One of the most popular legumes in the United States, black-eyed peas are especially popular in the South, where they are frequently served mixed with okra alongside cornbread. The pea is a creamy color, with a small section which resembles a black eye, hence the name.

In the southern United States, black-eyed peas are traditionally served on New Year's Day. According to my aunt who grew up in San Saba, Texas, New Year's Day was the day set aside to remember times past when there was hardly any food to eat and families truly did survive on nothing but beans. Eating black-eyed peas on the first day of the year was considered good luck, that choosing to eat as if there was nothing else would prevent the family from experiencing hunger during the year.

Black-eyed peas still can be a thrifty, hearty, and filling dish to serve, and I find them particularly comforting as the evenings grow cooler. It doesn't take much money or much effort to serve up a steaming bowl to your family or dinner guests.

As with all dried beans, it is best to soak black-eyed peas in water before cooking them. Soaking overnight is best, but I've had good results from soaking as little as one hour. In any case, put one pound of dried peas in a bowl and cover them with water. After they have soaked at least one hour, drain off the water, and set them aside.

In the cooking pot (a five-quart stock pot works nicely), heat two tablespoons of olive oil. Chop up a medium onion and two stalks of celery, and sauté these in the oil until the onions start to turn clear, about fifteen minutes. Add the peas and six cups of chicken stock or vegetable stock. Water can be used, but stock will make your meal much more flavorful and enjoyable. Add black pepper to taste. I also like to add a bit of ham, not more than half a pound, cut into quarter-inch cubes. Depending on my mood, I sometimes add a few dashes of pepper sauce (I prefer Tabasco, but Crystal and Melinda's are also quite good).

Note: I have always added salt at this point, but according to sneff, "Never - never add salt before dried beans and peas are cooked - always salt the at the end, or the little darlings will be tough!" I hereby repent, and from now on will only salt after cooking.

Let this all simmer for about an hour, until the liquid has been mostly absorbed by the peas. Emeril suggests putting a bit of ketchup in the center of each dish, and that seems to go over especially well with kids. Served with a side of cornbread, black-eyed peas make a truly enjoyable and comforting meal.

BlueDragon reminded me that black-eyed peas are known as black-eyed beans in the UK. They are also known as cowpeas in some places.

The Black-eyed pea, or "cowpea" has been a staple of the southern diet for nearly a century. The history of its conversion from cattle feed to a southern dish began in 1909.

For many years, the black-eyed pea was considered a feed for livestock. In 1909, J. B. Henry, a businessman from Athens, Texas decided to grow large crops of what he called the "pitch-peepered" pea. He had trouble with weevils in the peas, and began to experiment with drying the peas in ovens to kill the creatures. The dried peas were soaked, cooked, and consumed, and came into widespread use in Athens within just a few years. An article titled "The Humble Cowpea" in the 1919 Farm and Ranch Magazine stated that:

"the whole population of Athens, seemingly, and then some," was busily loading sacks of black-eyed peas onto wagons, "rushing around that square like bees around a hive in springtime when the honeysuckle crop is gathered."
Several canneries opened around Henderson county in the 1930's, canning the "Home Folks" brand of black-eyed peas, which became a major source of income for the area. Special brands such as the "Good Luck Peas" for New Year's day, and the "Texas Caviar" brand of pickled peas carried by Nieiman Marcus were also made.

In 1971, Athens began the yearly Black-Eyed Pea Jamboree. Contestants are asked to cook dishes with the pea as an integral ingredient. The winner of the 2000 festival is a close frind of mine, and cooked a "Black-eyed pea Pecan Pie" for her winning entry. Other entrants have incorporated the pea into almost every dish imaginable, including Jello, pizza, enchiladas, "peachyssoise," quiche, many types of cake and pies, and even black-eyed pea wine.

The good luck image of the black-eyed pea may be traceable to the pharaohs of Egypt, who felt that eating the legume could protect them from the evil eye.

Well-cooked black-eyed peas have a pleasant and distinctive flavor. They are best served hot with baked ham and cornbread.

Athens, Texas
Texas Highways Magazine, July 1994

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