The other day, I walked into my favorite St. Augustine vegetable stand. It’s a simple place, really just a long, narrow space stacked on either side with fresh produce in straw-colored baskets and jars of locally made Datil Pepper jam and hot sauce and a few colorful African baskets. I’m a once-a-week visitor at least, and I’ve been going there for at least a decade.
But I’d never seen a line as long as I’d seen it that day. The tiny space was filled with people, all of them with anxious looks on their faces, trying not to push or be short with each other, just really wanting to get to the cash register, which had a receipt 15 feet long already because the stand doesn’t generally tear them off until the roll gets too long.
I realized that pretty much everyone seemed to be here for the same reason I was: Fresh, shelled White Acre cowpeas – those tiny little pale green legumes that sent me through a time warp back to my childhood at my Georgia grandmother’s house. I didn’t realize those summers at her house with my aunts and cousins had made such an impression, but here I was on an inconvenient Tuesday, squeezed by a long list of errands, and I’d stopped because I’d spotted the hand-drawn sign on the window that said ‘We have White Acre Peas.’
And so I went.
The problem? They were gone so quickly, most of us didn’t get many or even any at all. There were only a couple of quart sized Ziploc bags left in the cooler and they were kind of pricey. Like a few other customers, I bought a quart but went home disappointed.
I started wondering: Why was I disappointed? Of all the food available at the Publix across the street, why did I feel let down by not getting any field peas? Maybe it was how good they tasted or how good I remembered them being many years ago. Maybe all of us in line had been smelling the savor of nostalgia and our own family histories. The canned versions and frozen bags are to fresh ones as SpaghettiOs are to spaghetti with homemade sauce.
Magic tip: If eaten as a child, no canned peas will ever seem as resistant to the ravages of time or as embedded in the summer canvas of memory as these fresh ones.
A simple dish
Field peas (and okra, for a lot of us) make a simple dish – the peas fresh out of their long, skinny pods, some seasoning and water, and then the okra if you want to make the broth thicker. It’s delicate and sustaining and deceptively easy. Maybe for many of us that grew up in the South, the light broth of the dish holds images only we can see.
For me, the dish conjures up memories of red Georgia dirt sublimating into powder that disintegrated over the tops of shoes, right before those shoes headed into the thick dim hush inside my grandmother’s simple house.
It had me suddenly thinking of firm biscuits made with hands and without measuring and the red-bricked Southern Baptist church we went to on Sunday mornings when we visited from Florida, a church I couldn’t name if you threatened me with a taser and a political debate.
It probably had a number in the title.
And then, there are the memories of the big As on the caps and the starched uniforms of the Atlanta Braves as they played on a gargantuan old TV set with double knobs and the comfort of the breeze stealing in when the sun finally went down.
Memories or not, those peas still taste wonderful fresh from the field. And while I was sad that I missed out that day, it got me to thinking: Why not just grow my own peas? Then I could wax nostalgic any summer evening I wanted and connect with my family history in warmth and comfort.
What are White Acre peas?
White Acre peas are a variety of Southern ‘cowpea‘ (actually a bean) that originated in Africa and came to the new world in the 1600s via the slave trade. Slaves used to grow them in their personal gardens, and their ancestors used to – and still do – grow them in Africa to enrich both the soil and their diets. In the South, field peas kept generations from starvation but, as the Savannah Morning News writer so eloquently puts it, “The cowpea was brought to the table out of necessity, but their flavor has kept them on tables every since. ”
There are all kinds of field peas (see our post here), but this type of pea is what are called “lady peas” because they are small, the taste is more delicate and the “pot liquor/likker” aka the broth left after they cook, is light and thin. They’re technically a category under cream peas (versus black-eyed peas or crowders) and Southern Living describes them as ” the doyenne of cream” peas.
It’s hard to describe the earthy and verdant smell of these fresh-shelled peas simmered with some okra and just a pinch of salt and pepper and a bit of smoked ham or smoked turkey drumstick or just some good vegetable stock. It’s such a simple dish, but so good, newspapers across the country still publish recipes celebrating it. (Here’s a great guide to fresh field peas from that venerable grande dame of Southern cooking, Southern Living)
I couldn’t find any definitive answer for when this variety was first developed, although I know from experience it’s been around for at least several decades; my Georgia grandmother would by them by the bag, blanch and freeze them in the huge avocado green freezer that dominated her small dining room. They were delicious then, and delicious now and, according to some sources, an improved variety was developed and released in the 1980s by the University of Georgia. The upgraded variety included some disease resistance, according to the UGA website.
Pros and cons
White Acre peas have clear positives and negatives. The positives are the superb and popular flavor, prolific nature and the fact that they are bush beans so need no staking. The downside? The beans are smaller. And, unlike zipper peas, they are a pain to shell fresh compared to other varieties, but I’m willing to put in the work.
I’ve grown several varieties of cowpea – Zipper Cream is my favorite, and cooks up about the same – but I figured I’d try growing White Acre this year, too. Come along with me and I’ll show you how the experiment went.
How they grew
To start, I took a 5-foot-by-5-foot section of lawn right near the house, and hand-tilled it with a shovel. (TIP: It’s easier to till sod if the ground is wet). I put the metal blade underneath the grass, stomped down on it, and when the roots lifted free, grasped the blades and shook the good soil out.
I then spread the grass to dry; it makes good mulch once it’s crispy.
Next, I dusted the dirt with bone meal, tilled it again, and then planted the pre-soaked seeds.
As of July 23, all varieties were standing at attention atop the soil, growing taller by the day. We’ll keep you updated with how well they produce.