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Southern field peas enjoy a moment in the spotlight

The Pea is the Princess

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Ah, the lonely pea. Rarely does nature gift us with such sweet, verdant flavor in so small a package. Show anyone a green pea or a spoonful of the little black-eyed veggies, and the recognition is instantaneous. There exists, however, a trove of field peas that have gone underground, familiar for the most part only to classic Southern kitchens and vegetable aficionados.

Although the black-eyed pea is a field pea, it is certainly not the prize species of the group. According to most field pea insiders, its taste lacks the sweet nuances and delicate creaminess found in other varietals. Its popularity can perhaps be explained by looking to our affinity for plain, white sandwich bread: we all know that there are infinitely better, more flavorful loaves in bakeries just ready for the eating, but Wonder Bread is just so damned convenient. Unlike other peas that are more fragile and best eaten fresh, black-eyed peas are canned with ease and are now grown in multiple climates across the U.S. They are the Wonder Bread of field peas, and they've quickly overtaken and all but erased their brethren.

Brian Ward of Clemson's Coastal Research and Education Center, located just outside of Charleston, is fighting the good fight and bringing the lovely legumes back from the brink. The accomplished horticulturist has lots of help: his small army of colleagues include prized U. S. Department of Agriculture pea-breeding expert Dr. Richard Fery, University of South Carolina foodways historian David Shields, and Anson Mills owner Glenn Roberts. The group is growing over 20 historic varieties of field peas — heirlooms with bad-ass names like Sea Island Red, the Whippoorwill, the Mississippi Silver Hull, the Black Crowder, and the Lady.

All of these and more are being cultivated for a comparative field pea tasting being held on Nov. 1, led by Jamie S. Ross of the Common Table project. The tasting will be filmed for a documentary, At the Common Table, produced by Red Dirt Productions and the James Agee Film Project.

Ward says, "Southern peas have been a focus of many of the collaborative research efforts between the USDA and Clemson with regard to ease of harvest, post-harvest handling, nematode and disease resistance, and weed and horticultural science." The masochists of the vegetable kingdom, Southern field peas grow in conditions few other plants can live in. They love dry climates, crazy high temperatures, and wet-blanket-esque humidity. They brush drought off their green shoulders and flourish in soil that offers little in the way of nourishment.

Clemson Coastal Research and Education Center cultivates varieties with names like Purple Dragon Eyeball 100, the Whippoorwill, and the Lady - SHELBY DEL VECCHIO
  • Shelby Del Vecchio
  • Clemson Coastal Research and Education Center cultivates varieties with names like Purple Dragon Eyeball 100, the Whippoorwill, and the Lady

Field peas also do something else that's incredibly beneficial: they add nitrogen back to the soil, making it hospitable to other, more finicky plants. That's why they were prized so much in the Old South: they were planted in rice and corn fields to lay out the welcome mat for other crops. Brought to the States by enslaved Africans from their homeland, field peas were also a cheap food source that needed little-to-no tending, so they fed everyone from wealthy plantation owners to slaves to livestock (which is the reason for another moniker they go by, cowpeas). The advantages of encouraging a larger field pea population on today's farms, therefore, are myriad.

"It's been part of my mission to offer local growers both agronomic and fresh market culinary alternatives so they can be more successful," Ward says. Growers often come to him with gaps or problems in year-round production, and he listens to their problems and researches solutions that fill those gaps. Since Southern field peas have been used for generations in agronomic rotations benefiting soil health, they're a ready answer for many farmers.

It hasn't been as easy growing these little suckers this time around, though, especially considering that they're now certified organic. Though Ward knows how to set things into motion, it's up to Mother Nature to outfit the crops' ultimate success. With modern irrigation, horticulturists can ensure that the peas get enough water, but since the crops like things relatively dry, excess moisture can be a real pain when old Ma Nature's skies open too widely upon the fields. It's a dance that is still being choreographed, but for the most part, it's a graceful one.

SHELBY DEL VECCHIO
  • Shelby Del Vecchio

To encourage more widespread cultivation of field peas, Ward is working with Zack Snipes, Charleston and Beaufort County Clemson Extension Agent. Snipes will either lead a pre-season growers' meeting or circulate a flyer letting all the growers know what worked last year, what did not, and what can be grown for 2016. Next year, Ward's group will use the feedback from local chefs to infer which peas are going to be best on restaurant menus. Later, the troupe will do larger trials that piggyback off of this year's findings, ultimately with everybody involved winning — seedsman, research scientist, producer, chef, and consumer.

At the November tasting, the peas will be paired with many heirloom rice varietals and served alongside cornbread made from historic strains of corn, all of which Ward and company are also growing. In addition to the reintroduction of Carolina Gold Rice through the help of Clemson emeritus professor Merle Shepard, a huge array of other rice breeds will be sampled, like Presidio, IAC 600 China Black, and Purple Dragon Eyeball 100 (which wins for most anime-sounding name). The cornbread will be made using strains with more awesome noms de guerre — many that sound like nicknames for pot — titles like Hickory King White Flint, Sea Island Guinea, New England 8 Row, and Carolina Gourd Seed.

The pairing couldn't be more natural. Says Ward, "I've been placed in a wonderful research niche of many of the colonial and antebellum foodway crops. I conduct rice, flint and dent corn, and southern pea trials trying to bring back some the original pairings of foods — and rice, southern peas, and corn bread are standard Southern fare."

It should be mentioned that field peas are actually classified as beans, not peas. The Penguin Companion to Food says bean is a "term loosely applied to any legume whose seeds or pods are eaten, not classed separately as a pea or lentil." Pea vs. Field "Bean:" it's a fussy tomato, tomahto-type distinction, which is probably why taxonomists just decided to say screw it and call them all peas.

Documentary filmmaker Ross describes the upcoming film as tracing the history of the American South through the foods of the Southern table. "We are telling the story of how Africans, Europeans, and Native Americans came together to create the cuisine and the culture of the region," she says. "Our story focuses on the working people. At the Common Table will show how those lowest on the rung of Southern society shaped the day-to-day life of everyone in the South."

All involved hope to illustrate the rich diversity and complexity of field peas, and they are eager to introduce them to a national audience. Ross wants to introduce outsiders to the pleasures of species like Pink-Eyed Purple Hull and to the intricate delicacy of strains like the Lady Pea. Ward uses words like earthy, mild, and zingy to describe some of his own tasting experiences. Both say that when it comes to describing the taste of each type of pea, nothing beats trying them yourself.

So while they may be teeny little guys, field peas are the culinary founding fathers of our nation's foodstuffs. "Behind every variety," says Ross, "especially the heirloom ones, there is a story — all kinds of stories — of hard times and good times, of sorrows and sharing, of migration and community." The studies by Ward's team, the comparative tasting, and the resulting documentary could have huge rippling effects on locavorism, national awareness, and, hopefully, further cultivation.

So go kick some butt out there, Purple Dragon Eyeball 100. 

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