My south is the South Bronx, where Southern cooking was not on the menu. Peas were fresh, green, round and came in bright, green pods. When I got sophisticated–that is, when I ventured south–I learned of black-eyed peas and greens. I also learned of moo shu pork and lamb vindaloo and other culinary delights down south on the isle of Manhattan. Years later, having read about the food of the American South, I arrived in North Carolina eager for more non-green peas, greens, cornbread and pork barbecue. I was just in time to watch Southern cooking, and more particularly Southern ingredients, go swirling away in an accelerating downward spiral. Regional foods were being drained away by the centralized production of modern factory farming and the demise of farming. These days collards at the supermarket originate, likely as not, in California, that bastion of Southern culture. And pork has become a pale, fat-deficient, imitation of the real thing.

And a previous plethora of pea progeny has been decimated, if not centimated or millimated. The supermarkets will have fresh black-eyed peas (from California again, like as not), but Southern peas generally, as with the vast majority of our food heritage in the USA, you have to buy at a farmers’ market or grow them yourself. What peas am I talking about? Southern peas, aka cowpeas. Non-southerners would call them beans; botanists call them Vigna unguiculata.

Cowpeas have been in the New World since colonial times, brought over from Africa. They were cultivated in Jamaica by about 1675, Florida by 1700 and North Carolina by 1715. The genetic origins lie in the Niger River basin of West Africa and they were cultivated in Egypt by 2500 BCE. Cowpeas are one of the most ancient crops, used as fodder, cover crop, green vegetable and legume. They are still widely grown in Africa (some seed catalogs have a recent cowpea import from Botswana), where their wild relatives still thrive and hybridization is common between the cultivated and the wild. In fact, over two-thirds of the world crop is grown in Africa, mostly in Nigeria. The various hybrids are adapted to a wide range of harsh climates, including near-desert. (Cowpeas are widespread in India and some sources have their origin in India, with a later, prehistoric spread to Africa. I won’t adjudicate this dispute.)

There are hundreds of varieties, sometimes sorted 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.

I have no idea why cowpeas are so-called. Crowder peas have an evident etymology; they are crowded into their pod. “Field peas” is probably a shortening of “corn-field pease,” from the old (on a New World timescale) tradition of planting cowpeas next to corn. The peas will fix nitrogen for the corn and the corn will return the favor by supplying support for vining.

Varieties have tended to be intensely localized, often with families saving seed from generation to generation. They became a staple food across the Southeastern United States–a food crop for poor blacks and, somewhat later, poor whites. They are eaten both as fresh shelled beans and dried, on the vine, for winter eating.

Their horticultural requirements reflect their traditional habitats–warm soil, 90+ frost-free days. They are drought tolerant and can handle soils ranging from sandy to heavy clay. This translates to May planting and August-September harvest. As befits poor people’s food, they can grow under fairly harsh conditions; harsh growing conditions being what poor people are allotted.

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–developed for reasons other than flavor–and it is hard to think of any advantages the newer varieties have.

The names of these old varieties are incredibly evocative, though sometimes I don’t know of what. Washday, a good antebellum soup bean, is easy: it cooked up fast on busy washdays. Rouge et Noir is a big easy: it’s red and black and Cajun. And then there’s Calico Crowder, Pink Eye purple hull, Running Conch and Pole Cat.

I don’t dare plant corn, even with our squirrel population nicely curtailed by the local red-tailed hawk. So, my peas will climb poles; the little seedlings are now pushing their way up through the mulch. I planted Washday, Calico Crowder (Pole Cat), Corrientes, Black Crowder and Purple Hull Pinkeye because I liked the names. Come September I get to see how drought-tolerant (or maybe Bronx farmer tolerant) they really are. EndBlock

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