For our younger audience — those raising their eyebrows and perhaps asking, “Huh? Cowpea? Like, what’s one of those?” — we’re glad you asked.
Have you ever eaten a crowder pea, black-eyed pea, cream pea, silver-hull pea or other such pea variety? Or have you enjoyed their tastiness and protein-packed goodness without knowing they had a name? Did you know you might have even eaten other field pea varieties known in the scientific vernacular as vigna unguiculata?
Most likely, your answer is a resounding “yes.” If this is true, then you may proudly count yourself among those to have eaten a cowpea — because cowpea is merely a generic term for all the above ... the crowder, the black-eyed, the cream, the silver-hull and many of its brothers and sisters that go by names known mostly by professional chefs, farmers and old-timers who once lived off the land because their generation enjoyed few of the modern culinary amenities of today.
The word “cowpea” might sound a little funny to some, but it’s an integral part of the history of this region — especially the Charleston area which — yes, believe it or not — was once recognized as the Cowpea Capital of the United States. That’s because the cowpea was grown in abundance over acres and acres back in the day. Its original use was to feed the livestock, but because it is such a rich source of protein it became good food for the supper table as well.
It’s nothing fancy.
It’s not likely to garner the attention of royalty, unless that royalty has roots seated in the Deep South of down-home America. Of course, just for the record and to give credit where credit is due, the cowpea came to America in the early 18th century from Africa. The cowpea thrives in hot climates and has good drought resistance. Hence, it became a natural crop for Southern farmers just as it had been for generations for Africans.
And here’s yet another reason it became a Deep South comfort food. It tastes good.
The cows loved it. The people found plenty of ways to cook it. It was an invaluable source of protein so that meant the farmers had plenty of energy to beat the sunrise and start another day, each and every day.
For any who would scoff at paying tribute to such a simple legume as the cowpea, and who would question its merit as an international food group, let us consider this. Other communities have captured regional, national and global attention with their own festivals dedicated to such enticements as cornbread, green beans, banana pudding, biscuits, strawberries, doodle soup, cherries, apples and many others.
Speaking of such, between now and mid-September, keep an eye on our Editorial Page. You’ll likely be learning a lot more about the coming Cowpea Festival, as well as about how other communities near and far have earned reputations for themselves by crowning a particular food as their chosen favorite.
Cowpea Festival planners aren’t dillydallying around. Darlene Goins, treasurer for the Charleston-Calhoun-Hiwassee Historical Society who co-chairs this year’s first festival, and Melissa Woody, vice president of the Convention & Visitors Bureau for the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce, recently announced a star attraction for the coming event.
She is Grammy Award-winning Suzy Bogguss who will bring her country lyrics to the Charleston Park stage at 7 p.m. that evening. This talented musician has more Top 10 hits than local farmer and Farm Bureau president Jack Sanders has cowpeas. Well, that’s an exaggeration. Sanders has planted a variety of cowpeas this year whose harvest will come just in time for the Charleston festival ... so his farmland will become a generous source of delight for the festival.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll have more to say about the International Cowpea Festival and Cookoff. For now, we suggest that calendars be marked — Saturday, Sept. 15. The fun starts at 10 a.m.
Kudos to those who originated this marvelous idea and have embraced the planning necessary for its success.
Thank you, Charleston!