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Cowpea Season

By Sheryl Joy, NS/S Seed Distribution Coordinator. Published on December 23, 2014.

‘Tis the season … when the humble cowpea has its moment of fame! For those with African-American or Southern roots, Hoppin’ John is the traditional meal on New Year's Day. There are many variations on the Hoppin’ John recipe, but one ingredient is absolutely necessary: black-eyed peas.

A Little History...

Black-eyed peas are a particular variation of a larger class of beans (ahem, not peas) known as cowpeas (Vigna unguiculata) that originated in Africa. They were domesticated around 5,000-6,000 years ago, and are still important for food and fodder across that continent. They came to the Americas with the slave trade, and eventually moved across this continent, following the path of African slaves. They were often planted along the edges of fields to enrich the soil due to their high nitrogen fixing ability, and cattle would graze on the leaves and vines (hence the name cowpea.) Many settlers of European decent were unfamiliar with the crop and regarded it merely as cattle fodder, not fit for human consumption. But it was this misunderstanding of its culinary significance that might just have saved this food resource. During the Civil War, Union soldiers didn’t bother to torch the cowpeas when they burned Confederate fields as they marched through the south. This oversight may have saved both black and white families from starvation during this period, and it might be one reason for the association of cowpeas with good luck in the south.

A Little Hopeful Thinkin’...

Traditional preparation of the dish is simple - one pound of bacon, one pint of peas, and one pint of rice - and is served alongside collard greens on New Year's Day in the South. Additionally the wonderful savory, smoky, rich and sometimes spicy flavors are perfect for the dark, cold time of the year. As with any widespread tradition there are many versions of the recipe and the folklore, but some of the most common are: black eyed peas for luck, ham hock for health, and greens for riches.

 

A Little Cookin’...

Since we’re talking old time traditions, here’s an old time recipe for Hoppin’ John. This one is by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Florida novelist and cook extraordinaire, from her 1942 book Cross Creek Cookery.

1 cup cow-peas¼ lb white bacon½ cup rice3 cups waterSalt to taste

Serves 4

Boil together cowpeas and bacon cut in slices in three cups water, adding one-half teaspoon salt. When tender, add the separately cooked fluffy rice. Cook a few minutes more. Serve with cornbread. A small onion is sometimes diced and cooked with the peas.

Note that this early recipe doesn't specify black-eyed peas, but cowpeas, or what were sometimes referred to in the South as "red peas", like our local Bisbee Red. What the author calls "white bacon" would be what we call salt-pork; many recipes call for ham-hock. If you use dried cowpeas and soak them overnight, they would probably cook in a half hour. There are many Hoppin’ John recipes available on the web, and they are worth browsing for ideas on how to bend this basic recipe in the direction you'd like...whether toward more spicy, rich, or vegetarian, etc.

...And a Little More Cowpea Enlightenment

While cowpeas are often eaten as dried peas, they can also be eaten fresh when pods are immature like their cousins yardlong beans. Common in Asian cuisine, yardlong beans are a subspecies of Vigna unguiculata. Young shoots and leaves of cowpeas are also a good source of protein.

Leaves and green edible pods of Ejotero beans, grown by the Mayo Indians of Sinaloa, Mexico.

Cowpeas love the heat and their deep roots make them very drought tolerant, so they are a wonderful summer crop for the southwest. This is likely why they were easily incorporated into traditional agricultural systems of our region. Cowpeas represented in the NS/S collection have adaptations to the drier Southwestern region whereas many other varieties are better adapted to the tropical climate of the Southern United States. The nitrogen-fixing ability of cowpeas makes them well suited to renew soil fertility, so consider intercropping or rotating cowpeas with crops that require high fertility such as maize. Although we may be most familiar with the black-eyed pea, there is an incredible amount of diversity within cowpeas, each with different markings, shapes, flavors, and adaptations. Our cowpea varieties come from Arizona, Texas, Sonora and Sinaloa.

 

Above, examples of Mayo Colima (left), Guarijio Muni Cafe (center) and Tohono O'odham (right) varieties.

Cowpeas produce large beautiful flowers that are as distinct as the peas. While they are a self-pollinating species, the showy flowers and abundant nectar attract many insects so cross-pollination can be significant. If you want to save seed, we suggest only growing one variety at a time to minimize crossing.

 

Above, the flowers of Corrientes (left), Pima Bajo (center) and Tepache Grey Mottled (right) cowpeas.

Whether or not you enjoy some Hoppin’ John for your new year celebration, best wishes to you for a healthy and prosperous New Year from all of us here at Native Seeds/SEARCH.

For further reading, check out the Winter 2006 edition of Seedhead News.

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