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Everything You Need to Know about Field Peas, a Southern Staple

bon Appétit logo bon Appétit 6/30/2022 Brandi Neuwirth

Field peas taste like the big flavors of summer wrapped up in the tiniest of packages. Even if you’ve never eaten them before, they may evoke memories of long, lazy, warm-weather meals. Historically, they’re so vital to the foodways of the South, an eminent group of academics, food historians, growers, and chefs once gathered in Charleston to compare them in a tasting. The arrival of field peas in the United States coincides with the Middle Passage of enslaved people from West Africa, and most traditional Southern ways of cooking field peas are derived from African preparations of soups and stews. Grown by farmers as rotational crops to put nitrogen back into the soil, field peas are in fact beans. And it’s more than worth it to seek out this seasonal, Southern staple and all of its diversity this summer.

What are field peas?

Field peas are a large category of legumes. The black-eyed pea is the most commonly available variety of all field peas—and what many are likely most familiar with. It’s also arguably the most humble variety of field peas: Though many favor it as a Southern staple or traditional holiday food, it doesn’t have the most robust flavor of the bunch.

If you’d like to appreciate the true potential of field peas—with more vibrant flavor, texture, and color—seek out the many varieties that come into season in the summer. There are no less than 22 known varieties and many are delicious (and chef-approved). In hues of purple, pink, red, brown, and yes, black and white, field peas grow in long pods. They vary in size, texture, and flavor, from meaty and nutty to tender and herbaceous. You may find them called “cowpeas” or “Southern peas,” and varieties have colorful (memorable!) names like Rattlesnake, Zipper, Stick Up, Shanty, Turkey Craw, Queen Anne, Polecat, Hercules, Colossus, Iron Clay, Washday, Crowder, Pinkeye Purple Hull, Mississippi Silver, and Big Red Ripper.

How do you cook with field peas?

One of the most popular ways to eat field peas is in Hoppin’ John, the iconic rice and peas dish rooted in the Gullah Geechee culture of South Carolina. Hoppin’ John usually consists of peas and rice simmered in a broth flavored with a ham hock or, more recently, a smoked turkey wing. The origin of the name is not precisely known, but some food historians believe it came from the French term “pois à pigeons.” Another story credits a 19th-century Charleston rice and peas vendor with an unsteady gait. History tells us he would’ve called out the name of his product, as was common practice for food vendors at the time.

Lowcountry chef BJ Dennis has written South Carolina’s definitive recipe for Hoppin’ John, and his first choice of peas are not what you might expect. Dennis, an ambassador for Gullah Geechee culture through food, prefers a smaller, more flavorful field pea variety called Sea Island Red Peas. It is a preference rooted in the landscape of his youth.

“I didn't grow up eating black eyed peas,” he says. “Two issues have to be taken into account when farming the coastal regions of the Lowcountry: saltwater and the salt that comes through the air. Black-eyed peas don't like salt when they're growing.” The Lowcountry coasts he refers to are home to Gullah culture and cuisine, isolated communities created by enslaved and free people of African descent. According to Dennis, Gullah elders will tell you red peas are what you want to use to make a good Hoppin’ John. The saying goes, “the darker the pea, the darker the Hoppin’ John,” meaning, the darker the bean, the more flavor it imparts to the rice.

In your home cooking, you can cook with field peas the same as you would cook with any of your other favorite beans: marinate them, stew them, add them to soups, blend them into dips, marinate them, or blanch them and add to salads.

Where can I find field peas?

Fresh field peas start to become available in Southern farmers markets in early summer and can, depending on the harvest, often be found through October. You may find them in farmers markets in other parts of the country labeled as “Southern peas.” The dried Sea Island Red Peas Chef Dennis uses for Hoppin’ John can be found at Anson Mills, a purveyor of sustainable heirloom foods. Described by Anson as having “bold flavor and exceptional nutrition,” these peas are sure to level up your next pot of beans. While a humble can of black-eyed peas can get the job done in a pinch, dried peas are worth seeking out.

Peas, please

Hoppin’ John

© Photograph by Isa Zapata.  Food Styling by Cyd McDowell.  Prop Styling by Paige Hicks
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