

Unless you grow them yourself, fresh peas are most easily found at local farmer’s markets, though expect to pay a premium price for them when they are already shelled for you.
Many of you may remember hanging on the porch with your grandmother every summer shelling peas from a big washtub on the porch, oversized bowl in your lap – and you know that it is indeed quite a bit of work. With nothing but the sounds of nature around you, those were the best times for connecting – just sitting and talking about your day and about life in general really. You can still buy peas in their pods, of course, and shell them yourself, though you’ll generally have to get those at a pick your own farm.
Although most Southerners have some minor variation in the preparation and seasoning of the different types of Southern peas that we enjoy, this basic method may be used for all of them, and in fact, for a medley mix of them.
Southern Style Hissy Fit: While they’re perfectly good all on their own, a favorite Southern preparation for field peas is with “snaps,” and, if you’ve shelled your own field peas, very likely the snaps you will include in your dish, will usually be the tender pods from your hard work of shelling. Today, very few of us shell fresh field peas, buying them already shelled fresh from the farmers markets, in bags or frozen from the grocery store. In most cases today, the “snaps” we’ll be using are simply snapped fresh green beans, and that is a perfectly acceptable sub for those pea shells. Fresh okra is also a typical addition and helps to thicken the pot likker up a bit. {tucks away soapbox}
These are great as a side dish to any meal, but one of my favorite ways to serve them is with a couple of links of grilled andouille smoked sausage tucked right into the bowl, some cast iron skillet cornbread with some greens, sliced, garden tomatoes and sweet or pickled onions on the side. Now that’s a mighty fine meal.
Here’s how to make my Southern Field Peas and Snaps.
Rinse field peas and place into a large pot or Dutch oven. If preparing from dried, presoaked peas, cover with water, add salt pork, bacon or ham hock, and chile pod, if using. If using fresh pea, you’ll be putting all of this in the pot all at once.
Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer uncovered, at a bare bubble for 1 hour.
Heat bacon drippings in a separate skillet and add the onion. Cook for about 4 minutes, or until tender but not browned. Add garlic and seasonings; cook and stir another minute.
Transfer to pea pot. Rinse, trim and snap green beans in half or thirds, depending on their size. Add to pot, bring peas to a boil, reduce and simmer over a medium low heat, until peas are tender, another 25-30 minutes.
If preparing from fresh or frozen, place everything into the pot all at once and cook for approximately 30 minutes, or until beans and peas are tender. Add butter or bacon fat and stir in; taste and adjust seasonings as needed.
I like to serve these as a side dish for many different meals, but one of my favorite ways to eat field peas is with grilled andouille sausage and cornbread on the side. It’s not traditional with Southern peas, but here in the Deep South we tend to add rice when we serve any kind of a bean.

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Yum

Recipe: Southern Field Peas and Snaps

©From the Kitchen of Deep South Dish

Prep time: 10 min |Cook time: 1 hour 30 min | Yield: About 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 pound shelled fresh, frozen or dried field peas
  • 10 cups water
  • 4 ounces salt pork, bacon or a small ham hock
  • 1 dried whole red chile pepper, optional
  • 2 tablespoons bacon drippings
  • 2 cups chopped onion
  • 1 large toe garlic, smashed
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper, or to taste
  • 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon mixed dried herbs (such as Herbes de Provence), optional
  • 1 pound fresh green beans
  • 1 tablespoon bacon drippings or butter, optional

Instructions
Rinse field peas and place into a large pot or Dutch oven. If preparing from dried, presoaked peas, cover with water, add salt pork, bacon or ham hock, and chile pod, if using. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer uncovered, at a bare bubble for 1 hour.
Heat bacon drippings in a separate skillet and add the onion. Cook for about 4 minutes, or until tender but not browned. Add garlic and seasonings; cook and stir another minute. Transfer to pea pot. Rinse, trim and snap green beans in half or thirds, depending on their size. Add to pot, bring peas to a boil, reduce and simmer over a medium low heat, until peas are tender, another 25-30 minutes.
If preparing from fresh or frozen, place everything into the pot all at once and cook for approximately 30 minutes, or until beans and peas are tender.
Add butter or bacon fat and stir in; taste and adjust seasonings as needed. Serve as a side dish. Also excellent with grilled andouille sausage and cornbread.
Cook’s Notes: Back in the day, those shelling fresh field peas would have used the leftover pods as their “snaps.” Today, few of us shell fresh field peas, buying them already shelled fresh from the farmers markets, dried in bags or frozen from the grocery store. In most cases today, the “snaps” we’ll be using are simply fresh green beans snapped and added to the pot, though fresh okra is also a typical addition and helps to thicken the pot likker up a bit. Note that fresh peas will often throw off foam as they cook. Simply skim it off as you see it. For less intense heat, split the pod on the chile pepper and remove the seeds. May substitute Creole or Cajun seasoning if you prefer. Fresh peas are the most flavorful and will cook up in about half the time of dried, but depending on the type of pea, soaking dried peas overnight will help to accelerate that.

May also use this recipe for black-eyed peas, crowder peas, lady cream, purple hull, and many other Southern cowpeas. For a boost in the flavor, use chicken broth for all or part of the water. For mixed herbs, I use dried Herbes de Provence, which contains rosemary, marjoram, thyme and savory. If using okra, allow for about 15 minutes of cooking time, adding the okra depending on the cooking time for the type of pea (fresh, frozen, dried) you are using.
Source: http://deepsouthdish.com

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