Once, we all shelled peas.
It was one of the few activities that could unite this contentious confederacy that we call the South. Democrats and Republicans, black hands and white hands, folks who went to mass, synagogue or Wednesday evening prayer meetings and the ones who didn’t go at all – they all shelled peas.
Peas were our good fortune, sometimes our only good fortune. Shelling them was as good as counting money. My great-grandmother shelled peas at a prize-winning clip, zipping the string, sliding her wrinkled thumb up the pod — and pling, pling, pling, jackpot — a row of peas rattled into the colander. It was the music of a summer evening.
We sat on stumps to shell peas. Crude benches. Porch steps. Wooden rockers. Aluminum folding chairs with striped green webbing. A colleague once told me the story of how grandmothers and aunts sat in the fluorescent hallway of the hospital, quietly shelling peas until her birth was announced.
The ability to shell peas was a mark of being raised right. My mother has been nothing but enthusiastic about her grandson’s new girlfriend: She’s smart, pretty and polite. But, my mother confided to me the other day, the poor girl doesn’t know a thing about shelling peas.
If you’re more than a few decades old, and you grew up in the South, I don’t have to explain to you that I’m not talking spring peas, green peas or English peas. We’re referring, instead, to those pea-like beans some carelessly put off as cowpeas or field peas, but which are better characterized as Southern peas, and which, in knowledgeable households below the Mason-Dixon, need no elaboration beyond simply “peas.”
The Southern pea is finding a new appreciation nationally. It’s showing up more often in fine restaurants up North and out West. But down here in Dixie, the tradition is on the wane, and it has been unfortunately reduced in the popular imagination to the “black-eyed pea” — a pre-shelled, pre-packaged commercial abomination that bears little resemblance to the real thing.
Way back when, traditional gardeners and Southern cooks had far finer (and better adapted) peas to choose from, like the pinkeye purple hulls; piebald peas, like Calico or Polecat; meaty brown crowders with their deep, dark liquor; bird’s egg peas (with delicate speckling), like Whippoorwill or Blue Goose; south Louisiana’s elegant jet black crowders; Red Ripper and Mississippi Silver; pale and creamy-flavored Running Conch and Zipper Cream; or those exquisitely tiny and fiddly Lady peas.
There were so many different kinds of peas, it’s misleading to name so few. They were the genuine heirloom vegetables: A hundred years ago, most serious gardening families could claim their own strains of peas, ideally suited to their garden, eating habits and tastes.
Every year, someone offers me an old strain with a quaint name, like Preacher peas or Longhorn peas. I ought to grow them, lest we lose more of our genuine Southern heritage. But I can preserve only one at a time, and I’m responsible for an old variety from southeast Mississippi.
It doesn’t have a name, so I call it Ray and Bertice peas, remembering the friends who gave it to me.
The truth is, I haven’t planted them in more than a decade. They love where they are so much that they keep reseeding themselves, producing bushels of peas even among the brush and weeds. I don’t so much cultivate them as police them.
That’s one of the reasons Southern peas and their relatives — originally from the tropics of West Africa — have become so popular anywhere the summers are long and the nights are warm. They romp through our heat and humidity, even as they stumble in the cool, short summers of Europe and New England.
Maybe you have to work up a sweat to really appreciate what peas have to offer. But, fresh peas over cornbread with creamed corn and tomatoes are one of those delicacies that, once eaten, can make paradise seem superfluous.
First, of course, you have to shell them. Only those who haven’t tried it will find it to be a chore. We all have modern rituals to still our souls. Momma goes to yoga, Daddy goes to golf. Sister goes to tennis lessons, and Tommy goes to pot.Once, we all shelled peas.
Even as I grow them, I relish the thought of shelling them, as my great-grandmother did, in the faint, cool light of the porch, the quiet broken only by the waves of the cicadas and the rattle of peas — jackpot — in the colander.
The Most Unfortunate Black-eyed Pea
Sad, isn’t it, that a pea developed for and grown primarily in California has become a staple of modern Southern cooking. When we quit saving and drying our own peas, the standard California black-eyed variety became the company store default, and our grocery store pea. I never knew a gardener or farmer down South who wasted time trying to grow anything like the California black-eyed pea. As those bland and starchy commercial ones wormed their way into our cupboards and cook pots and traditions, I fear they helped to sour a generation of gardeners on the true merits of Southern peas.
I also have a suspicion that the South’s luck ran out when we decided we were supposed to eat dusty, dried California black-eyes for New Year’s Day. The notion that peas bring good luck and abundance is an honorable notion dating back hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of years to many cultures in Africa and the Middle East. It may have found its way into our own beliefs by several routes, but many think it was formalized by Sephardic Jewish immigrants, who early on brought their businesses and cooking customs to towns like Charleston, Mobile, Selma, Montgomery, Jackson and New Orleans. (Rabbinical tradition named peas as one of the five important foods of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.) So traditionally, we Southern Jews and Gentiles ate our own peas for New Year’s, grown in our own gardens. If your luck hasn’t been what it ought to be, maybe it would be wise to skip the mass-harvested commercial black-eyed stuff from California at the start of your next New Year’s, and try some pinkeye purple hulls, instead.
Gulf Coast Almanac
Signs of the Season
The first half of August can’t get over July. But spider lilies know the seasons are changing. Late this month, they shoot up red and naked as the Hurricane Summer season starts spinning out of the Gulf.
August is when spring planting really starts! Better order your spring bulbs and garlic now, and start sowing collards, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and brussels sprouts in pots for setting out once the nights cool.
Humid and wet becomes humid and dry before you know it. Daily rains dry up in late August. Rains from tropical storms may be heavy, but they’re infrequent. Get your water hoses ready!
Ripe for Picking
The autumn rush is about to begin: Eggplant and okra won’t quit, peppers are sweet and hot, and you
better get the muscadines before the raccoons do!
Bloom of the Month
Ginger is the color of August on the Gulf Coast: ginger orange, ginger red, ginger yellow and white, and yes, even ginger blue. There are tall gingers, gingers ankle high and gingers all in between. If you haven’t discovered the diversity of ginger lilies, you haven’t discovered August gardening on Mobile Bay. For the best selection, look for them in locally owned garden centers.
Bill Finch has been the voice of authority on Gulf Coast gardening and the environment for more than two decades. Talk to him every Sunday morning, from 9 a.m. until 11 a.m. on the Gulf Coast Sunday Morning show on Talk Radio 106.5 FM. Don’t miss him and WKRG weatherman John Nodar cutting up in the garden every Friday on News 5 at noon.
Text by Bill Finch