Pea-minus 3 days and counting for International Cowpea Festival

By RICK NORTON Associate Editor
Posted 9/6/17

Call it a pea-pickin’, country-cravin’, foot-stompin’ kind of a good time, but festivalgoers — past, present and future — know this: the sixth annual International Cowpea Festival and …

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Pea-minus 3 days and counting for International Cowpea Festival

Cowpea Charlie
Cowpea Charlie

Call it a pea-pickin’, country-cravin’, foot-stompin’ kind of a good time, but festivalgoers — past, present and future — know this: the sixth annual International Cowpea Festival and Cook-off, presented by Bush Brothers & Company, is just three days away.

And it’s not just for cows.

It’s for people too, especially those who love nothing more than a good pea ... er, cowpea that is, known to most — or in this case, to some — as the general name for crowder peas, black-eyed peas, cream peas, purple-hull peas and a few other field pea varieties, whose collective is known in science as vigna unguiculata.

The Cowpea Festival and Cook-off, held at the Charleston Park in Bradley County’s second largest community, is the town’s gift to agricultural heritage. In its time ... a long-ago time ... Charleston held the informal title of Cowpea Capital of the U.S.

According to Melissa Woody, vice president of Tourism Development at the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce, and Darlene Goins, facility manager of the Hiwassee River Heritage Center, the north Bradley County community and a huge bushel basket of farmers within its immediate surround grew so many peas that they were shipped to markets across the nation.

From the perspective of buyers from corner to corner of the United States, the variety didn’t matter. If it was a cowpea, the agrarians in, near and around Charleston probably grew it.

Six years ago, the community joined the growing ranks of American towns choosing to host a festival of their own, with as many different names and in tribute to more than a few hundred food groups or flowers or people or traditions.

Organizers call this one the “harvest festival with the funny name” because not too many people knew exactly what a “cowpea” was.

They knew the black-eyed.

They adored the purple-hull.

They created recipes with the cream.

They served as a side the crowder.

And all the rest they just called field peas ... could be because they grew in fields. It’s a point agri-historians can debate ... till the cows come home.

“This unique festival is a great way to recognize an authentic agri-heritage as well as a protein-rich food that is a big part of our Southern diet,” Goins said. “Charleston is full of amazing history, and the fact that the small community was a major grower and exporter of cowpeas is just another interesting chapter in Charleston’s story.”

Woody agreed, and with a chuckle and a wooden spatula in hand, she said the time had come for the cowpea to be included among the array of other nutritious goodies that get their own festival.

“We have joined the ranks of towns with unique food festivals celebrating everything from cornbread and green beans to banana pudding and biscuits,” she said. “We have an amazing history with the cowpea and want to celebrate its place in Southern culture and on our dinner plates!”

The fun starts Saturday at 11 a.m., and the day will highlight plenty of good music and the popular cowpea cook-off that will feature professional chefs from five locations: Tasteful Gatherings, Sodexo at Erlanger Health System, The Cupcake Club, Jenkins Deli in Athens and Crepe Outdoors.

It’s not just about the cooking of unique recipes. It’s also about the tasting and the judging.

For festivalgoers wanting an inside taste of the cowpea cuisine, a wooden spatula can be purchased for $5. The spoon will allow buyers to not only taste all of the chefs’ creations, but to cast a vote for the tastiest. It’s the equivalent of a cowpea crown, but it’s mostly about braggin’ rights for the year, until the arrival of the seventh annual Cowpea Festival and Cook-off when selected chefs crank up their Whirlpool gas ovens and do it all again.

Sampling of the cowpea culinary masterpieces will take place from 2 to 5 p.m. Those who have tingled their tastebuds can then vote for their favorite.

About those wooden spoons, here’s an important tip: Only 750 are being sold, and they can be purchased at the local Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce or at the Hiwassee River Heritage Center in advance. So, as that old adage suggests, “... better get’em while they’re hot!” Or, while supplies last. Unsold spoons will be taken to the festival where they’ll be sold beginning at 11 a.m.

Festival T-shirts also will be on sale for $10.

Call it a carnival type of atmosphere, or maybe a country fair, the pea point is this: Entertainment will be daylong. Featured singers will be Iron Horse, a bluegrass group from Muscle Shoals, Ala., known for its innovation in music and what published reviews have called “... genius arrangements and harmonies.”

The band’s “Pickin’ On” albums have been especially popular among followers, and bluegrass enthusiasts, and the group’s latest release, “Pickin’ on Nirvana,” was featured in Rolling Stone magazine.

“Iron Horse” is following the yellow brick pea trail to Charleston compliments of the Chamber of Commerce and the Tennessee Arts Commission. “Just Us Bluegrass” will open for “Iron Horse,” and they’re sponsored by Don Ledford Automotive.

The day of talent also includes Tim Poteet and Drivin’ South, White Oak Ramblers, Cole Sitzlar, and Sullivan Band appearing courtesy of Cleveland State Community College.

A full schedule of the stage line-up is listed on

The “Princess and the Cowpea” character greeting, sponsored by Mac/PC Market, will give attendees the chance to meet Clarence the Cowpea, and post their pictures on social media.

Haney Meat Company is sponsoring the Heritage Way booths that will display agricultural and heritage information telling Charleston’s nationally significant history, Woody said.

Other hosts will be just as busy.

Olin is sponsoring the Family Fun Field which will include games, art projects and air toys. The Family Fun Field will also feature a Pumpkin Patch sponsored by John Thompson Produce and the Bradley County Farm Bureau Petting Zoo. Companion Funeral and Cremation Service will sponsor the Marketplace offering booths with handmade arts and crafts, produce and other goods.

Resolute Forest Products is opening the way for storytelling for all ages, as presented by the Cleveland Storytelling Guild from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

As is a Cowpea Festival tradition, food vendors will have festival food available.

Homestead Lawn & Tractor Company and CPQ Professional Imaging Inc. sponsored an earlier photo competition leading up to Saturday’s festival. Winning photos will be displayed at the park during the big day.

Other sponsors supporting Charleston’s growing festival include Wampler’s Farm Sausage, Ace Hardware, Blossman Gas, Cleveland Insurance, Cleveland Daily Banner, Farm Bureau Insurance, Farm Credit, Lonza, Mix 104.1 WCLE, New Friendship Baptist Church and River Valley Ag Credit.

Here’s another long-appreciated tradition at the Cowpea Festival: Admission is free; however, parking will cost $5 with proceeds supporting operations of the Hiwassee River Heritage Center.

And this reminder: Organizers advise festivalgoers to bring chairs and “... an appetite for fun, food and cowpeas!”

Currently, the National Weather Service is calling for Charleston skies to be “sunny and nice” with a daytime high of 78 and a night-time low of 50.

Woody and Goins, who have served as event co-coordinators for years, are keeping their fingers crossed.

“What more could we ask than lots of cowpeas and plenty of sunshine?” Woody rhetorically asked.

Answered Goins, “Lots of people to enjoy those cowpeas and sunshine!”

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