Boom Boom Pow: Beyond the Black-eyed Peas

by Sean Kenniff
Antoinette Bruno
July 2013

Pea Summary

Field Pea:
A common crop in the southern United States, they’re usually yellow or green and sold dried and split. Contemporary chefs and farmers are expanding the variety grown and used in professional kitchens, often times cooking them fresh rather than dried in the spring and summer months.

Heirloom Pea:
A pea plant variety that has been passed from one generation to the next, carefully grown and preserved because it’s considered valuable.

Hybrid Pea:
A type of pea that is the offspring of crossbreeding two other types of peas.

Sea Island Red Pea:
A small reddish heirloom variety of field pea which has origins traceable to Africa and was introduced into the southern United States during slavery.

Zipper Pea:
A hybrid pea, also known as a zipper cream, crossbread in 1972 by a Florida agronomist who crossed a crowder pea with a cream pea.

Black Pea:
A field pea also known as a parched pea or maple pea.

Crowder Peas:
A subcategory of field pea, so named because these types of peas crowd together in the pod.

Field Peas are available from ansonmills.com (Columbia, South Carolina). Sea Island Red Peas are $5.95 per 14 ounces or $50.00 per 10 pounds.

For many of us, the term, “field peas,” prompts little more than brow-furrowing. If you hail from The American South, however, especially the Lowcountry, field peas make frequent appearances on your grandmaw’s supper table. The mealtime bell rings, the screen door swings open and gently springs closed, the floorboards creak as family members assemble around the spread. And there will be peas. They can come in varying traditional incarnations: buttered, hoppin’ john, pea salad, succotash, and chowchow. 

This idealized vision of Southern pea cuisine may only be the stuff of down-home dreams, but chefs the likes of superlative southerner Sean Brock are embracing these soul-food traditions and peas are becoming a staple and culinary currency in top-notch professional kitchens. For grandma, “field pea” is actually a catch-all phrase for a multitude of peas, whichever can be gathered, grown, or bought not far from the pot they’ll be cooked in. Depending largely on her locale, she may serve green peas, black peas, yellow peas, Sea Island Reds, sweets peas, snap peas, split peas, and of course the beloved black-eyed peas. 

Country Fried Grouper Cheeks: Sea Island Red Peas, Ham Hock, and Charred Pearl Onions

Country Fried Grouper Cheeks: Sea Island Red Peas, Ham Hock, and Charred Pearl Onions

Country Fried Grouper Cheeks: Sea Island Red Peas, Ham Hock, and Charred Pearl Onions

Country Fried Grouper Cheeks: Sea Island Red Peas, Ham Hock, and Charred Pearl Onions

Country Fried Grouper Cheeks: Sea Island Red Peas, Ham Hock, and Charred Pearl Onions

Country Fried Grouper Cheeks: Sea Island Red Peas, Ham Hock, and Charred Pearl Onions

Dirty Rice-Stuffed Quail, Zipper Peas, Crawfish, and Smoked Romesco

Dirty Rice-Stuffed Quail, Zipper Peas, Crawfish, and Smoked Romesco

Dirty Rice-Stuffed Quail, Zipper Peas, Crawfish, and Smoked Romesco

Dirty Rice-Stuffed Quail, Zipper Peas, Crawfish, and Smoked Romesco

Dirty Rice-Stuffed Quail, Zipper Peas, Crawfish, and Smoked Romesco

Dirty Rice-Stuffed Quail, Zipper Peas, Crawfish, and Smoked Romesco

Names for peas also change across geographic regions and even from county to county and town to town. The common black-eyed pea is also known as a crowder pea or cowpea. Crowder peas are actually a subcategory of field pea, so named because these types of peas crowd together in the pod. Chef de Cuisine Jeremiah Langhorne of McCrady’s in Charleston, South Carolina, uses what he calls crowder peas for his Summer Vegetable Salad with Peas and Beans, Cornbread, and Herbs. He mixes them with black peas, also known as parched or maple peas, and dresses them in butter, hot sauce, and lemon juice. “I want to give you something that's all products from this area,” says Langhorne. “I want you to taste Charleston and things you can only get down here. The salad came about by me sitting at home and eating it on the couch and thinking that’s something I want to serve.” The peas come from nearby Thornhill Farm, which provides both McCrady’s and Husk with much of their produce in a joint effort with the restaurants’ Chef-partner Sean Brock to preserve indigenous southern strains of all sorts of field grown vegetables. 

At Winter Park, Florida’s Cask & Larder, Chef-Owners James and Julie Petrakis honor the field tradition by using zipper peas and Sea Island Red Peas. The zippers are actually a hybrid pea, also known as zipper cream, and joined the ranks of field peas back in 1972 when a Florida agronomist crossed a crowder pea with a cream pea. They appear on Cask & Larder plates with Dirty Rice-Stuffed Quail, Crawfish, and Smoked Romesco. They get their snappy name from the way the peas are easily whisked from their pods. Sea Island Red Peas are a much older heirloom strain of pea that is native to Africa and was first used on the sea islands off the coasts of the Carolinas and Georgia among slave populations. Traditionally paired with pork, the Patrakis’s cook Sea Island Reds with a ham hock and serve them with Country Fried Grouper Cheeks and Charred Pearl Onions at their brewpub.

Hoppin’ John gets the full treatment at Chefs Chris Stewart and Sarah O’Kelley’s Charleston restaurant, The Glass Onion, with butter, herbs, cream, and plenty of field peas. We use a lot of different field peas in the summer when they’re in season,” says Stewart. “There are crowder, Dixie lee, zipper, pink-eyed, and lady peas just to name a few. The best way to cook them is to boil them in very salty water until done. Once cooked, they can be added to almost any dish or eaten cold. We use them fresh all summer and dried in the winter. They remind me of my childhood in Alabama. Their creamy, earthy center is great!”

Southerner’s enthusiasm for peas have helped to keep a variety of peas on the collective American dining table. So have companies like Anson Mills, who describe a field pea in contrast to a garden pea as, “varieties grown in rotation with other crops and plowed back into the soil to improve fertility, or harvested dry for long storage and winter eating.”

By looking beyond the back-eyed pea, chefs are preserving Southern heritage and traditions, telling the history of the South through food, promoting Southern-style cooking, and perhaps most importantly, making grandmaw proud. Boom Boom Pow.