Charleston was once known as the “Cowpea Capital of the World” because of the large amount of peas grown in the area and shipped to markets far and away.
“Cowpea” is the general name for the crowder pea, black-eyed pea, silver hull and other field pea varieties known as vigna unguiculata.
The Cowpea Cookoff calls for appetizers and entrees that use any type of pea in the cowpea family. It is free to enter and winners will be awarded cash prizes — $50 for first prize in each category and $25 for second place. Entries should be brought to the stage in Charleston Park at 10:30 a.m. Saturday for judging. Winners will be announced at 12:30 p.m. Complete rules are available at the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce or on www.visitclevelandtn.com.
“The Cowpea Cookoff is a great way to recognize a true Southern food and a part of our Southern culture,” said Melissa Woody, vice president of the Chamber’s Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Charleston is just full of surprises and the fact that the small community was a major exporter of this staple on our tables is another amazing part of Charleston's story.”
Local farmer Jack Sanders researched the cowpea and provided some facts about the crops that used to cover the farmland of Charleston and beyond. Sanders, who is president of the local Farm Bureau, plans to plant a crop of the popular pea varieties that will harvest in the fall.
The cowpea came to America in the early 18th century from Africa. It thrives in hot climates and has good drought resistance. It became a natural crop for the Southern farmers. The original purpose for growing was thought to be for animal feed, hence the name “cowpea.”
It is still a very good feed for livestock, but the bean itself proved to be a great source of protein which humans liked and began using, Woody explained. As the popularity of this plant grew, more Southern farmers grew it and even shipped the dried peas to markets in more populated areas.
Until the railroads came to the area, the Hiwassee River was a major shipping route for the surrounding area. Charleston was the main port from which much of the agriculture production of the area was shipped.
“Help start a tradition centered on this important agricultural heritage by participating in the first-ever Cowpea Cook-off on Saturday, June 4,” Woody said.