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.
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.
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.
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.
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